A Democratic Country Must Protects Its Artists, Even if They Slaughter Sacred Cows

Haaretz Editorial
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Actors in ‘The Jews Are Coming.’
Actors in ‘The Jews Are Coming.’ Credit: Michal Efraty / Kan public broadcaster
Haaretz Editorial

The assault on our democratic foundations hasn’t skipped over freedom of artistic expression. The focus this time is a television program called “The Jews Are Coming,” which is make up of satiric skits. Protests against it reached a peak this week, when around 1,500 people demonstrated against it outside the public broadcasting corporation’s offices in Jerusalem.

The demonstrators showed up at the behest of Rabbi Tsvi Tau, founder of the Har Hamor Yeshiva and one of religious Zionism’s leading rabbis. “The program in question is just one of many examples of incessant attempts by a tiny, impertinent minority that works ceaselessly, in cooperation with foreign states and organizations, to confuse the Jewish public’s thinking,” he said in a statement.

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Fourteen other prominent rabbis – including the chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu; the head of the Ateret Kohanim yeshiva, Shlomo Aviner; and the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar – signed the statement, which urged people to attend the demonstration because “it’s inconceivable that in the State of Israel ... figures sacred to the nation should be desecrated in this way.”

The protest also has partners in the Knesset. Lawmaker Moshe Arbel (Shas) urged the attorney general a few weeks ago to open an investigation into the program for hurting the public’s religious sensibilities. MK Bezalel Smotrich (Yamina) and MK Shlomo Karhi (Likud) also assailed the program and even threatened to privatize the broadcasting corporation.

Earlier this month, the protesters scored a victory when the Education Ministry removed two skits in the program from the Bible curriculum posted on the ministry’s website. But this concession to their demands didn’t stop the protests. The program’s actors and production staff and even the broadcasting corporation’s CEO have been cursed and threatened with physical harm, compelling them to complain to the police.

The show’s creators, Assaf Beiser and Natalie Marcus, posted a response on Facebook in which they defended their right as Jews to create satire about the Bible and its heroes. “The Bible belongs to all of us,” they wrote. “All of us have the right to read it, think about it, love it and get angry at it.” Biblical stories and their heroes, they added, “aren’t somebody else’s sacred cows. They’re our flesh and blood, and we’re their flesh and blood.”

But defending the right of Jews to write about the Bible and its content isn’t enough. Freedom of expression grants artists the fundamental democratic right to express themselves and create political, critical, abrasive art. A democratic country is judged in part on the protection it provides artists to express themselves without fear, even when they slaughter sacred cows – national, political or religious.

The fact that Kan, the public broadcasting corporation, is funded by Israelis through their taxes isn’t a reason to remove the program, but the diametric opposite. A public television station, which isn’t dependent on commercial caprices or vulnerable to pressure from its customers, has an obligation to enable freedom of expression.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.