Why Are Israelis So Afraid of a Culture War?

A culture war creates a wonderful climate for the blossoming of culture, of creativity, of free thought. Societies in which there is no inkling of a culture war look more or less like North Korea.

Emil Salman

If every creative work that can be used as a weapon by Jew haters deserves to be censored – or at least not be supported by public funds – the place to start is the Hebrew Bible. For example, that whole story about the prophet Nathan and King David has to go. Thousands of years ago, foreign media were already exploiting that narrative against us: “Look what those Jews say about themselves.” And not just about themselves: about King David – David from whom the messiah is destined to spring; the prophet said of him that he committed a sin punishable by death. No less. That has to be yanked from the Bible. We can’t raise our children on that. It deals a mortal blow to our legitimacy.

This week, I heard that a member of the Jerusalem Municipality is demanding that a play called “Ezekiel” be banned because it mentions the intifada and the Holocaust in the same breath. I haven’t seen the play, I don’t have an opinion on it. But if we deprive the play “Ezekiel” of public funding, we have to stop teaching the Book of Ezekiel in our schools. The prophet Ezekiel says terrible things about the people of Israel, verging almost on pornography. He calls the people of Israel a “harlot” that spread its legs for “every one that passed by” – and even more disgusting things. Utterances like that cause tremendous damage to our image internationally. Every anti-Semite will delight in quoting them.

If it’s necessary to ban every work of art that portrays a murderer – and even portrays him with a measure of sympathy – then Euripides must be banned because of “Medea”; Shakespeare has to be dumped because of “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar,” all plays that revolve around regicide; Dostoyevsky is out because of “Crime and Punishment,” and so forth.

Is it permitted to stage a play about a Palestinian murderer in the Israeli theater? Or to screen a film about a Jewish assassin? Of course it is. What is not permitted? If a court determines that a work incites to violence, it must not be staged. If a court determines that a work is libelous, it must not be staged. A court of law – not ministers and not deputy ministers.

I haven’t seen the documentary [“Beyond the Fear”] about the person who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin. If the film incites to murder or encourages murder, it must not be screened. But if it tries to penetrate to the depths of the assassin’s mind, it’s in the company of Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. Possibly it’s not superb like Shakespeare, but why disqualify it if it does not incite to violence?

Another question: Should such works be supported by public budgets and taxpayers’ funds? That is definitely a legitimate question. In an ideal world, every work of value would merit the support of taxpayers’ funds. But not even the most enlightened and most culture-loving government in the world is capable of supporting every deserving work. Public funds should not necessarily be used to support a play about the murderer of [IDF soldier] Moshe Tamam or the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin. But the criterion should not be whether the work is infuriating or outrageous. The criterion needs to be whether the work possesses artistic value or not. That decision must be taken by a public, professional committee, which will undoubtedly err many times and will certainly be controversial.

If what the committee decides is unreasonable in the extreme, it is always possible to go to court and appeal its decision. If that, too, does not help, if public committees are going to be appointed here whose members are one-sided or extremist censors, then a far-reaching step must be considered: to shut down the life of art in Israel. That will generate huge international resonance. It will not be a problem of the minister; it will be a problem of the State of Israel, whose image in the enlightened world is not so wonderful even without a general strike by most of its creative artists.

Some say: “But certain works offend the public’s sensibilities.” The truth is, almost every artistic work of value offends the public’s sensibilities in one way or another. One of the things a good book does is to jolt the reader’s sensibilities. In what way? That differs from book to book and from reader to reader. Marvelous wine songs are liable to offend the sensibilities of some Muslims. Charming songs of passion are liable to offend the sensibilities of some Jews and Christians. The prophet Amos seriously offends the sensibilities of the rich, the sensibilities of the rulers and also a few neighboring peoples. It is perhaps extremely desirable to jolt public sensibilities as well as individual sensibilities from time to time.

Are we on the brink of a culture war? I say: if only. There is nothing wrong with a culture war, as long as it is not violent. On the contrary: a culture war gets the creative juices flowing. The great civilizations in history sprang from internal strife and internal tensions. In fact, we have been caught up in a culture war since the onset of Zionism, and long before that: Since the days of the prophets, since the period of the Houses of Shammai and Hillel, Hasidim and Mitnagdim, Zionists and Bundists, Hebrew and Yiddish and Ladino. All of those were welcome culture wars. A culture war is still underway between Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox. What’s bad about that? Indeed, it’s better for culture wars to be fought with exchanges of candor and not of slander.

As long as people are not being beaten in the streets, stabbed with knives or shot at – and if possible also not being slandered – why should we be afraid of a culture war? A culture war creates a wonderful climate for the blossoming of culture, of creativity, of free thought. Societies in which there is no inkling of a culture war look more or less like North Korea.

The whole culture of Israel since the great argument at Sodom – when Abraham assails God with the shocking words, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” – the whole of our culture, at least in good times, has been a culture of dispute and a fierce clash between different interpretations, different values and different worldviews. Shelo yigamer le’olam – may it never end.

Amos Oz is the coauthor with Fania Oz-Salzberger of “Jews and Words,” Yale University Press, 2012