Book Ban Exposes Hypocrisy of Israel's Lettuce-munching Left

Any of the terrible things the right-wing government is ostensibly doing to culture, the enlightened left has already done better.

Benny Ziffer
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Illustration.Credit: Eran Wolkowski
Benny Ziffer

The traditional clash in this country between people who are called “creative artists” and what is known as “the state” or “the establishment” continues apace. It didn’t start with the episode of Dorit Rabinyan and her novel “Borderlife,” which the Education Ministry has refused to include in the national curriculum. The conflict has been going on for years in different variations, irrespective of who is in power. Nor has it ended with the Rabinyan episode. Just this week we were witness to another tempest in a teapot: The poet Haim Gouri refused to accept a prize for “Zionist works of art” from the state, in the form of the Culture and Sports Ministry.

Let us agree, in the spirit of the Jewish-German poet Heinrich Heine, that in this spat between creative artists and the state, “both the rabbi and the priest stink.” But those who come out looking the worst in this imbroglio are the members of the seemingly innocent public who are shocked and rush to sign petitions against the state’s intervention in culture, believing fervently that dictatorship looms and that democracy is being trampled under the jackboot of fascism.

It’s hard to keep from laughing – for example, at MK Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union), who protested the exclusion of Rabinyan’s book from the curriculum by paraphrasing the shopworn cliché of that same Heine, to the effect that “those who burn books will also burn people.” Her variation was, “It’s not surprising that those who disqualify people also disqualify books.” One can juggle Heine’s iconic phrase endlessly. For example: “Those who vote for MKs whose strength lies in their clichés should not be surprised if the left remains in the opposition.”

Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan poses with her Hebrew-language novel titled 'Gader Haya' (known in English as 'Borderlife') on December 31, 2015 at her home in Tel Aviv.
Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan poses with her Hebrew-language novel titled 'Gader Haya' (known in English as 'Borderlife') on December 31, 2015 at her home in Tel Aviv. Credit: AFP

The point is that those who say they are shocked forget that it’s not only the wicked folks on the right side of the political spectrum who make use of the book-exclusion weapon. Let’s recall that a little more than a year ago, those same enlightened people embarked on a bitter war aimed at disqualifying Yitzhak Laor, a poet and novelist no less important than Dorit Rabinyan, from receiving a literary prize awarded by the National Lottery. The method was identical: “You, the writer, want money and recognition from me. I, the establishment, make this conditional on your being a good boy. If you’re not a good boy, you won’t get the lollipop.”

It has to be pointed out that in the Rabinyan affair, Education Minister Naftali Bennett comes across as a pitiful rookie in his behavior, as compared to the systematic campaign run by the enlightened types, the proponents of freedom of culture, to disqualify Laor at the last minute from being awarded the prize the judges had decreed for him.

In other words, any of the terrible things the right-wing government is ostensibly doing to culture, the enlightened left has already done better. The degree of shock depends solely on one’s point of view.

There is actually quite a simple way to ensure that literature and the creative arts in general will be free from crude conditions imposed on them by the state. I refer to the capitalistic, establishment-bypassing route which was first adopted, and with great success, by Salman Schocken, who decided to grant financial support to a certain Galician writer, S.Y. Agnon by name, an investment that bore fruit when Agnon received the Nobel Prize for Literature. In other words, to be enlightened is not to wake up and sign petitions when exclusionary scandals erupt; it means going into your pocket and paying a price – sometimes 50 to 80 shekels ($13 – $20) is even enough – for creative freedom.

It’s here that the heart of the problem lies, not with the policy or the cultural acumen of a certain cabinet minister. The trouble is that the Israeli bourgeoisie, who have plenty of money to renovate their apartments, renovate their wife’s face or take a Caribbean cruise; who are capable of spending 100 shekels on a healthful breakfast in a café while grumbling about the decline of culture in Israel – these people won’t fork over the money for a book as easily as they will for organic lettuce. To put it another way: The majority of the people of means in Israel are lettuce-eaters who lack all interest in culture.

It is exactly this, not rightism or fascism, that makes the difference between civilized countries and backward countries in the realm of culture. In both cases the establishment has its own considerations regarding those to whom it grants recognition and doles out money, and those to whom it doesn’t. In both cases there are rich people and poor people, a bourgeois class and a proletarian class, those who can afford to go to the opera, the theater, to concerts, and to buy books – and those who can’t. The major difference is that in backward countries, those who have money spend it on immediate gratification, such as patronizing expensive restaurants in which the price of a meal may be that of an average monthly salary.

By contrast, in civilized countries, the person of means says to himself, “Let me do something for my soul, too. I will donate to science and underwrite a research chair at a university. I will accord creative artists my recognition, for example, by buying their books in sufficient numbers to free them from the humiliating need of having to solicit the establishment.”

That’s exactly what Salman Schocken did in his time, and if he is still remembered, it is because of his contribution to culture, whereas the legacy left by other people of means of his generation, and subsequent generations, involves bits of organic lettuce leaves that got stuck between their teeth.