Drama, Not Drones: Why Israel Should Export Its Culture to the World

Israeli culture is a strategic asset that needs to be cultivated, properly budgeted and sent out globally - and not just for the purpose of hasbara.

The theater-going crowd in Israel is usually unaware of what goes on behind the scenes. But during the past few weeks, news articles and social media buzz have exposed some of the deep controversies in the Israeli theater and cultural and diplomatic establishments regarding the works selected for the International Exposure for Israeli Theater and Isra-drama 2013, known locally as HaHasifa, literally "The Exposure."

Due to take place later this month, throughout Israel, the theater festival presents a carefully curated range of Israeli dramatic productions to theater colleagues from around the world. These theater professionals later invite the productions to participate in the theaters and festivals they represent in Europe, North America, Asia, Turkey and the CIS. Thus the significance of which productions are chosen: HaHasifa's choices filter, or dictate, in effect, which Israeli productions will go international; which 'Israel' and which aspect of Israeli creativity will get the chance to be expressed in dramatic for a globally.

There is no doubt that the artistic committee of HaHasifa made courageous decisions this year when it chose innovative works, some of them quite bold, some emerging from the repertory theaters, others from fringe theaters, and yet others by independent artists. The committee was presented with a broad and excellent range of works from which to choose – a diverse harvest of works of which any Israeli could be proud.

In reaction to the committee's choice, a group of institutions (the majority of repertory theaters) and artists (the Israeli Playwrights' Association and other individual artists) have expressed their opposition –loudly and with maximum media effect across daily newspapers and the internet – to the choices made. This 'coalition' has formed an angry and disgruntled cohort whose opposition to the selection of works could easily be seen as colored by the natural disappointment that their own words were not chosen for international exposure.

But this grouping in its forceful antagonism to HaHasifa's artistic committee is challenging its selections in a manner that goes beyond narrow interests or the desire to promote a particular work. This passionate struggle is not just about the distribution of resources, but also about what Pierre Bourdieu called "symbolic capital" – the prestige, recognition, and esteem that determine who and what will be the arbiters of quality of the artistic medium in Israel. In fact, this is a struggle over the shaping of Israeli cultural policy.

The fact that HaHasifa has also turned into a battleground over conflicting interests is indeed dismaying, but after all, this specific conflict is not only inevitable, but it is indeed a necessary one.

Rather than an esoteric struggle between rival thespians, the fuss over HaHasifa is an indicator of a much broader and more significant development, related not only to theater in Israel, but to almost all Israeli cultural fields. It shows that indeed, there is plenty out there that deserves to be exposed outside Israeli's narrow borders. The past decade has seen an efflorescence of quality artistic work and local cultural initiatives, which are achieving increasing international recognition, and have even begun to act as an economic engine, not only for the benefit of the city of Tel Aviv and isolated artists and investors. In fact, no 'exposure' is capable today of comprehensive inclusion of the current offerings of quality artistic works.

Similar 'exposures to the world' of contemporary Israeli dance works, jazz and world music are also being held this and next month, and beginning this year, even Israeli rock and indie music will have its own 'exposure' – all supported by the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This partial list does not include other mechanisms of export and exposure, which are organized differently in the fields of visual arts, classic and contemporary music, cinema, literature, and design.

The most important conclusion to be drawn from the current to-do is that Israeli culture is a strategic asset that needs to be cultivated, maintained and properly budgeted. The budgets allocated to the mentioned expositions are miniscule, even shameful. By contrast, the U.S. State Department, for example, invests significant resources and attention to its cultural diplomacy. It appears that the HaHasifa events, like the arts in general, are perceived by policy makers as luxury items. These budgets need to grow. In addition, the mechanisms of cultural export must become more sophisticated, including more effective leveraging to support artists and artistic work, and not simply as an instrumental means for the government's hasbara efforts.

Increasing budgets will not, undoubtedly, prevent struggles over symbolic capital, but it could certainly help cultivate the success of Israeli theater around the world and encourage creativity, rather than erode it.

Dr. Lee Perlman is the Executive Director of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and a cultural researcher at Tel Aviv University. 

Arale / The sizzling shutter