The Association of Composers, Authors, and Publishers of Music in Israel (ACUM) caved in to pressure from figures on the Left and changed its prize bestowed on singer Ariel Zilber from “Lifetime Achievement” to “Contribution to Israeli Music.”
Zilber, who has over the past four decades composed and performed some of Israeli music’s greatest hits, has in recent years become known for his extreme right-wing political opinions.
Zilber has supported vigilante “price tag” attacks on Arabs, arguing that “you have to speak in the language that people understand. Price tag is a language of violence.
They are violent, so we also have to be violent.”
Zilber has also publicly supported a letter by a group of rabbis calling on Jews not to sell land to Arabs.
During a controversy over the release of Palestinian terrorists, Zilber said that if Israel went ahead with the move it should also release Yigal Amir, who assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Zilber openly supports the late rabbi and MK Meir Kahane’s program to expel Arabs from Israel and is close to Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, author of Baruch Hagever, a pamphlet that justifies the 1994 massacre of Palestinians by Baruch Goldstein in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
Zilber has also spoken out against homosexuality.
Pressure on ACUM to back away from its decision to award the lifetime achievement award came from a number of sources. Singer Ahinoam Nini, who was awarded an ACUM prize for popularizing Israeli music in the Diaspora, announced that she would turn down the honor, because she did not want to be seen on the same stage with Zilber.
Dalia Rabin, daughter of Yitzhak Rabin, who is a member of ACUM’s board of directors, put pressure on ACUM to change the prize. “His opinions regarding minorities, individual rights, and the gay community are problematic and a prize for “lifetime achievement sends out a problematic message,” sources close to Rabin said.
Politicians on the Right claimed that ACUM’s decision was part of a larger campaign to silence right-wing opinions.
However, artists and thinkers who have expressed extreme left-wing views have also been singled out for censure. Philospher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who described Israeli soldiers’ conduct during the 1982 Lebanon War as the behavior of “Judeo-Nazis,” forfeited the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement in 1993 in the wake of a public outcry – including then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s threat to boycott the award ceremony. In 2008, the Israel Prize committee came under fire for honoring political scientist Zeev Sternhell, who legitimized Palestinian violence against male Israelis living in settlements in Judea and Samaria.
Still, the controversy surrounding Sternhell and Leibowitz, who were being awarded precisely for their scholarship and thought, is a bit different from the one that has embroiled Zilber, who is a musician. And it raises a different moral question: Is an artist’s work compromised by actions and opinions that have no direct connection to that work? An argument can be made that award committees should not bestow honor on artists who have perpetrated crimes. For instance, if Woody Allen had been convicted of sexually abusing Mia Farrow’s seven-year-old adopted daughter Dylan Farrow, it would have been improper to honor him this year with the Golden Globes for lifetime achievement.
Zilber, in contrast, is guilty of no crime. He did voice political opinions which happen to be repugnant to a large swath of Israelis. But as Marxist firebrand Rosa Luxemberg famously argued, freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of those who think differently.
Nini, who is known to hold dovish political views, was exercising her own freedom when she declined ACUM’s award. Her willingness to forgo both the honor and the monetary award of NIS 10,000 as a means of protest was admirable.
At any rate, ACUM was awarding Zilber for his music, not his opinions. In no way can the prize be conceived as ACUM’s endorsement of Zilber’s politics. If anything it is a reaffirmation that works of art stand on their merit, regardless of the opinions of the artists who create them.
Changing the award’s title from “Lifetime Achievement” to “Contribution to Israeli Music” was unnecessary.