Without Culture, There Is No Israeli Independence

Yair Assulin
Yair Assulin
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Theatergoers attending a play at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv, this month.
Yair Assulin
Yair Assulin

On this Independence Day – after last Independence Day when the strongest image, the clearest, of the relationship between Israel and the Israelis was the lockdown – it is now clear to everyone who can see that the biggest challenge facing Israelis is to create for them, for us, a new Israel. Not another quick fix, or band aid or filling, but a reexamination and clarification of the ways in which citizens, not the establishment, implement for themselves the term that is called the “country,” this idea that is called “independence.”

What was created 73 years ago on an ideological and national basis as they grew out of the Industrial Revolution, and which created mechanisms of mass identity as a mirror image of mass production, no longer work. The political impasse and degeneration – and not only in Israel – are proof of this.

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A lot has been written here that the essential first step in such a process of thinking, whose aspiration is to nurture a society and not just to wallow in despair from it, is to disconnect from the yearning for the past. But while this may be a necessary condition, it is not enough. On the basis of the recognition of the irrelevancy of the past and that human existence is undergoing major changes these days, new foundations of discussion and in-depth examination must now be created.

The basis for any such foundation is culture. Culture is the sum of all the tools with which society uses to explain itself to itself. Culture is the sum of all the tools with which society takes its experiences and feelings and dismantles them, studies them, asked questions about them, turns them into little stories that in the end make up a big story. There is no important idea in the Israeli discourse – including the idea of founding the state itself – that has not been studied and formulated in the cultural arenas: Literature, dance, theater, cinema, television and philosophy.

Without a doubt, one of the lessons of the past year is that Israeli culture as it is today – almost completely dependent on the good will of the government and the old order – has not really succeeded in filling this role, which is so critical for growth and to a great extent for the survival of free Israeli society.

It must be emphasized: It is not one specific work or another I am writing about here. Even in the present, petrified state there are certainly works that are exceptions to all this, just as a number of major cultural initiatives today are already coming together. But all this is still for the most part on the margins, and very far from adequate.

On this Independence Day it seems that one of the most important tasks that responsible Israelis must take on themselves is leading a true revolution in Israeli culture. Again, not just another minor repair of the existing institutions, not another allocation of funds for the bottomless pits of the corrupt machines, but the creation of new cultural infrastructure, relevant and flowing from the new era and the revolutions inherent in it. One that lowers the entry barrier that makes it difficult for new participants, one that knows how to communicate with the younger generation, that allows as many voices as possible to be heard, and to deeply explore their existential experiences, their emotions, as part of the Israeli discourse.

Culture that challenges reality, that investigates it and is not afraid of subverting it, either, is the sole protection that society can nurture for itself in these fragile times of change and disintegration. A direct correlation exists between the power of human societies and the relevancy of their cultures. Only culture knows how to mark the directions in which humanity is marching.

The time has come for Israelis – not the establishment, not those whose clear interest is in a weak, controllable, entertaining culture – to understand that more than any of the hollow, short-sighted “magic solutions,” a strong, relevant, courageous culture is their strongest interest today. Without it, over time, there is no real independence.

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