The Ministers Who Wish to Boycott Israeli Culture

Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Culture Minister Miri Regev are not targeting artists, but art. Critical art is denounced as beyond the pale.

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Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Naftali Bennett.Credit: Avishag Sh'ar-Yeshuv
Shany Littman
Oded Littman

Education Minister Naftali Bennett has decided to designate certain artistic works as inappropriate for viewing by pupils and to include them it what’s going to be called the “red track.” Given what happened to Dorit Rabinyan’s “Borderlife,” which sold thousands of copies within days after the Education Ministry decided to not to include it in the literature curriculum for fear it promoted miscegenation, one should perhaps rename the list the “golden track.” That’s because the books, performances, and films included in it will almost certainly become best-sellers and box-office blockbusters. Even art exhibitions and galleries may suddenly have people queuing up to enter.

So it looks like Bennett who, along with Miri Regev in the Culture Ministry, is trying to determine what art and culture is worth seeing, will actually be giving a boost to numerous creative artists. Years of general public disinterest and working on the grey margins of society will end with a stroke of the axe of censorship, which focuses a spotlight on these artists and makes them visible and sought after. It may even help them make some more money, if only for a little while.

But of course, Bennett and Regev are not seeking to bring any glory to controversial artists. On the one hand, one can assume that they don’t really care if this or that show attracts attention for a moment, or if a book sells a few more copies, or if an anarchist artist suddenly becomes a hit on YouTube. Their objective is a lot larger, and no new version of “Borderlife” is going to thwart it.

Bennett and Regev are not targeting artists, but art. They are marking Israeli culture as anti-nationalist, unpatriotic and dangerous. Critical art is denounced as beyond the pale. Their supporters accept the clear contours that mark the borders of the camp and what belongs outside it. Independent creativity that deals with content that doesn’t suit the ruling ideology is tagged as undesirable.

That’s how Bennett and Regev dig the deep gorge that separates free and critical Israeli thought from the surrounding society, and sets it up as a foil to good, correct Israeliness. When in response, people float ideas like creating an independent secular school system apart from the state system, it’s clear that such an initiative will only make it easier for them; let’s close ourselves off voluntarily in a ghetto, watch our subversive performances and read our forbidden books, and we’ll live on an island, separated and marked. Once all the dissidents are gathered in one place, it will make their work so much easier.

Bennett and Regev argue that they are seeking to strengthen the cultural presence of peripheral communities that they believe aren’t being heard. But doing this doesn’t require them to silence the others. With their actions the two ministers are essentially deepening the gaps between communities in Israeli society, and certainly intensifying the conflict between them. That culture is being used to drive a wedge between parts of society is especially disturbing because the purpose of art is to stimulate dialogue.

Our culture and education officials are now signaling what we are forbidden to listen to, what we are forbidden to encounter, and with what we are forbidden to argue. They are essentially launching a boycott on cultural products. Just like those they call “haters of Israel.”

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