Israel's Censorship Frenzy Is Hurting Its Democratic Image

Right-wing ministers seeking to defend Israel's 'just image' by cutting funds to cultural performances which clash with their views are doing just the opposite.

Tomer Appelbaum

The declarations by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, “if it is necessary to censor, I will censor,” and “I will not lend a hand to damaging the image of the state and Israel Defense Forces soldiers,” are coming true faster than expected, if not by her actions alone, then by those of her ministerial colleagues and their subordinates.

After the Haifa City Council penalized the Arab al-Midan theater by freezing its public funding because of the play “A Parallel Time” – even before discussion of a complaint against the theater– Education Minister Naftali Bennett ordered a reevaluation of whether the play should remain among those available to schoolchildren through the national “culture basket.” This he did even though the committee tasked with making such decisions approved it a year ago. Bennett claimed that the play is based on “the autobiographical story of a terrorist, a murderer, serving a sentence for his part in torturing and murdering Moshe Tamam.”

What is more, the Culture and Sports Ministry had decided to withdraw its support from a video dance by the choreographer Arkadi Zaides, “Archive,” because he used visual materials and the logo of the human rights organization B’Tselem.

In addition, the Foreign Ministry, on the instructions of Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, has lodged a protest with the Swiss authorities over their economic support for an exhibit in Zurich by the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence [which documents the experiences of IDF soldiers serving in the West Bank].

These three instances show a disturbing trend of limiting freedom of expression and muzzling criticism, in keeping with the worldview that the Jewish state is always right and always in danger of annihilation both from the outside (Iran, the Palestinians, the entire world is against us), and from within (the Arabs and the leftists).

This crude attempt – to silence criticism and even to withhold the right to question the justness of the way, when this criticism and this right are the essence of a democratic society – is masked by talk of pluralism and the right to freedom of expression. But only within the limitations set by the government. Absolute dictators and totalitarian regimes once supported artists on condition that, and in order that, these artists glorify their patrons. In democratic regimes it is accepted that cultural activity, even when critical, is supported by public funds, while limiting the power of the state, as a funding body, over artists. Experience shows that culture that relies solely on the audience’s tastes will end up being only entertainment, which enables those in government to distract voters from the political and social ills that culture has the power to expose.

By gross attempts to protect the “just image” of the State of Israel, the ministers and officials are hurting the no less important image of Israel as a democratic and properly run country.