Photo: Ido Erez, Yaron Brener
Regev vs. Kotler
Photo: Ido Erez, Yaron Brener
Ben-Dror Yemini

The herd mentality of Israeli artists

Op-ed: Removing a play that identifies with a murderer from the culture basket is not silencing. But herd behaviour tends to be an automatic response. The facts don't matter. The identification is Pavlovian in nature.

There was something amusing about the calls for rebellion voiced last Sunday when hundreds of Israeli artists convened to protest what they view as the government's efforts to curtail freedom of expression. There were no rebels there. In attendance for the most part was a group of well-fed and content individuals who have grown accustomed to being unquestionably hegemonic.



Oded Kotler and his ilk don't represent Israel's artists, but they do set the tone. They've grown accustomed by now to the notion that the power of expression is their private monopoly. And God forbid anyone else should dare to claim that he, too, has something to say. They will brand him an enemy, a beast, a fascist.


No, we're not dealing here with rebels, but with a bunch of spoiled brats who've grown accustomed to the pleasures that come with power. And they demand the perpetuation of these pleasures.


Israeli actor Oded Kotler (Photo: Yaron Brener)
Israeli actor Oded Kotler (Photo: Yaron Brener)


Some of those at the convention earn 10 times the minimum wage – at the expense of the state of course. Yet they are the ones who are branding the minimum-wage earners beasts. When it comes to rebellions, we've never seen the like of this one – an Israeli-made bluff of the most shameful proportions.


One of the guests of honor at the gathering was Dr. Anat Matar, a leading Israeli proponent of the BDS movement. She supports a boycott of the university where she teaches and, at the same time, receives a salary from the same university. Is there no limit to her nerve?


Matar spoke at the conference about poor Walid Daka's gentle soul. She is one of the leaders of the campaign in support of the play, A Parallel Time, about the terrorist convicted of planning the murder of soldier Moshe Tamam in 1984.


Matar and her supporters argue that Daka is a "political prisoner." A group that calls itself Ha-Yemin (The Right) makes similar claims with respect to Yitzhak Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir, who they also view as a "political prisoner." Right-wing madness, left-wing madness – they always converge; they always become one and the same.


Not all those who were at conference belong to the radical left, but its spirit certainly ruled the roost there. Matar gets a sympathetic reception; Ortal Tamam, the niece of the victim, is greeted with hostility, boos and heckling – and they call it culture? That's not culture; it's brutality.


Ortal Tamam in tears after being heckled (Photo: Yaron Brener)
Ortal Tamam in tears after being heckled (Photo: Yaron Brener)


In an interview with Israel Radio, Prof. Nissim Calderon argued that democratic states don't intervene in cultural content. Calderon is right. Democratic states also fund critical cultural performances. And that's how it should be. No one in a democracy, however, requests funding for shows that glorify terrorists, or turns a murderer, from al-Qaeda or the Taliban, into a "political prisoner."


But I may be wrong. So I asked Calderon to offer me one example, just one, of an instance in which a democracy provided such funding. Calderon promised an answer. He's yet to provide one. Perhaps someone else can present such a precedent. I promise to publish it.


The name of influential Israeli poet Nathan Alterman also came up at the gathering on freedom of expression. Well, we can certainly learn something from him. On hearing of the killing of innocent civilians during the War of Independence, Alterman published a poignant protest poem that included lines decrying apathy and efforts to silence. David Ben-Gurion read the poem and was moved by it. He asked Alterman for permission to distribute 100,000 copies of the poem among the soldiers. And that's exactly what was done.


As the years went by, Alterman was exposed to the atrocious propaganda against Israel. He was enraged. He argued in another poem that Israel could not be defeated in a war. But, in keeping with the advice of Satan, "Only this shall I do: I will dull his mind / and cause him to forget / the justice of his cause."


The two poems don't contradict one another. Villainous acts should be exposed and protested. But not by means of dulling minds and thus negating the justice of the cause. Today, we call it delegitimization. Those who invite Matar to speak aren't protesting; they're delegitimizing.


The bigger problem is the herd mentality. The so-called intellectuals and artists' identification with the clichés about "silencing" doesn't stem from the fact that someone has had his mouth shut. Removing a play that identifies with a murderer from the culture basket is not silencing. But herd behaviour tends to be an automatic response. The facts don't matter. The identification is Pavlovian in nature.


And that's precisely the reason I listened so attentively to an interview Nissim Mishal conducted with actor Shlomo Vishinsky. Vishinsky was hesitant and torn. It was refreshing. He supports freedom of expression; he's against funding for a play associated with a murderous terrorist. His bottom line aside, the important thing is that he showed himself to be a free-thinking individual and, primarily, free of that herd mentality. Kotler and the herd that cheered him on would do well to take a page out of Vishinsky's book. He is proof that there are still thinking people among artists and intellectuals.


Herd behaviour manifests itself on the other side of the political divide too. In a column earlier in the week, I condemned the violent actions of soldiers against Shadi al-Habashi during a demonstration in the Jelazoun refugee camp near Ramallah. I was astounded by some of the responses. I was turned into an anti-Zionist traitor.


This isn't the right-wing; it's the moonstruck right, the twin of the moonstruck left. When it comes to the latter, every irregular incident makes Israel guilty of crimes against humanity. As for the former, any condemnation of soldiers who have acted out of the norm is treason. Neither the one nor the other will learn from Alterman's legacy. The thinking majority has to learn.


Over and above being merely a theater, Al-Midan in Haifa is a political institution. The following are some of the establishment's landmark events in recent years: In October 2007, Al-Midan staged a convention against the enlistment of Arab youth in national service programs, with MK Jamal Zahalka branding the volunteers as "lepers" in an address to the audience. Islamist Raed Salah, a convicted agitator, participated in the conference.


In January 2009, the theater was scheduled to host a gathering in support of the Popular Front organization. The police commissioner issued a closure order.


In June 2010, Al-Midan held an event in support of two individuals arrested for spying for Hezbollah. The two were subsequently convicted.


In February 2012, on the backdrop of atrocities committed by Bashar Assad against his own people, the theater staged a convention in support of the Syrian president.


In March 2015, it hosted a festival in conjunction with a radical group that flies the flag for the so-called right of return. A similar event at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque sparked a demand from former culture minister Limor Livnat to suspend its funding.


In May 2014, Al Midan staged A Parallel Time at a theater in Qalansuwa. Convicted terrorist Samer Issawi, released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner-exchange deal, spoke at the event. Issawi has since been returned to prison after violating the terms of his release and indulging in terrorist activity. The play was staged again in April 2015, in the framework of "Palestinian Prisoners' Day." And again a convicted terrorist was in attendance Mounir Mansour, who was released in the Jibril deal.


These are merely some of the events that have taken place under the auspices of the Al-Midan. It's less so a theater. The place has become a political party that is working to promote the agenda of Azmi Bishara. The only thing that needs mentioning is that most of its budget comes from the state (more than NIS 1 million from the Culture Ministry, and another NIS 1.25 million or so from the Haifa Municipality).


The problem with Al-Midan is far more serious than the issue of the funding. The institution's belligerent agenda is the tragedy of the Israeli Arabs. The demand for equality is justified. Discrimination still exists. But Al-Midan as the face of the Arab political and intellectual leadership spells trouble for all of us – Jews and Arabs alike. Because the actions of this institution are the very opposite of coexistence or partnership. For the most part, they are simply provocation.


פרסום ראשון: 06.19.15, 22:59
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