Israel’s War of Culture

Israel’s War of Culture

Uri Inspector discusses how the State of Israel weaponises arts and culture to suit its chosen narrative, and argues why you should support the Cultural Boycott

In late 2014 a 21-year-old Palestinian-Israeli playwright staged a work at his local theatre that would create panic nationwide and shake the foundations of the Israeli political establishment.  ‘A Parallel Time’, written and directed by Bashar Mukus, was inspired by the life of Walid Daka, a Palestinian prisoner jailed for his involvement in the murder of an Israeli soldier in 1984, and premiered at Haifa’s Al-Midan theatre. Al-Midan is the only Palestinian theatre that receives Israeli state funding. The play received widespread acclaim, attracting large audiences of all ages and ethnicities. It was praised for its insight into the topic of political incarceration, a discussion eternally present in the society from which it came.

In March 2015 Miri Regev was appointed Minister of Culture and Sport in Netanyahu’s fourth government. Well versed in chillingly familiar nationalistic platitudes, Regev had referred to illegal immigrants at a demonstration three years as a ‘cancer in the nation’s body’. Now she had ascended to power promising to be more radical than any of her predecessors. “If it is necessary to censor, I will censor” she declared, announcing an end to what she saw as her ministry’s blind role as an indiscriminate ‘ATM’ to cultural institutions, supplying money without attention to the content of the art being funded. No longer would she let ‘the image of the State of Israel be undermined for the sake of pluralism’ as she committed to rendering all state cultural funding dependent on ‘loyalty to the State’.

With one reflexive gasp of horror, the Ministry of Culture and Sport froze Al-Midan’s funding in the first few months of Regev’s regime. Despite admitting to never having seen ‘A Parallel Time’ and having only ‘read the synopsis’, Councilman Shai Blumenthal (of the pro-settler Habayit Hayehudi party), who submitted the point of order to cease funding for the theatre in mid-2015, claimed ‘A Parallel Time’ was glorifying a ‘terrorist’. Mukus denies any attempt at biography, asserting that his only goal was to discuss the issues raised by fictional distortions of certain events in Daka’s life. Inevitably, post-truth politicians are more likely to act on Sparknotes summaries than on the advice of the academic community, many of whom vehemently opposed this move.

This is just a recent occurrence in the ideological mission of cultural suppression. In 2009, after UNESCO declared Jerusalem Arab Capital of Culture, the six-day Palestinian Literature Festival held in the city was raided and cancelled by police. Likewise, in October 2015, Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour was arrested after composing and posting a poem which called for non-violence uprising on Facebook. In 2016, Israeli novelist Dorit Rabynyan’s novel ‘All the Rivers’, which detailed a romantic relationship between a Palestinian and an Israeli, garnered global attention when it was banned from being taught at schools. According to the ministry of education, ‘intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threatens the separate identity’ of Israel. Swap some words around and you’d think you’re reading a pamphlet of the Jim Crow laws.

A trope of 21st century Israeli governing seems to be an anxiety over the power of literature. Statistics point to Israeli students achieving far lower in literature exams than those of most developed nations. Israel’s educational system is geared ruthlessly towards science and engineering, which may be as much a symptom of its view of itself as perpetual war machine as it is a distrust of critical thought and its potential effect on the body politic.

In spite of a protracted court case resulting in the reinstatement of Al-Midan’s funding, Education minister Naftali Bennet banned ‘A Parallel Time’ from entering any school syllabus. What’s more, workers at Al-Midan are right at this moment on strike, claiming that Regev is withholding 2.2 million Shekels from them, having ceased to transfer funds since March 2016. The danger is that both Palestinian and radical Israeli artists, faced with the prospect of losing their already scant livelihoods, will think twice before producing challenging and provocative art lest their stream of funding be rescinded.

Mukus’ play was accused of damaging Israel’s image as a ‘democracy’, and the response of said democracy was to censor, an action that could hardly be less democratic. Literature is crucial in Democracy, giving silenced minorities a voice, and challenging prevailing ideas and narratives. Without serious cultural output, there comes the danger of mass-produced vapid entertainment that distracts the population from real issues.

In Israel, the narrative of liberal democracy is one of the only things holding the state afloat, which has lead the government to wage cultural war. In 2005, following the second intifada, and the announcement of a budget reform to reinvent the way Israel represents itself to the world senior minister Nissim Ben-Sheetrit claimed ‘We are seeing culture as a hasbara (propaganda) tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between hasbara and culture.’ Through this we see how culture is intentionally weaponised by the Israeli propaganda machine.

Any attention drawn to Palestinian culture, and thus any recognition of Palestinian identity, is responded to as an affront to the state’s existence. It does not suit the Zionist narrative, and any literary cry against its human rights abuses does not suit the democracy narrative. What does suit this narrative, however, is when international culture lands in Tel-Aviv.

On July 19th, when one of Britain’s most beloved bands Radiohead did not bow to international pressure not to perform their set in the coastal town, they didn’t realise that through their presence they were enlisted to be soldiers in Israel’s war of culture. They had become tools of the of the art-washing of the occupation, of promoting a narrative that all is swell, free, international, democratic and harmless. One might think that had Radiohead known of the intricacies of Israel’s ministries of culture and hasbara, or of the ongoing censorship of Palestinian art, they may have coiled away from Tel-Aviv with disgust. The weaponisation of Radiohead and others is an odd, insidious transfer of agency from foreign civilian to state institutions; the lyric from their 1997 fan-favourite Karma Police takes a whole new meaning: “For a minute there, I lost myself”.

After repeated calls to cancel the gig Thom Yorke responded with: “We disagree with Trump but we still play America”. He should have been told that the two were not comparable, and that when artists play the states they are not weapons of image-promotion and normalization. They do not aid some conscious American desire to assert itself as a modern democratic country, distracting the world from its censorship and systematic violence, as they do in Tel-Aviv.

A united cultural boycott which the BDS movement has promoted for years – with international artists refusing to bring their art to Israel with unity – wouldn’t let the state get away with censorship, with occupation, with the abuse of human rights. It would also distract less Europeans and less Israelis from with the reality of the situation, moving more of us to action.


Uri Inspector