Jerusalem — Calls by Israeli artists and intellectuals and, subsequently, their international counterparts not to perform in Jewish settlements appeared to lose steam this week, once the Beersheva Theater Company kicked off the season at the new performing arts center in Ariel in front of a full house.
Even so, the national brouhaha surrounding the artistic boycott shows no signs of letting up.
That debate — over whether performers employed by a government-subsidized troupe have the right to choose where to perform based on their political leanings — hit fever pitch this week after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman vowed to penalize artists who participate in the boycott.
On Sunday Lieberman, who heads the Yisrael Beiteinu party, threatened to withhold government funding of travel expenses incurred by boycotting artists and to prevent their participation at state-funded events.
Also Sunday, Limor Livnat, the culture and sports minister, said her ministry is preparing legislation that will require government-funded troupes to perform wherever Israelis live.
“These artists can practice freedom of speech but not on taxpayers’ money. Those who refer to Israel as an apartheid state cannot enjoy its fruit,” Lieberman told reporters.
The proposed sanctions were drafted two days after several well-known Israeli cultural icons publicly urged the Beersheva theater group to cancel its appearance in Ariel.
“Ariel is not just another community. Just several kilometers” from Ariel, “Palestinians live in refugee camps under harsh conditions,” the letter said. “Not only are they not entitled to see performances in Ariel; some have no access to running water.”
Stuart Schoffman, an Israeli commentator and research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, said the debate refuses to die down because it goes to the very heart of freedom of expression in a country that prides itself on its democratic values.
“At the end of the day, it’s a question of whether these individuals have a right to say no. I think they do. At the same time, if their employer says I reject your right to say no, you have to find another employer,” Schoffman said.
But freedom also comes with responsibility, Schoffman said.
“If somebody is going to perform Shakespeare in Ariel, is it their job to step out of character to say why occupying Palestinian land is wrong?”
Those who oppose the artistic boycott insist that artists must make a distinction between public and private funding.
“I very much respect freedom of speech in a democracy and people have the right to speak their mind, as long as they don’t do it under the umbrella of government financing,” Knesset Member Danny Ayalon told the Jewish Week. “You cannot use your celebrity to attack the state that subsidizes you.”
Noam Semel, general manager of the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv, said his theater company has decided to perform three productions in Ariel this season “because residents of Ariel are Israeli citizens.
“We are a public, not-for-profit theater subsidized by the government of Israel, the Ministry of Culture and the Tel Aviv municipality, and when cultural institutions fight for budgets, we say the subsidy is for the citizen, the theatergoer. We cannot say these people can’t enjoy this subsidy because they live in this place and not another.”
As it turns out, none of the Cameri’s signatories to the boycott letters were slated to perform in the troupe’s three Ariel productions, Semel noted.
If, in the future, an actor refuses to perform over the Green Line, “we’ll find a way to deal with the dilemma,” the administrator said. “We respect our actors and creators who signed the petitions, just as we respect those who did not.”
One such “creator” is the famed — and controversial — Israeli playwright and director Joshua Sobel, who said he would “protest” any attempts to stage one of his plays over the Green Line even though his contract with the Cameri stipulates the company “can use the rights wherever they perform. All I can do is protest, but in a democracy, protest has meaning.”
Shmuel Hasfari, whose play “Havdala” is slated to be performed in Ariel, is threatening to sue the Cameri.
“There is a clause in my contract that every showing of the play outside Israel’s borders requires a new, separate contract,” Hasfari told Haaretz.
Semel said he doubted whether he or Hasfari would win a legal battle against the theater and quipped that he is “unconcerned by such an eventuality because Ariel residents have said they will counter-boycott the artists who signed the letters.”
Paradoxically perhaps, Semel said he supports the notion of an internal artistic Israeli boycott but not a boycott launched from overseas.
“I believe that culture boycotts from outside are counterproductive because they are used by the Israeli right as proof that the entire world is anti-Israel. They say the European left is boycotting our universities, which are seen as a bastion of the Israeli left.”
Within Israel, Semel continued, a refusal to appear over the Green line “is a way to say that the Green Line is Israel’s official border and whatever takes place over that line has to do only with the occupation.”
In an essay in the Huffington Post, Dr. Qanta Ahmed, a Muslim physician in New York, questioned the Israeli boycotter’s tactics.
An internal cultural boycott focused on Jewish settlements “muddies the water in favor of those eager to condemn Israel and less willing to apply careful thought.” Ahmed wrote. They “lend fuel to the fire of anti-Israel sentiment and ultimately risks inviting ever greater pressure for Israel’s isolation.”
Watching the debate unfold from the sidelines, Schoffman, who spent 10 years working in Hollywood prior to immigrating to Israel more than two decades ago, said he is deeply concerned by attempts by government officials to force artists to perform over the Green Line.
“If it comes to the moment Limor Livnat says ‘fire that person for supporting the boycott or you won’t get the money,’ Israel will be a pretty ugly place. When you have a situation where artists, intellectuals and scholars are classified as disloyal, it’s not a healthy phenomenon,” Schoffman said.