The culture wars in Israel these days makes you pine for the ones we had here, in the States, some 15 years ago. In America, it all seemed like grand theater--Giuliani, for instance, catering to hard-core Christians aghast at a painting of the Virgin Mary covered in feces. But in Israel the state has a far stronger hand in culture. So when the current Likud Culture Minister, Limor Livnat, threatened to withhold money to artists who refused to perform in the Ariel performing center, in the occupied West Bank, it meant something.
Now there's a new twist. This week, hundreds of artists signed a petition calling for Livnat to shut down a newly created prize in response to the Ariel boycott, which is meant to promote artworks that are explicitly pro-Zionist. Livnat announced the prize last year, amid the anti-Ariel boycotts, and she added a hell of an alluring carrot: 50,000 shekels to the winner, of the equivalent of $13,000. For an Israeli artist, that's good money. Livnat was clear about the prize's purpose from the outset, as she said: "The prize will be given in all fields of culture – performing arts, plastic art, and cinema – in a bid to make it clear that we are against boycotts and in favor of Zionist culture."
But now artists are fighting back. Of the 380 who signed the petition so far, many are big names, including the world renowned Batsheva Dance Company director, Ohad Naharin, whom I interviewed for my story this week (he's staging a work for the Alvin Ailey company at City Center in New York beginning this week). Part of statement reads as follows: "The Culture Ministry exists to support the work of Israeli artists, who enrich and advance Israel's culture in all its reflections. The prizes it awards should encourage artistic excellence rather than reward work measured with extra-artistic parameters."
The artists make an important point. There should be nothing wrong with a government, Israel's or anyone else's, that refuses to reward artists whose work deliberately criticizes the state. But governments would be seriously misguided to punish those who do. And as it relates to this case, Livnat seems to be making a very silly, ham-fisted move by deliberating courting art that has a pro-state position. There's a whiff of Stalinism in its grand political ambition; something farcical about the whole thing.
What's surprising is that Livnat has been so aggressive in attacking the Israeli artists protesting the Ariel center. You'd think, as former marketing executive, she'd be a little more savvy in knowing her clientele. Artists are, almost by default, liberal. And the relationship they have with the state, especially a conservative government, is almost always antagonist. So why pick a fight? It's futile to expect artists to bend to your will, unless you want to engage in the strong arm tactics of anti-democratic governments. And why, given the stakes, would Livnat want to open her government up to charges like that?
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