Boycotts and legitimacy

Manipulating gov't funding is a slippery slope.

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.
They were 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.”
In response, the former director-general of the Education Ministry, MK Ronit Tirosh (Kadima), and the Chairman of the Knesset House Committee, MK Yariv Levin (Likud), have initiated legislation that would deny taxpayers’ funding for artists who refuse to perform beyond the Green Line, and they claim to have the support of nearly 40 lawmakers. Culture and Sport Minister Ronit Tirosh has also 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 determines which political opinions are legitimate and which are not? Better to allow artists full freedom of expression, including the right to boycott a particular venue, than to centralize control in the hands of politicians with clear political agendas. Long gone are the days of David Ben-Gurion when Israeli artists were “enlisted” or “mobilized” to promote what were perceived as the interests of the Jewish state.
In fact, a relatively large percentage of Israeli theater budgets come from private donations and ticket sales. In 2009, only 26 percent of the Cameri’s annual budget and 20% of Beit Lessin’s were from state and municipal funding, including subsidizing of senior citizens’ tickets. This means theater productions are highly dependent on market forces and popular opinion.
Actors, playwrights and directors who have joined the boycott might be applauded by left-wing activists here and abroad who advocate boycotts to coerce Israel into potentially irresponsible “peace” agreements with the highly problematic Palestinian leadership (rather than leaving the complexities of peacemaking to the duly elected government). But they stand to lose popularity among many, probably most, of their fellow Israelis who have a better grasp of local political realities – including the fact that Israel anticipates extending sovereignty to Ariel under any peace accord – and who may wish to punish them at the box office.
SOME WOULD argue – as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did at the opening of Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting – that Israel’s position is especially sensitive.
“The State of Israel is facing a delegitimization campaign from various sources across the globe,” he noted. “The last thing we need is a boycott attempt from within Israel.”
Though Netanyahu ruled out infringing artistic expression, he did hint that state funds should be denied to those who boycott the settlements.
However, by providing funding to all forms of artistic expression, including kinds that are hypercritical of its policies, Israel sends out a strong message to its detractors.
Israeli democracy is self-assured enough not only to permit freedom of expression, but even to help fund the salaries of artists who choose to use their freedom to criticize Israeli policies – to criticize within the limits that democratic societies impose for their own protection, and that the current protest does not cross.
The danger to Israeli democracy as a result of stifling opinions deemed to be illegitimate is much greater than the possible negative ramifications of allowing divergent opinions to compete for legitimacy on the free market of ideas. Those with true intellectual honesty will recognize this. Those who don’t will be prejudiced against Israel no matter what we do.
By boycotting Ariel, actors, directors and playwrights are forfeiting the opportunity to enter into dialogue with their fellow Israelis 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 for a group of people who share with them a common destiny, despite all the politics that divides them.