Israel: The political legacy of muzzling artists
In June 2015, Israeli artists made a collective roar against their government over its arts funding policy which bans dissident artists. Like everywhere else in the world, the government of Israel can choose which artists to support with public funding. It can ban, expel and censor artists, according to its own political agenda. The exclusivity of the Israeli case, however, is the rigidity with which culture and its artistic expression is governed as well as the lack of alternative, politically-independent, ‘un-lobbied’ funding opportunities for especially Mizrahim (Arab Jews) and Palestinian artists.
By Henriette Holm INSIGHT
“We, the signatories below, are the voices you are trying to silence. We hope that Israel will not deteriorate into a country in which artists that express their views are put on a ‘black list’.”
Over 2,000 Israeli artists signed this petition, warning against anti-democratic measures by their government, which go against freedom of expression. Amongst the signatories are prominent figures from the film, theatre, cinema, dance, literature and music industries who believe that artists are being silenced for views not complying with those espoused by Israel’s right-wing government.
The petition was launched in June 2015, following the Israeli minister of culture and sport, Miri Regev, had demanded a re-examination of the criteria for state funded art.
“I decide the criteria; I can decide which institutions get money,” Regev said. “The artists will not dictate me.” Her statement came a day after she suspended funding to the theatre group in Jaffa, El-Mina, as the Arab-Israeli theatre manager had refused to perform in a settlement in the Jordan Valley.
Like everywhere else in the world, the government of Israel can choose which artists to support with public funding. It can ban, expel and censor artists, according to its own political agenda. The exclusivity of the Israeli case, however, is the rigidity with which culture and its artistic expression is governed as well as the lack of alternative, politically-independent, ‘un-lobbied’ funding opportunities for especially Mizrahim (Arab Jews) and Palestinian artists.
Furthermore, according to several academic works on the matter (T. Feder & Katz-Gerro:2015, Florida:2014, Penslar:2005 et. al) the misrepresentation of such political, cultural project as democratic and pluralist, makes their cultural identity project exceptionally political.
In a desperate attempt to close off any artistic questioning to the state’s hegemonic cultural discourse – limiting the vital space for the artist as social commentary or critique – the Israeli government has gone from casting its cultural agenda as pluralist to recently, outright dictating a culture, without having to listen to artists or indeed, people’s culture, as the comment above suggests.
Since the 2000s and the Second Intifada, the approach of allowing, in order to ‘manage’, dissent artistic expressions through structural space and a veneer of a somewhat pluralist ideology, has become replaced by a more direct closing off of any government critique as well as institutions that plans to enable such outlet. This has made artists rebel, sign petitions, self-disenfranchise or worse, starting self-censorship, in order to survive. A risky – perhaps unwise – move for any government.
The shift from allowing (certain) political dissent to not claiming to represent culture at all, is being criticised by Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) saying that it “torments a dangerous atmosphere that will deter artists from producing critical creations that do not align with the establishment view. It is the very ministers who are supposed to sanctify free expression and creation that are in fact sending forth a diametrically opposed message,” Dan Yakir, chief council of the ACRI explained to the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), but “the threat is to Israeli democracy as a whole.”
The art of representing
Since its establishment in 1948, the state of Israel has taken political issue with culture. Being a self-proclaimed religious (Jewish) state, culture has become regulated through a nation state structure, according to a secular idea of nationalism and has become a tool to manifest a certain political trajectory. One which is deemed strong enough by the current government to sustain the foundation of the young state in its precarious position, amidst its geographically surrounding Arab ‘Others’. In the early days of Israel, the Mizrahim and Arab culture was considered and represented as ‘backward’ and ‘traditional’ – a culture which had to be allowed, but also ‘dealt with,’ for the sake of creating a singular cultural identity.
The weakness of cultivating a homogenous idea of culture on ethnically plural territory, was discovered in the 1990s and replaced by a more pluralist acceptance of the Arab and Mizrahim who became better recognised as (secondary, yet) citizens of Israel. Socially and economically at the periphery of Israel, Arabs and Mizrahim were initially seen as a potential for civil dissident and separatism. So, the new ‘melting pot’ ideology, including multiculturalism has never been lived out in the still three-tiered cultural funding hierarchy between Ashkenazim, Mizrahim and Arab cultural projects. In the case of Israel, the funding of ‘ethnic art’ has worked to reproduce the socio-political hierarchy through cultural norms, according to the works of sociologists Tal Feder and Tally Katz-Gerro, published earlier this year. It shows that the centre, being Ashkinazim, art projects still received the majority of the funding.
Today, Orientalism persists in the cultural identity discourse of the Israeli government. The immaturity of the state, fear from surrounding countries as well as the internal repercussions from such fear, works to ‘purify’ from within, giving no space for contestation. Orientalism is ripe in Israel’s utilisation of American ‘war on terror’ and has also had repercussions for Arab art in Israel.
Recently, the Education Minister Naftali Bennett, took the decision to withdraw funding from the Arab play ‘A Parallel Of Time’ telling the story of Walid Daka, an Arab-Israeli man imprisoned for abducting and murdering Israeli soldier Moshe Tamam in 1984. He received a life sentence.
“The question here is whether the Ministry of Education in Israel should pay for schoolchildren to go see a play that shows sympathy to a murderer and a terrorist… And my answer is no; I wouldn’t expect America to send its school children to a play that shows sympathy with Osama Bin Laden and so the same thing will not happen in Israel,” Bennett told Associated Press earlier this summer.
As the artists petitioned against Regev and Bennett’s openly political culture discourse, he commented that “the signatories do not know me” and that it was “a bit ‘un-civilized’ to make frightening statements [referring to the petition] about potential McCarthyism that are entirely baseless.”
“I support pluralism and have no desire to interfere with culture and arts,” the education minister told Associate Press. The theatre’s program describes the play as “an attempt to discover the man behind the prisoner, and not the cliché that turns him into a symbol and a statistic, which leads one to forget that he is a person with a life story, desires and dreams,” according to Ynet, an Israeli news website.
Israel has a history of suppressing and uprooting the Arab heritage on the Israeli-Palestinian land both economically, politically, historically and culturally. Since culture is fluid and does not always reflect or respect borders, force or intellectual re-writings of territorial ancestry; internal traces of Arab or Palestinian-ness is heavily cracked down upon through other means. By regulating public institutions’ programs, censoring or banning ‘inappropriate’ performances that go against the Israeli right-wing discourse, is one of such ways.
According to Guy Dividi, one of the directors of the documentary film ‘5 Broken Cameras,’ the main issue in Israel is not direct censorship, but rather putting pressure on institutions, not to present and not to finance certain kind of pieces, films and plays that criticise Israel’s politics.
“Of course the main problem is that [there is] less and less ability for artists and institutions to defy this, partly because of the general support the public gives to the government, whereas criticising artists and cultural institutions are condemned,” he told me. An example of such control of public institution is the case of the Al-Midan theatre, which had its funding frozen from June this year due to a ‘controversial’ play, it wanted to stage.
‘A Parallel Time’ is written by and based on the story of Walid Daka, who is serving time in Israeli prison after being convicted of involvement in the kidnapping and murder of IDF soldier Moshe Tamam in 1984. “Art is meant to encourage critical thinking, not protect Israel’s image,” civil rights groups had protested. As a public institution, such indirect censorship is highly criticised by the World Association for Newspapers and News Publishers, WAN-IFRA, which described such ‘soft’ censorship as unrepresentative. Following a public outcry, the following month, Haifa council decided to unfreeze its funding.
WAN-IFRA and ACRI thus both call for the establishment of independent institution from the state, to determine equal voicing artists, should the state want to preserve its democratic veneer. This is due to the fact that Israeli art is heavily dependent on public funding and often runs the risk of having a ‘central’ production of art culture which is heavily funded and ‘exported’ out to the periphery in which Mizrahim are positioned. The centre-periphery distribution of funds is still leaning towards the Ashkinazim, and with an art scene that is heavily dependent on public funds or showcasing in public institutions (Feder & Gerro: 2015), this re-circulates pre-existing ethnic hierarchy within Israel.
As long as this ethnic hierarchy is accepted and cast as ‘natural’, such hegemony will continue to disenfranchise Mizrahim socially, politically and geographically – being, termed in postcolonial critical theory, a ‘subaltern’. Along the lines of the philosophical anthropologist Gayatri Spivak, the subaltern has no voice as she has no listener. Artists, the Mizrahim and Arab in particular, may not be muzzled directly, but the indirect structural down-prioritisation of funding their art or closing public institutions for showcasing it, will make them subaltern, voiceless. The indirect censorship does have a very disenfranchising effect on a specific – already peripheral – group of Israeli society. In order to present itself as a democracy one would assume an equal voicing across ethnic lines should necessitate any justification of its self-image as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East.’
Managing voices of dissent
Another government tool to ‘civilize’ Israel, is to allow but define and manage voices of dissent from within. Along the lines of the late French philosopher Louis Althusser, a discourse become more hegemonic (unquestionable) when it is institutionalized and people are given the sense of agency towards it. That is, by showing (a false sense of) choice, here exhibited in the plurality and allowance of (some) critical art. Selectively, the government shows its contestants to their homogenised idea of Israeli culture, defining them so as to better control the cultural dynamisms.
Furthermore, allowing dissent voices can make Israel come across as more liberal and democratic. An example of this, can be seen in the case of ‘5 Broken Cameras’, a documentary directed by Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat. The film is critical of the occupation of Palestine and the brutality of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), and is Palestinian. Due to its huge success, the Israeli government wanted to call it Israeli. Subsequently, the media in Israel started focusing on the controversy around the film, rather than the film’s message, whilst diplomats were promoting the film abroad as Israeli.
“No media, no channel, no program actually dealt with what the film is showing,” Guy Davidi told HuffPost Live. “They shift the discussion not to deal with what the film is showing but to deal with what we did to the Israeli image, or to the Israeli soldiers’ image and the military image. And that’s disturbing for me.” Davidi further said to Huffington Post that his movie was not an ‘Israeli film’, as the government was trying to use him “to show the good face of Israel,” allowing him to show critique.
Thus, through structural funding inequalities and indirect or direct censorship, the government can attempt to ‘manage’ cultural identity. According to the Israeli historian Benny Morris, Israel as project cannot succeed without uprooting Palestinian-ness/Arab-ness. Just as government funding does not have to be reflective of the reality of Israeli cultural identity, as according to Regev’s transparent remark about censorship; cultural identity is not limited to reflect government funding and can struggle against it. Notwithstanding this, the government does have the capacity to export a certain image of Israeli culture – how can people allow or resist this?
Art as Palestinian resistance
The popular film ‘Villa Touma’ was showed at international film festivals, but its director Suha Arraf said, she has been ‘blacklisted’ by the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sports, after she submitted Villa Touma to the Venice Film Festival as a Palestinian film. The Israeli-Arab filmmaker who spent $396,000 in public funding for a film labeled ‘Palestinian’ was seen as “unacceptable” by the government and subsequently demanded the filmmaker to pay the money back.
“We were astounded to hear of the intention to present the film, that was made by Israeli producers and benefited from the support of the State of Israel, at the festival as something that represents Palestine,” the ministry said in a statement.
The Culture and Sports Minister at the time, Limor Livnat, told the Israeli Newspaper Haaretz, the decision to recall funding for the film came after members of Israel’s film council deemed Villa Touma ‘a misuse’ of public funds.
Arraf who is an Israeli citizen resisted the demand, “the whole of my film, from the first word to the end, is in Arabic. All my actresses are Palestinian. The story itself takes place in Ramallah. How do they want me to present it as an Israeli film? I don’t understand. It doesn’t make sense,” she said to the Independent last summer, when the funding was demanded to be retracted.
Despite subsequently listing her film as ‘stateless’, according to the Jerusalem Post, an Israeli government committee ordered by Bennett, ruled that Arraf must pay back the $150,000, but in installments.
Under siege, occupied and silenced for decades by Israeli and other international efforts, Palestinian art is an interesting and powerful voice to transcend across its heavily guarded borders. I spoke to Larissa Sansour, a Palestinian artist whose work is political. One of her works ‘The Nation Estate’ project is a 9-minute sci-fi short film and a photo series shows, in her own words “a clinically dystopian, yet humorous approach to the deadlock in the Middle East.” Herein she proposes a ‘vertical solution’ to Palestinian statehood.
In her project, Palestinians have their state in the shape of a single skyscraper called ‘the Nation Estate’. One colossal high-rise houses the entire Palestinian population – “now finally living the high life”. She told me she had been nominated for the Lacoste Elysée Prize, a photo award managed by Swiss Musée de l’Elysée and sponsored by French clothing brand Lacoste.
Larissa Sansour was taken aback due to the expression of her work but was pleased that the provisional sketches, she presented up to the event, was complimented by the museum. Following a senior Lacoste representative had reviewed the sketches, she was eliminated from the competition. She responded to the museum director that “this particular piece was not even outspokenly anti-Israeli.” But was told that Lacoste saw it as ‘too pro-Palestinian’ for the brand to support.
“It didn’t stop at that,” she told me. A few days after receiving the news, she was also asked to sign a joint press release with the museum and Lacoste. “It said that I had withdrawn voluntarily from the competition in order to pursue other interests. So not only did they censor me, they also wanted me to help them cover up the censorship,” Sansour said.
The censorship backfired as Sansour made her own press statement, and the museum had to side with the freedom of expression, compensating her with a solo exhibition, instead, as the competition got cancelled.
This is not the first time, Sansour has experienced censorship as she explains the art world in Israel/Palestine suffer from severe cuts and seeks to partner up with private institutions, many of whom have certain interest and whom perhaps are not completely ‘un-lobbyable.’ “Historically, private business has always been an engine for artistic production. It’s really just a matter of agreeing on the proper terms for this relationship,” Sansour explained.
According to Sansour, both through dependency on public fund or through partnering up with private institutions, one runs (different) “risks and degrees of instrumentalisation of the artwork.”
The dialogue is opening up for Palestinian art, but censorship persists – also abroad in the US, for example. One has to continue to be observant of freedom of art in relation to the continuing naming or expression of Palestinian art or cause as being ‘controversial’ or ‘radical’. As naming remains a potent tool of defining or managing dissent voices, and to justifying a subaltern position of Arab, Palestinian or Mizrahim voices.
The popularity for (some) Arab culture – a political ‘numbing mechanism’?
Stills from the A-WA music video ‘Habib Galbi’, published on youtube.com on 7 March 2015.
A-WA is a Yemini group which is currently popular at an on-repeat level at Israeli radio stations. Much unlike the previously very restricted Arab culture within Israel A-WA is now only part of a much bigger transformation of Israeli popular culture.
I spoke to Professor of Modern Israel Studies, Derek Penslar, who explained how, in fact, the past year has seen ‘an explosion’ of Mizrahi-flavoured pop music, “Dudu Tassa, drawing on his family’s Iraqi roots; Rita Yahan-Farouz Kleinstein, who has taken to recording in Persian and is popular in Iran as well as Israel; or Eden Bat-Zakan whose light-hearted hit single, featuring Mizrahi youth and a Mizrahi musical style, is called ‘Queen of the Roses’.” These days, Mizrahi music is totally mainstream.
Peer Tasi’s hit single ‘Derekh Hashalom’, about a tender romantic encounter between a man and woman in down market, largely Mizrahi southern Tel Aviv, has 24 million views on YouTube.
‘Derekh Hashalom’ by Peer Tasi. Published on youtube.com on 25 October 2014.
“The social-political undertone of this music emerges from a gay Mizrahi fusion video, ‘This Isn’t Europe’, which mocks the Ashkenazic Israeli love of northern Europe” Penslar said. The Israeli broadcasted art which usually gives a good idea about what the state would allow to create a sense of belonging or community, is somehow striving towards a non-Arabic, non-Muslim, Mediterranean discourse.
Penslar explained: “As the song tells Mizrahi Israeli youth, ‘You’re not from London or Amsterdam / Your face, honey, is from Bat Yam’. Culturally, Israel is not simply a western outpost – it is not only in but in some ways of the Near East.”
I asked Penslar whether the hype about Arab music could have a numbing effect on the internal inequality and lack of Jewish-Palestinian solution. “Mizrahi tend to vote hawkish. Cultural propinquity does not, in and of itself, attenuate hatred,” he said, “the recent cultural transformations in Israel are not superficial.”
Despite the significant gaps in economic and political power that separate Ashkenazic and Mizrahi Jews, and between Israeli-Jewish from Palestinian society, Penslar argues that “cultural transformations demand that we theorise a new kind of antipathy, not between Europeanised Israelis and Palestinians, but between two native Middle Eastern peoples, both deeply rooted in the physical environment (…) Israelis and Palestinians – they will either live together or die together.”
Indeed culture knows and respects no borders, but should Israel want to maintain its appeal as the only (chosen) democracy of the Middle East, there is a need to acknowledge that soft censorship can subalternate the Mizrahim, as it did more physically to the Palestinians within and outside Israel. The issues of representing culture, allowing certain expressions thereof – silencing others – is a precarious territory; if one has not yet admitted it as pure political fuel, such as Regev, Minister of Culture, did quite recently: “The government doesn’t have to support culture. I can decide where the money goes.”
Art has become a thorny political affair as the powers awarded the state, are given under a false perception of a democracy of equal voicing, claiming cultural representation. One cannot expect to represent something as dynamic, plural and fluid as culture – one can only expect it to push for its ‘production’ – one which can suit its political agenda. It is in the name of culture, the government can re-circulate internal socio-political inequalities and numb people’s critical thought but it is culture, which by definition, can go beyond borders and intermix, regardless of state intervention. It is naïve of citizens to expect democratically fair distribution of government funding based on demographics, as it seems naive on behalf of governments to expect to successfully control a production of culture that complies and fuels their political agenda – without resistance.
Henriette Holm is a researcher with Middle East Monitor and a research associate at Independent Academic Research Studies Institute, IARS. She recently earned her Master in Near and Middle East studies from SOAS and holds a BA in Anthropology from Sussex University. Her work focuses on the Near and Middle East region, on the themes of gender, citizenship, religion, politics and art with a specific focus on Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. She is currently based in Beirut from where she freelances and researches advocacy strategies for Palestinian rights.
This article is part of a Freemuse INSIGHT series edited by Marie Korpe. It was published in October 2015.
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Feder, T., & Katz-Gerro, T. (2015). The cultural hierarchy in funding: Government funding of the performing arts based on ethnic and geographic distinctions. Poetics, 49, 76-95.
Florida, R. (2014). The Rise of the Creative Class – Revisited: Revised and Expanded. Basic books.
Spivak, G. C. (1988). Can the subaltern speak? www.uky.edu