(photo credit: Nathan Brusovany)
Ever since the 1970 Cameri Theater debut of Hanoch Levin’s Queen of the Bathtub,
a scathing satire of prime minister Golda Meir’s policies in the territories,
Israeli theater has been on the cutting edge of left-wing political activism. It
came as no great surprise, therefore, that over the weekend at least 50 actors,
playwrights and theater directors publicly announced they would boycott a new
theater house in Ariel, the largest settlement in Samaria.
organizing in the wake of media reports last week that Ariel’s cultural center,
slated to be finished in November, would be included on Israeli theater’s
circuit of repertory venues.
The managements of Habima, the Cameri, Beit
Lessin, Beersheba and Khan theaters, which all receive state funding, have vowed
to ignore the boycott and bring “the best of Israeli theater to Ariel.” But they
also said they would “respect the political opinions of their actors.”
response, the former director-general of the Education Ministry, MK
(Kadima), and the Chairman of the Knesset House Committee, MK Yariv
(Likud), have initiated legislation that would deny taxpayers’ funding
artists who refuse to perform beyond the Green Line, and they claim to
support of nearly 40 lawmakers. Culture and Sport Minister Ronit Tirosh
noted that state-supported theaters have a special obligation to perform
wherever taxpaying Israeli citizens live.
But manipulating government
funding to influence artistic expression is a slippery slope. Who
which political opinions are legitimate and which are not? Better to
artists full freedom of expression, including the right to boycott a
venue, than to centralize control in the hands of politicians with clear
political agendas. Long gone are the days of David Ben-Gurion when
artists were “enlisted” or “mobilized” to promote what were perceived as
interests of the Jewish state.
In fact, a relatively large percentage of
Israeli theater budgets come from private donations and ticket sales. In
only 26 percent of the Cameri’s annual budget and 20% of Beit Lessin’s
state and municipal funding, including subsidizing of senior citizens’
This means theater productions are highly dependent on market forces and
Actors, playwrights and directors who have joined the boycott
might be applauded by left-wing activists here and abroad who advocate
to coerce Israel into potentially irresponsible “peace” agreements with
highly problematic Palestinian leadership (rather than leaving the
of peacemaking to the duly elected government). But they stand to lose
popularity among many, probably most, of their fellow Israelis who have a
grasp of local political realities – including the fact that Israel
extending sovereignty to Ariel under any peace accord – and who may wish
punish them at the box office.
SOME WOULD argue – as Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu did at the opening of Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting
Israel’s position is especially sensitive.
“The State of Israel is facing
a delegitimization campaign from various sources across the globe,” he
“The last thing we need is a boycott attempt from within Israel.”
Netanyahu ruled out infringing artistic expression, he did hint that
should be denied to those who boycott the settlements.
providing funding to all forms of artistic expression, including kinds
hypercritical of its policies, Israel sends out a strong message to its
Israeli democracy is self-assured enough not only to permit
freedom of expression, but even to help fund the salaries of artists who
to use their freedom to criticize Israeli policies – to criticize within
limits that democratic societies impose for their own protection, and
current protest does not cross.
The danger to Israeli democracy as a
result of stifling opinions deemed to be illegitimate is much greater
possible negative ramifications of allowing divergent opinions to
legitimacy on the free market of ideas. Those with true intellectual
will recognize this. Those who don’t will be prejudiced against Israel
what we do.
By boycotting Ariel, actors, directors and playwrights are
forfeiting the opportunity to enter into dialogue with their fellow
through the medium of art.
They are also – as is their right as citizens
of a Jewish and democratic state –conveying an utter lack of sympathy
group of people who share with them a common destiny, despite all the
that divides them.