Israel, Mired in Ideological Battles, Fights on Cultural Fronts – Steven Erlanger/The New York Times

by Newsstand

JERUSALEM — There have been fights over books, music, plays, funding for the arts and academic awards. This being Israel, they have been underpinned by fierce rhetorical exchanges about democracy, fascism and zealotry, identity, the future of the state and the fate of Jews.

A new front in the culture wars opens nearly every week, ripple effects of shifts in Israeli demographics, attitudes and politics that are shaking the society.

The latest was an attack on Wednesday by a far-right group on beloved leftist literary icons including Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, writers who have been considered the voice — and conscience — of the state for years. The group, Im Tirtzu, began a poster campaign calling the writers “moles in culture,” which prompted accusations of McCarthyism.

“The search, identification and marking of alleged traitors is an old fascist characteristic, an ugly and dangerous one,” said an appalled Benny Begin, a member of Parliament and a former minister from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Im Tirtzu’s vilification of such Israeli cultural pillars was a bridge too far even for many on the right, like the justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, and Mr. Netanyahu himself. But she and other members of his unusually religious and rightist coalition have been the instigators of many of the other battles. The previous round was the brainchild of Miri Regev, the divisive and conservative minister of culture and sport, who wants to deny state money to institutions that do not express “loyalty” to the state, including those that show disrespect for the flag, incite racism or violence, or subvert Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Ms. Regev said that the aim of this “Loyalty in Culture” initiative, proposed as an amendment to a must-pass budget bill, is “for the first time to make support for a cultural institution dependent on its loyalty to the state of Israel.” She added, “I won’t be an A.T.M. — I have a responsibility for the public’s money.”

For Meir Wieseltier, a well-known poet, the law “brings us closer to the rise of fascism and exposes its true face.” But Isi Leibler argued in the Jerusalem Post that the government is “not obliged to subsidize the demonization of the nation” and should instead support “the inculcation of love of Israel.”

The steady stream of such conflicts, over what cultural works the state should promote for schoolchildren to read or for citizens to see and hear, are part of a political drama in which Ms. Regev, Ms. Shaked and a few others are competing for votes.

Ms. Regev, 50, a rising power in Likud, is one of several stars of a new generation of politicians jockeying for position as the future leader of the so-called nationalist camp. Ms. Shaked, 39, plays a similar role in the Jewish Home party, whose leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, 43, has been prominent in this struggle over culture.

The Israel they represent is more religious and less beholden to the values and inheritances of the old, Europeanized elite and its dwindling left. They are unapologetic in their nationalism, supportive of both poorer Jews of Sephardic — Middle Eastern, or Mizrahi — background and of settlers in the occupied West Bank, and unmoved by criticism from international leaders and liberal activists.

“It’s not just a culture war, it’s political, demographic and social at the same time,” said Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s most influential columnists. “The core of the struggle is: Who is the dedicated elite, who are the legitimate heirs to the Zionist movement that built the state?”

Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, said the culture wars reflect “a growing sense of siege” that Israelis feel from the region and the world.

“This has set off the deepest fears in the Jewish psyche, fears that Zionism tried to free us from,” he explained. Instead of feeling as if they are in “a normal nation among nations,” he said, many Israelis are heading back “to a statist version of the old Jewish ghetto, and the Israeli response increasingly is to view those of our fellow citizens perceived to be in league with this process of siege, or encouraging it as collaborators.”

But Mr. Leibler, the Jerusalem Post columnist, defended Ms. Regev and Mr. Bennett as trying to “restore a climate that nurtures love of Israel and promotes pride in Jewish heritage” after years when “far-leftists, postmodernists and even post-Zionists took over the Education Ministry.”

This month, the left-leaning daily Haaretz highlighted internal discussions in the ministry about what artistic works might be considered “politically undesirable” for high-school students. Among the criteria, the newspaper said, were whether artists would perform in West Bank settlements and declare loyalty to the state and to the national anthem, something that is particularly problematic for Israel’s Arab citizens.

Internal discussions are not policy, but even this report drew stinging responses, with Oded Kotler, a prominent Israeli actor and director, comparing Israel to the Soviet Union and telling Israel Radio, “There’s a real culture war underway here, but the war from that side of the political map is a harbinger of zealotry, darkness and coercion.”

Mr. Kotler infuriated the government and the political right last summer when he compared its supporters to “cud-chewing cattle.” That was in response to Ms. Regev’s effort to freeze state funding for an Arab theater in Haifa because of a play about a Palestinian prisoner who murders an Israeli soldier. The production, “Parallel Time,” had enraged the right and Mr. Bennett banned school trips to see it.

Ms. Regev, who declined to be interviewed for this article, also asked the justice minister to examine whether Al Midan theater had ties to terrorist activities.

The culture minister is mocked regularly by the left for having told the newspaper Israel Hayom that she had “never read Chekhov, and almost never went to plays as a child,” but she said she listened to “Sephardi songs.”

“Someone who has never been in a theater or cinema and who never read Chaim Nachman Bialik,” said Ms. Regev, the daughter of immigrants from Morocco, referring to a famous poet of European descent, “can also be cultured.”

Ms. Regev, a former general and military spokeswoman, also said that she wanted to vet the playlist of the army’s popular music station, Galgalatz, to ensure that more Israeli and Mizrahi works are played. That brought an angry rebuff from Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, whose ministry controls the station.

Ms. Regev and Mr. Bennett have also clashed, including over his decision to award a new prize to artists who “promote Jewish culture.” Ms. Regev said cultural prizes were her domain — her ministry gives its own prize “reflecting Zionist values and history” — and she threatened to take it up with the attorney general if Mr. Bennett did not transfer the prize budget.

But such prizes have themselves recently been caught up in politics more than ever. Haim Gouri, a noted poet, refused this month to accept a prize “for Zionist works of art” that the Culture Ministry awarded for his latest book, “Though I Wished for More of More.”

Mr. Gouri, who is 92, said that he thought his book was too personal for the prize, and that it should be used to give a lift to a younger artist’s career. But he also questioned the point of such an award, which had been created as a political gesture by the right several years ago, in response to a cultural boycott of the settlements.

“What is the prize for Zionist art?” he asked in a newspaper interview. “Everything created in Israel is a prize for Zionist art.”

Ms. Regev also wanted to cut funding for the Jewish-Arab Almina children’s theater in Jaffa because its director, Norman Issa, a Christian actor, refused to perform with another theater group in a West Bank settlement. He eventually relented.

Mr. Bennett, for his part, overruled ministry experts to ban from high-school reading lists a novel about a romance between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, apparently out of fear that it promotes assimilation. The romance takes place abroad; the pair splits up when they return home, to Israel and the West Bank. Mr. Bennett said the novel, “Borderlife,” by Dorit Rabinyan, disparaged the Israeli military, and the head of his ministerial committee said it “could incite hatred and cause emotional storms” in classrooms.

The debate about the book actually increased its sales, something Ms. Rabinyan credited in an interview to “the strength of Israeli democracy.”

The novel begins with the Israeli girl, who is Sephardic, coming under suspicion of terrorism in New York over her “Arabic” appearance and because she writes from right to left. “This is the bond that connects her to the Palestinian,” Ms. Rabinyan explained. “I don’t consider my Israeliness to be hegemonic.”

“I’m not ready to give up my humanity or my patriotism, even if Mr. Bennett demands I give up one or the other,” she added. “I carry ambivalence within me and in my writing, and people want absolute clear-cut statements and I’m not like that.”

The ministry later said that the book had not been “disqualified” from the curriculum, that it was simply “not included.”

Israel, Mired in Ideological Battles, Fights on Cultural Fronts – The New York Times