In 1964 Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote in his concurring decision a phrase immediately entered into the pantheon of legendary quotes from the Bench. When challenged to define a nebulous concept he demurred from the definition but famously said, “I know it when I see it.” Justice Stewart’s “visual test” was praised for its “candor” and called “realistic.” In Brooklyn we had a word for this common-sense approach: “seichel.”
In 1999, Mayor Giuliani applied Stewart’s standard of “I know it when I see it” and threatened to suspend government subsidies to the Brooklyn Museum of Art unless it canceled an art exhibition featuring images profaned by an “artist”, who then declared the blasphemy “art.” Referring to the exhibition, Giuliani said “You don’t have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else’s religion,” he said. “And therefore we will do everything that we can to remove funding for the Brooklyn Museum until the director comes to his senses and realizes that if you are a government-subsidized enterprise, then you can’t do things that desecrate the most personal and deeply held views of people in society. I mean, this is an outrageous thing to do.”
Mayor Giuliani, a former legendary federal prosecutor, discussed the tension between defunding an offensive exhibition and First Amendment issues of freedom of speech, saying, “If somebody wants to do that [stage the exhibition] privately and pay for that privately, well, that’s what the First Amendment is all about …[T]o have the government subsidize something like that is outrageous.”
And that is the position of Israel’s government today, 16 years later, in regard to A Parallel Time, a play based on the story of Walid Daka, a terrorist convicted of planning the murder of soldier Moshe Tamam late in 1984. To be clear, Tamam was not killed in the line of duty as a soldier but murdered as a Jew in an act of terror.
The play was selected by Israel’s “Culture Committee” to be included in a “national culture basket” for Israeli students. Education Minister Bennett requested that the committee “reconsider” its decision and withdraw its recommendation. They refused. Subsequently, Bennett, exercising his right as education minister, decided Israeli schools should not take its students to see a play glorifying terrorism and cut state funding for the production. “I want to say this bluntly: Israeli citizens won’t fund plays tolerant of the murder of soldiers.” Bennett then exhorted the committee to engage in some self-reflection, saying their “morality needs investigation. … [A] play that shows tolerance to the murder of soldiers … is not education.” The “Cultural Committee,” not surprisingly, rejected with “disgust the education minister’s questioning of its members’ professionalism, morality and loyalty to the state.” Perhaps the “Cultural Committee” has a definition of “morality” and “loyalty to the state” that includes kidnapping, terror, and murder of a Jewish citizen/soldier and the veneration of terrorism?
The enlightened aesthetes of Israel faced another challenge to their cultural control last week when Culture Minister Regev announced she would “reconsider” state funding to a Jaffa theater, after its manager refused to permit his troupe to perform in Yehudah and Shomron, thereby explicitly supporting the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement that has been assaulting Israel (as discussed in last week’s column) in sports, telecom, arts and education.
Regev was adamant that any cultural institutions that partner in boycotts against Israel will not be funded by the country. She declared, “The State of Israel is in the midst of dealing with international boycotts… There is no reason for domestic boycotts.”
The principled position of Bennett and Regev incited a firestorm of condemnation from leftist artists and politicians who claimed the ministers were denying artists’ freedom of expression. Outraged, scores of cultural figures from the Israeli Left published a polemic. Highlights of the letter included a predictable list of “We Will”s: obey our consciences; fight; not censor or sterilize our creations; not be silenced.
Bravery is commendable; theirs is questionable. A review of this “august” list showed that many on it were Israeli draft-dodgers, reside outside the country, freely attack the country and praise those who attack Israel with sword, pen and purse.
Israel is a democracy, and despite the Left’s shrieks to the contrary, no politician or pundit has declared a cultural “war” on the Left. No attempt has been made to muzzle voices; no book burnings have occurred; no plays shut down. The artists are free to perform as they please with private funding, not with government support. I recommend that the artists emulate the integrity of the sectors of the extreme ultra-Orthodox world that will not take support from a political organism — the State of Israel — whose existence it does not accept.
Why should Israel have to pay for the rope these artists wish to make into its noose?
Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst, and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his amazing wife and two wonderful children. He can be contacted at email@example.com.