History provides many examples of political leaders’ efforts to censor art and restrict public funding of culture in the name of promoting nationalist ideals and protecting communities from adverse artistic influence. The Jewish people have not come out on the winning side of such efforts.
In 1950s America, having fueled the fear of the spread of Communism, Senator Joseph McCarthy and his acolytes used national loyalty tests to have numerous Jewish actors, writers, directors and producers blacklisted from engaging in their craft. Many of these artists never recovered professionally or personally from the perception created by government officials that they were un-American.
And in the 1930s, art that was considered to be offensive to German nationalism and sensibilities was labelled as “degenerate art” (“Entartete Kunst”) and banned from exhibition in state-owned museums. The artists themselves were removed from public employment and forbidden to sell their works, in effect being defunded by the state, before their lives and liberty were placed at risk or destroyed. To protect the German state, culture had to be defined by political principles as set by those in power.
Today, most of the artwork previously labelled as “degenerate art” by the German state represents the pinnacle of the modern art movement, while the artwork promoted and funded by the German state at the time is largely forgotten. The passage of time rarely reflects well on those who try to define and promote culture for political aims.
Which brings us to Miri Regev. Since assuming her role as Culture Minister after the last elections, Ms. Regev has seen fit to use her position to impose national loyalty tests on artists who might benefit from state funding. She also has been vocal in expressing her beliefs as to art that merits state support and art that does not.
With a particular focus on films, arguably the most popular cultural medium among voters, Ms. Regev has been quick to pronounce adverse judgment on artwork she deems subversive and unworthy of public support, including work she has not seen or heard. Her position as Culture Minister not only amplifies her personal views but also posits those views as belonging to the State of Israel and its people, at least those who are not deliberately excluded from her messaging. And that message is clear when it comes to requests for state funding: degenerate artists need not apply.
Now imagine a Culture Ministry whose leader chooses not to use her public platform to wield the arts as a weapon of division and exclusion. It should not be too difficult as one only has to look at the overwhelming majority of Culture Ministers who preceded Ms. Regev. Or one can equally turn to the cultural organization I am proud to represent, the American Israel Cultural Foundation (“AICF”, frequently known in Israel through its grant funding arm, “Keren Sharett”).
For almost 80 years, preceding the founding of the State of Israel, the AICF has been a major force in funding Israeli artists and cultural organizations in the areas of music, dance, fine arts, theater, film and design. Throughout its history, the AICF has viewed Israeli arts and culture as a unifying force. In supporting outstanding young talent, the AICF views its function as not only creating the next generation of Israeli artists but also the next generation of Israeli ambassadors, those who can project a message of diversity and inclusion onto the global stage.
With over 18,000 Israeli artists who have benefited from over $160 million distributed in the form of grants, the AICF has never asked its outstanding young applicants whether they are Jewish or Muslim or Christian, whether they are Ashkenazi or Sephardim, support Labor or Likud, or whether their art demonstrates loyalty to the State of Israel. In funding the arts, the only question we ask our applicants is whether they have the talent and drive to succeed as artists. And if they do, we fund them.
Ms. Regev would do well to follow this example and the example set by previous occupants of her position. The professed need for a cultural loyalty test to be imposed, or self-imposed, on Israeli artists in order to protect the State and its citizens has no basis. Placing restrictions on state funding of the arts for political expediency only serves to divide a nation that requires no cause for further division.
It is a duty of the artist to test the limits of self-expression and present differing perspectives on the difficult issues of our time. As with the degenerate art of 1930s Germany, it is the work created by these Israeli artists that is mostly likely to stand the test of time and project an image of our country to the outside world that best represents who we are and who we wish to be.