Art must challenge social conventions, says think tank in response to theater debacle

Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer said there are limits to freedom of expression in a democracy, “but they are very far away.”

‘The Rite of Spring' play (photo credit: DORO TUCH)
‘The Rite of Spring' play
(photo credit: DORO TUCH)
Freedom of expression in the field of art and culture must be particularly safe guarded, according to the vice president of a Jerusalem- based independent think tank.
“This stems from the fact that art and culture have a special job to challenge social conventions, including the strongest and most accepted conventions,” Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer told The Jerusalem Post on Monday, discussing the issue of freedom of speech and expression in a democratic society.
Amid an ongoing political storm since Arab-Israeli actor Norman Issa’s decision last week to refuse to participate in a performance in the Jordan Valley, another piece of art was thrown into the fray on Sunday. Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev announced that she was re-evaluating the ministry’s support for the Jerusalem International Film Festival, set to take place next month and scheduled to screen a documentary film about Yigal Amir, the nationalist who assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett also spoke out against the screening of the movie in a Bayit Yehudi faction meeting on Monday.
“The State of Israel will not fund a play about a terrorist nor a film about the assassin of a prime minister,” he said. “The students in Israel will not view harmful content with the funding of the Education Ministry. This is not about limiting freedom of expression, rather establishing what is moral and legitimate.”
Kremnitzer, vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, which aims to strengthen the foundations of Israeli democracy, recounted the story of the Hanoch Levin play Queen of the Bathtub, which was performed at the Tel Aviv Cameri Theater in 1970, strongly critiquing the national euphoria after the Six Day War.
The public was not able to accept the critique, Kremnitzer indicated, and after only 19 performances and much public outcry it was taken off the stage.
“We paid the price with the surprise that fell upon us and with the thousands of deaths during the Yom Kippur War,” said Kremnitzer.
“In my eyes, this is a very strong illustration of this idea that the unique job of art and culture is to challenge things, even if society has a hard time accepting it, even if it’s opposed to conventional views, because of the chance that conventional views are wrong and someone needs to shake up society and shock them,” ” he explained.
Kremnitzer said there are limits to freedom of expression in a democracy, “but they are very far away,” pointing to clearly racist content and incitement to racism, murder or violence – things that are already prohibited under the law.
He is surprised, he said, that people view the Culture Ministry as “some sort of general supervisor of culture,” this view is suitable for a totalitarian regime but certainly not a democracy, and it is a difference that is very important to protect.
“I worry that people around the world hear the remarks by Minister Regev, that her job is to defend the state from art and culture. People in the democratic world will be very surprised and say – you are not the Israeli we are familiar with,” Kremnitzer related.
Last Thursday, Regev said “the Culture and Sport Ministry will not support those calling to delegitimize the State of Israel,” a sentiment she has professed more than once over the past week.
According to Kremnitzer, the job of the ministry is to encourage and promote culture and art and to ensure there is a budget from the government to support it.
Kremnitzer added that he has heard claims the Arab sector and the periphery are deprived of culture in relation to other sectors. These claims should be looked at and, if they prove to be true, taken care of by the ministry.
He concluded with a reference to Regev’s remarks from last week, when she met with artists and representatives from cultural institutions and told them: “We received 30 mandates, you only got 20,” addressing them all as Zionist Union voters.
“The culture minister isn’t only the culture minister for the 30 mandates who brought her to her positions, she’s the culture minister for all the citizens in the state,” Kremnitzer said, again stressing that the government must allow for artistic and cultural expression that criticizes and disagrees with government policies. “It’s a misconception of what a ministerial position is in a democratic country.”
Not everyone agrees, however, about the latitude that should be given in the realm of art and culture.
A survey at the Sapir Academic College, where Regev spoke last Tuesday and was interrupted by an angry professor who protested her threat to discontinue funding for artists that delegitimize the state, found that most of them agree with Regev.
The poll, conducted among 530 communications students at the college and released on Sunday, posed the question “Is it proper for the Culture and Sport Ministry to fund works of art that criticize the institutions of the State of Israel?” Forty-two percent of the students answered: “No, this criticism is eventually turned against us by our enemies;” and 5% answered: “No, sharp criticism may harm the public’s feelings.”
Only 34% answered: “Yes, we should recognize the variety of different voices, that is the essence of democracy;” and 19% answered: “Yes, the purpose of art is to criticize the status quo even if it is painful.”
Dr. Orly Soker, head of the School of Communications at Sapir, said the results pit democratic values against the need to protect ourselves from the enemy.
“The result,” she said, “is that, for the majority, the fear of the enemy wears out the support for the centrality of democratic values.”
She continued to explain that media coverage of the events plays a role in this process, focusing on Regev’s statements prioritizing protecting the state’s interests on one hand, and focusing “on a few figures who are automatically identified in the public discourse as a danger to the state” on the other.
Meanwhile, former president Shimon Peres, in an interview with Ynet on Monday, called on the festival not to screen the Amir documentary, saying the government should make sure it is not screened. “Culture is built on freedom, but not shame,” he said.
“On these issues there is no Right and there is no Left. There is moral and immoral.”
Peres went on to address the play, A Parallel Time, which was taken out of the culture basket two weeks ago by Bennett, also under a cloud of controversy.
“Our law states that inciting to murder is against the law,” said Peres, stating that there is no distinction between a movie depicting the life of Amir and a play depicting the life of a terrorist.
“I don’t propose freedom to incite to murder,” Peres said.