Tel Aviv — It started as a debate over state funding for a controversial Arab-Israeli play about a group of Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli jail.
Then came a refusal by Arab-Israeli actor Norman Issa to travel with cast members of the Haifa Theater to perform in a West Bank Jewish settlement.
What has ensued has started to resemble a full-blown culture war in Israel between the ministers of Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly inaugurated government and the country’s mostly left-wing artist community.
At the center of the storm is Culture Minister Miri Regev, who last week threatened to cut funding for actor Issa’s Jewish-Arab children’s theater company in Jaffa. Regev, who developed a reputation as a Likud firebrand during her years in the Knesset, recently threatened in a meeting with Israeli artist leaders to defund their institutions.
“The state isn’t obliged to support culture,” she was quoted as saying. “I can decide where the money goes.”
Then, at an emergency meeting of cultural leaders called on Sunday, Israeli actor Oded Kutler referred to Likud voters as a herd of “beasts.” He later apologized for the remarks, but it was too late. On Monday, Netanyahu denounced Kutler, saying that “there’s no guaranteed or automatic right that everything uttered should get public or government backing.”
The debate has raised a number of thorny questions at the intersection of art, society and politics.
Should the state support “A Parallel Time,” a play produced by the Arab-Israeli theater company, Al-Midan, which explores the prison life of a convicted terrorist? In May, the municipality of Haifa froze support and then, last week, Education Minister Naftali Bennett froze subsidizes from his ministry. Is it legitimate for Regev to threaten to not fund children’s theater group over the political position taken by its director?
“You can’t expect me as an Arab-Israeli to go against my conscience and perform in controversial places,” wrote Issa on his Facebook page in a reference to the Jewish settlements. “The pressure on me borders on extortion — it’s not fair.”
A web petition of Israeli artists protested “anti-democratic steps taken in recent weeks by government ministries against artists and cultural figures whose works or views don’t jibe with winds blowing in these ministries.” In one day it garnered 3,602 supporters.
On Channel 2 TV’s “Meet the Press,” Regev said that Israeli artists “fear my opinions” and that “we weren’t elected to sit on the sidelines, but to rule.”
She added while she supports freedom of expression, there are red lines that shouldn’t be crossed. “I want them [artists] to respect limits that we will decide,” she said. “Those that smudge the face of the state of Israel and delegitimize it — I will not be there. … If I have to make decisions about which institutions to fund, I will fund those who aren’t part of boycotts against Israel, [those who] don’t boycott Israeli individuals.”
The uproar, analysts say, is actually a continuation of the left-right kulturkampf that burst into the open at the height of Israel’s recent election campaign. While leading Israeli artists and playwrights denounced right-wing voters as religious “amulet kissers” who bow down to the “graves of wise men,” right-wing leaders claimed there is a conspiracy of European governments, Arabs and Israeli nonprofit groups to topple the prime minister.
Ultimately, the focus on the cultural wedge issues and the fear of a left-wing government allied with Arab parties helped Netanyahu to surge at the ballot box, despite polls that suggested he was about to lose. On Election Day, in a much-publicized utterance that received widespread criticism (from the White House and elsewhere), Netanyahu expressed concern that Arab-Israelis were turning out “in droves.” He later backtracked, but the debate about the issues he raised persists even though the voting is long since over.
“It’s part of the aftermath of the election,” said Ofer Zalzburg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “The elections highlighted how Israel is divided into several so-called tribes: one tribe defines itself as primarily Jewish, and the other defines itself primarily as Israeli.”
“In the election, the so-called Israeli camp accused the so-called Jewish camp of being archaic, and out of sync with international norms and liberal democracy. The other view is critical of liberalism: that it is unable to propose a robust way to sustain Jewish identity.”
With Palestinian peace talks in a deep freeze, the left-right debate over foreign policy has shifted to focus on cultural hot-button issues like the debate over artistic expression and the boundaries of free speech, what the government’s role should be, and the place of Israel’s Arab minority in society. “Foreign policy is no longer at the center of public debate; now it’s a debate about who are we? It means that tensions in society are increasing,” explained Zalzburg.
In an interview with Haaretz, acclaimed Israeli novelist David Grossman said that Regev represented a parochial Israel-Jewish worldview that seeks to “restrict our contact with our complex situation. … If such a process continues, and if our isolation in the world increases, Israel will become nothing more than a militant, fundamentalist, inward-looking sect on the margins of history.”
However, Israeli-American author Yossi Klein Halevi argued that while artists should enjoy freedom of expression, government ministers like Regev were within their right to withhold state support for a play about terrorists. “This is a country with tens of thousands of families mourning loved ones killed by terrorists,” said Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. “Why is a play sympathetic to a terrorist any more acceptable than a film on [Yitzchak] Rabin’s assassin? Both should be beyond the pale.”
For Israel’s Arab minority, however, the cultural uproar over the Al-Midan play and Norman Issa’s refusal to perform in a settlement has obscured a much more fundamental issue: allegations that Israel’s culture ministry virtually ignores Arab-Israeli cultural institutions.
At a meeting last week of Israeli-Arab cultural leaders in Haifa, threats about defunding Al-Midan and Issa’s children’s theater group went virtually unmentioned. Arab-Israeli culture executives complained that only about 12 million shekels ($3 million) out of a budget of 600 million shekels ($150 million) are spent on Arab-Israeli cultural institutions. They complain there is no government funding for construction of cultural venues, and most cultural institutions struggle to meet the basic requirements to qualify for the subsidies. They also claimed that the culture ministry was holding up publication of a report ordered by the Supreme Court to “map” the culture needs of Israeli Arabs.
But now, the controversy over the play “Parallel Time” has left Al-Midan struggling to stay afloat. Albert Andreaous, the head of a group of Arab-Israeli cultural institutions, said that those institutions have been both the trigger and the victim of Israel’s left-right debate.
“The Arabs are always the punching bag for this debate,” he said. “We won’t agree to be silenced, but we also won’t support incitement. If we lose our [artistic] integrity, then we start to serve a political end. We must understand that freedom of expression is something important for our society.”