The Intolerable Mistake

Creative work is an individual rather than a national expression. The artist is not an ambassador of Israel, but an ambassador of his soul. If we force a nationalist definition on the artist we will cause our culture to become shallow.

Samuel Maoz
Samuel Maoz
A scene from Suha Arraf's 'Villa Touma.'
A scene from Suha Arraf's 'Villa Touma.'Credit: Rabia al-Salfiti
Samuel Maoz
Samuel Maoz

Suha Arraf, the creator of the film “Villa Touma,” decides to define her film as Palestinian. The Culture and Sport Ministry demands that she defines it as an Israeli film. Suha agrees to compromise, deletes the explosive word “Palestinian” and describes the film as “Suha Arraf’s film.” The ministry is not satisfied and demands that she returns the money she received from the government. End of plot summary.

Before I discuss the inferior nature and destructive consequences of this pathetic claim, I would like to explain a matter of principle: Arraf, like all the other filmmakers in Israel, has already returned the money to the government. The money supported the families of the photographer, the editor, the carpenter who built the scenery, the owner of the minimarket who provided sandwiches for the production, the electrician who is paying a mortgage, the seamstress who is supporting her student son, the driver, the cook, the go-fer, the security guard and dozens of other Israeli citizens.

The money came from the pocket of the taxpayer and returned to his pocket. So we’re not talking here about returning the money to the government; we’re talking about imposing a sanction, about a fine, punishment, perhaps revenge. But it has nothing to do with returning the money. Arraf, incidentally, waived her salary and didn’t put a penny into her private bank account.

And to the heart of the matter. The basic question on the agenda is the following: Who decides on the definition of a work of art – the body that financed it or the artist who naturally reflects its essence? All over the world it is customary to leave the freedom to define a work of art to the artists. The financier is considered a business partner who is entitled to credit and to a percentage of the profits.

“Waltz With Bashir” by Ari Folman is one example of many of an Israeli film funded for the most part by France. According to our Culture Ministry, “Waltz With Bashir” – a Hebrew-language film with Israeli characters and clearly Israeli content – should have represented France in the Oscar for best foreign film. My friend Ari Folman doesn’t recall that anyone from the French Culture Ministry demanded that he return the money after he won the prestigious Golden Globe as an Israeli film, and brought pride and honor to Israeli culture. Honor that will encourage foreign investment and channel money to the state coffers.

A colleague from abroad said to me this morning: “We fund dozens of Israeli films and you aren’t willing to invest in a single Palestinian film.” Thirty percent of the Israeli cinema budget is foreign money. My film (“Lebanon”) brought in a million shekels to the state coffers. A million shekels that came from the pockets of German and French citizens, and entered the pockets of Israeli citizens.

If we depended on Israeli money alone, we would not have had many of the good films that have turned Israeli cinema into our outstanding cultural ambassador.

But that doesn’t interest the Culture Ministry, which should be guided by cultural interests. The ministry doesn’t care that it is arousing the justified anger of investors who are demanding minimum correlation. It doesn’t care that hundreds of families of service providers and businessmen will lose 30 percent of their income. It doesn’t care that the state coffers will lose tens of millions of shekels. The main thing is to teach Suha Arraf a civics lesson: Either you change your identity, deny your opinions, suppress your emotions and turn your back on your worldview – or pay up! Good morning Israel. That’s how it works from here on in.

And that brings me to another issue. The one related to values, pluralism and mainly humaneness. A democratic society is tested by its tolerance toward the foreign minority that lives among it. There are Arab artists living among us who, despite their Israeli citizenship, identify with their brothers in Palestine. There is nothing more natural. The Jews in the United States also identify with us, the Israelis, and nobody in America calls them traitors. An Arab artist, like any other artist, expresses the emotional entirety that beats within him.

Creativity stems from distress, from frustration, from anger, from pain, from a combination of feelings that reflects the artist’s interior world. Creative work is an individual rather than a national expression. The artist is not an ambassador of Israel, but an ambassador of his soul. If we force a nationalist definition on the artist we will cause our culture to become shallow, we will lose our way and become a militant society that will end up trampling itself. Our rejection of the way of the “other” endangers our existence as a free and progressive society.

Insensitivity develops blindness. Arraf has laid a golden egg in front of our door. With rare timing, when our global image is in tatters, we have received a golden opportunity to present to the world a Palestinian film that opens with the logo of the Israel Film Fund. One picture that is worth 1,000 words.

Once people here knew how to play chess. Today we engage in boxing.

Israeli film director Samuel (Shmulik) Maoz’s 2009 film “Lebanon” won the Golden Lion at the 66th Venice International Film Festival.

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