What is the Israel Police preoccupied with? The desecration of the Israeli flag. Sorry, I mean causing harm to a symbol of government and violating legislation protecting the flag. And beyond that, the police are recommending that artist Natali Cohen Vaxberg be put on trial. This was after she filmed herself defecating on dozens of flags from various countries, including Israel’s, as part of an art installation that she created. After she was detained and placed under house arrest, they took away her personal computer. (What did they expect to find on it? Defense Ministry leaks about nuclear research?) She was also barred from accessing the Internet for 30 days.
One may quibble over the quality of her video installation on the grounds that it is not artistically creative or successful, and even that it is disgusting. One can also claim that it violates some people’s emotional sensibilities. That’s a matter of social or public or artistic debate, but it’s not a matter for law enforcement authorities, even if the law permits criminal charges. In the early 1950s, Haim Cohen, the attorney general at the time, refused to enforce a law then on the statute books that barred homosexual relations. He understood that invoking the law was not consistent with the new Israeli state’s liberal vision of the rule of law. There are laws that if hastily invoked involve much greater damage than failing to enforce them.
The current flag case is not a matter of justice or criminal law but rather the product of the political scene and the social climate in Israel. The excessive reaction to Cohen Vaxberg’s video clip serves political ends, most importantly by caricaturing the left, and by attempting to intimidate and silence anti-establishment individuals.
Cohen Vaxberg is a highly extroverted artist whose ideology is bitterly anti-Zionist. As someone who is on the rather extreme margins, it is easy to turn her into a symbol of critics of the government (who don’t defecate on the flag). In the process, one can also deter a number of other fearless people with bizarre ideas in their heads. Today it’s Cohen Vaxberg’s installation that is deemed excessive and overly hurtful, and tomorrow it might also be more moderate criticism that would be found to be beyond the law. Where is the boundary between the permissible and the impermissable, and who decides?
What is more disconcerting about this story, however, is not the institutionalized folly of the state but the carte blanche that the public is providing it. People such as these can frequently be encountered at conferences, on panels or simply in the course of daily life: Young people in their prime, who express anger over opinions that vary from the comfort of the consensus, people who view such expressions essentially as causing mortal damage to their own images. What are they so afraid of? Why can’t they stomach contrary, extreme views, even if they are infuriating? Why is the existence of these people here and now so desperately and fatally dependent upon the extent to which others maintain the sanctity of signs and symbols?
After all, patriotism, attachment to a country and love of the land, its culture and language, as well as family and friends and everything that the state represents for many people are all personal, like every emotion. And if such feelings are sufficiently strong and stable within an individual, no video or article can undermine them. So why the precipitous need for a consensus that speaks in one voice, or a policeman who will put things in order?
It’s commonly said that the left is patronizing of the “masses,” denigrating the value of a mass public. In the meantime, however, it is actually the right wing that relates to the citizenry as some kind of uncomprehending herd that needs to be shepherded in its movements. It is the right wing that over and over has called for outside assistance, through the legal code and through limitations that would drive non-conformist expressions of thought from public discourse. People deserve more credit. Let them decide for themselves what they want to film, what they want to watch and what they choose to abstain from. They are capable of deciding on their own.
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