The Oppression of Israeli Culture Begins With the Occupation

Artists who ignore the stark contrast between the creative freedom they enjoy and the oppression of the Palestinians shouldn't be surprised when that same oppression shows up on the doorsteps of their auditoriums and cinemas.

Avshalom Halutz
Avshalom Halutz
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MK Miri Regev, December 2, 2014.
MK Miri Regev, December 2, 2014.Credit: Emil Salman
Avshalom Halutz
Avshalom Halutz

Infringement on freedom of expression and creation has been at the center of Israeli discourse over the past two weeks, but only a few of the theater artists and filmmakers who were upset by the actions of Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev dared to see the connection between the situation in the occupied territories and the harming of their creative freedom. But those who choose to ignore the stark contrast between the creative freedom they enjoy and the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people should not be surprised if that same oppression shows up one day on the doorsteps of theater auditoriums and movie houses, and they are left alone to contend with politicians’ reckless and arbitrary whims.

Only a few courageous artists have dared to regularly speak out against the occupation and the oppression of Palestinians. Only a few have objected to performing on the stages of communities in the territories, even when subjected to much public pressure, or have taken direct action against the occupation. Anyone who hasn’t fiercely fought the occupation shouldn’t complain when he finds himself occupied by the very same forces.

Even those who rail against the injustices of the occupation, but at the same time seek their share of a government budget – another arm of which is funding Israel’s continued hold on the territories – or take solace in prizes awarded to them by the culture minister, cannot play dumb when they discover one day that they and their work do not meet the government’s criteria. The directors and actors who seek funding for their work from the budget of a far-right government – regardless of the content of that work – are collaborators with that government, hidden as they may be. You want money from Miri Regev? Deal with the price.

Regev’s pronouncements and the degree of public backing with which they were met now effectively make any creative activity in Israel fundamentally political. You must choose: Are you an artist or a nationalist? It’s not surprising then to see that when talking about artists, Minister Regev uses the same kind of harsh terminology used by the right in relation to the Palestinians, illustrating the ease with which “the enemy” can be singled out and falsely accused around here.

The deepening disparity between political camps and ideologies, and the series of failures in recent election campaigns, have led many on the left to tell themselves that two disconnected states exist in Israel simultaneously: One (“theirs”) is a racist, violent and unenlightened occupier, while the other (“ours”) is liberal, open-minded, entrepreneurial and creative.

The weary and emasculated left, whose throat long ago grew hoarse from rallies and demonstrations, is seeking comfort in its mourning inside spiffy, air-conditioned halls. There it can sit tight-assed and fantasize about a civilized, all-embracing, courteous and ethical Israel. There’s nothing like the sound of a good opera to make one forget about guilt pangs, and there’s nothing like the applause at the end of a concert to quiet the cries of doubt. We are good. We are civilized. We aren’t part of what’s happening there. In fact, we’re the victims here.

Art that provokes thought and emotion, that deals with beauty and spurs self-examination, is indeed a worthy enemy of a cruel policy of oppression. But the concert halls and theaters – no matter how efficient their acoustics – can no longer serve as cushioned refuges from our consciences and from the reality in which we live.