Opinion |

It’s Forbidden to Disparage Women and Minorities, but the State of Israel Is Fair Game?

It has long been clear that freedom of artistic expression isn’t a supreme value, so Culture Minister Miri Regev’s ‘cultural-loyalty bill’ deserves praise

Benny Ziffer
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Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, Jerusalem, October 21, 2018
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, Jerusalem, October 21, 2018Credit: Ohad Tzoigenberg
Benny Ziffer

The power of intellectuals in every society is measured in their ability to defy the government despite the heavy price they could pay. Israel was an exception for many years because its intellectuals and artists were used to being supported by government institutions.

For too long they were allowed to think they could suckle from the government’s teat while tormenting it as they wished. The logic was that the country would benefit from the youthful mischief of its cultural icons; the greater their chutzpah, the more Israel would appear democratic and open to criticism, a country espousing freedom of artistic expression.

In other words, the image of the standard Israeli intellectual or artist has been that of a child kicking a parent who is showering him with treats. The country pays for an overseas flight so he can say that Israel is a brutal apartheid country, and the audience showers him with prizes for his imaginary courage. What this tortured artist rarely says is that he doesn’t pay a price for his radicalism. In fact, he gets a bonus for it.

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Now the “cultural-loyalty bill" comes along and returns the basic fairness to this distortion. Do you want to pretend to be an artist persecuted by the state? Go ahead, act the role with authenticity and don’t ask the country to pay for your performance of spitting in its face. You want to be radical and tell the world that Israel is an apartheid state? Be my guest, but you’ll have to pay for your plane tickets.

You want to deface the national symbols, defecate on the flag or stick it up your rear end, as has been done by Israeli artists? You’re welcome to do so, but you’ll have to pay the full retail price. I think Culture Minister Miri Regev deserves applause for her efforts, not the raucous protests against her and the bill she’s promoting.

The protests against the cultural-loyalty bill have exposed another important thing: the shocking hypocrisy in part of Israel’s culture world. It may be a small part, but it’s loud, and the new bill is being legislated precisely to protect us from it. After all, for a long time it has been clear to everyone, including this small group, that art in all its forms isn’t a supreme value, artists aren’t above anyone else, and their artistic freedom of expression isn’t the be-all and end-all.

As evidence, time after time artists and intellectuals have demanded sanctions when these artistic freedoms have been used to degrade women, for example. And no one has any problem with taking off the screen or shelf works that contain the sin of racism.

But when an artist misuses the principles of artistic freedom of expression to deface the national symbols held sacred by most of the people, or to encourage Palestinian terrorism against Jews, suddenly everyone who demanded that someone be fired for degrading women or Palestinians is now willing to sacrifice his life for freedom of expression as a supreme value. This is called a double standard.

So if the cultural-loyalty bill gets this hypocritical group to change its ways, that would be enough. And if a certain theater thinks twice, because its funding could be halted, before putting on a performance in honor of a poet who called for the murder of Jews, that too would be enough. And if some unknown theater thinks twice before putting on a play painting a flattering portrait of terrorist murderers, without any consideration for the feelings of those harmed by those terrorists, that too would be enough.

If now artists think twice before defecating on the country’s flag or sticking it up their rear, that too would satisfy us. Because we’re sick and tired, even the most liberal of us, of the bad unidimensional art that draws most of its strength from the empty debate over whether it’s appropriate to be exhibited and appropriate for the state to pay for it.

France, a civilized and free country according to all opinions, addressed the problem of attacks on its national symbols during the first decade of this century; it used laws even harsher than our cultural-loyalty bill. Severe sanctions were imposed on athletes and their teams that showed disrespect for the French national anthem. Later, after a photography exhibition showed a man wiping his behind with the French flag, a new law imposed a harsh sentence for defacing the Tricolore. The French also made it illegal to disrespect France’s president or cabinet members, and transgressors can expect a heavy fine.

All this is meant to state something very basic: For us to truly believe in the honesty of those telling us that the rules have changed and once again it’s forbidden to show disrespect for women and pat them on the rear against their will, it’s also forbidden to show disrespect for the symbols of what is called the State of Israel.

So a democratic country is obligated to impose unpopular sanctions in the form of harsh fines or the cancellation of government funding to protect itself from attacks on the symbols of its sovereignty and unity – and to signal to the parts of the culture world that have gone off the rails that it’s time to return home.