Editorial

Tel-Hai’s ‘Concept’

At Israeli campuses, museums, theaters and concert halls, there’s no longer any room for diverse voices, but only for art mobilized on the government’s behalf, art that serves the one permitted narrative

Rapper Tamer Nafar performing in 2016.
Ilan Assayag

The nationalist zeitgeist of gagging others is penetrating every part of society. Government censorship, which grew stronger this week with the advancement of the so-called “cultural loyalty” bill, is already being joined by another kind of censorship that’s no less dangerous: self-censorship.

This time, we’re not even talking about administrators of educational or cultural institutions. The plague of gagging has now spread to the last place one would have expected to find it – student unions. While in most countries, students are agents of change, subversive and sometimes even revolutionary, it has once again become clear that in Israel, nobody is more subservient and obedient than college students.

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The student union at Tel-Hai College, an institution with educational and social pretensions, canceled a performance last week by rapper Tamer Nafar as part of its Campus Carnival. The union’s official reason for the cancellation was the choice of a “different concept” for the carnival. But in a conversation with Nafar’s manager, a student union official explained that she didn’t want “unpleasant friction,” given Nafar’s past political statements.

Nafar is a rapper, and rap is a form of political and social protest art. Given that student union officials didn’t cancel another performance by a non-local group, their dubious excuse – that they had decided on a “localized concept” – can’t disguise the naked and ugly truth: An Arab protest artist from Lod is liable to spark controversy on the northern campus, and student union officials didn’t want any controversy.

This is a big victory for the government, and especially for Culture Minister Miri Regev. Soon there will be no need for laws. The campaign of intimidation will do its work, and educational and cultural institutions will internalize the message even without legislation: At Israeli campuses, museums, theaters and concert halls, there’s no longer any room for diverse voices, but only for art mobilized on the government’s behalf, art that serves the one permitted narrative. All other voices will be silenced.

The cancellation of the performance by Nafar, a smart, brave, proud Palestinian Israeli artist, was joined this weekend by the publication of an article smearing another Arab artist, singer Lina Makhoul, in the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth. In the spirit of the spreading McCarthyism, the article quoted private conversations in which Makhoul said she couldn’t celebrate Independence Day and made many similar remarks. Makhoul denied some of the quotes. But the very fact that the paper is delving into her private conversations and claiming that they disqualify her from performing as a singer goes well with the evil winds blowing through Israeli society.

Thus, it’s necessary to reiterate, once again, that artists must be free to express their opinions. There is no art without freedom. But this important civics lesson evidently hasn’t yet been learned by the students at Tel-Hai.