Israeli democracy can breathe a small sigh of relief. The most recent in the chain of draconian laws proposed by Israel’s 20th Knesset, “The Loyalty in Culture Law,” is thankfully dissipating into a higher ether. It will not be passed at this time because of the coalition’s small one-man majority and the opposition of some within the coalition itself, like Rachel Azarya and Benny Begin. The law proposed by Minister of Culture and Sports, Miri Regev, would allow reducing funds from cultural institutions that the Ministry of Culture deems disloyal. Disloyalty was already defined in the Nakba Law of 2010 as: cultural institutions that reject the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; artists that defile the flag and other Israeli symbols; art that incites racism, advocates terrorism and violence against the state, that commemorates Israel Independence Day as a day of mourning.
But until now, the state support of cultural institutions was determined by the Treasury, with the same guidelines that applied to all public institutions subsumed under the Basic Budget Law. The Treasury allowed cultural expression much leeway, perhaps due to its legal counsel that protected freedom of speech.
The present Culture Loyalty Bill proposed by Miri Regev, on the other hand, “will give the Ministry of Culture And Sports unlimited power over the contents of culture,” the actress Esty Zackheim shouted at a protest meeting over the law. The fact that it will give Miri Regev, head of the Ministry of Culture greater power is particularly problematic to those involved in culture. There are 600 cultural institutions receiving government support, including theaters, film festivals, art schools, orchestras. dance troupes. And Regev has placed their behavior under a magnifying glass, perceiving disloyalty wherever there has been criticism of the Right wing policies of the government. This year she appealed to the Treasury to reduce or eliminate funds from 18 institutions on the basis that they have produced cultural events that are dangerous. It is her particularly narrow approach to art that is seen as a threat to culture in Israel, and raises opposition to the Cultural Loyalty Law.
But personalities aside, what are the more theoretical concerns involved? Many pundits of an American orientation ask,”Why public support of the arts altogether?” But even in the U.S. where culture benefits from a high degree of support from private individuals and foundations than Israel, there is an- across- the- board- belief that the arts should receive public funds, because the arts contribute to the welfare of the country. It is felt that the free spirit of the arts creates a more innovative, creative society. A manifesto of the national assembly of state art agencies in the U.S declared that the arts , generate an atmosphere of innovation (much like the “start –up” ethos which Israel prides itself on.) Art offers training, develops thinking. Research has shown that children who study art do better in other subjects. It enhances a continuity of a cultural identity. In the words of the American “National Arts and Humanities Act of 1965, ”free arts enhance our ability to see things through the eyes of others, thereby fostering strong democracy. It captures different communities’ experiences, give voice to pain and joy of different voices in the nation.”
An open and free culture, it is implied, have practical
implications, generate innovation, economic development, quality of life.It is at the foundations of democracy, learning to listen to other points of view.
But it is not only for practical reasons that noone should be allowed to squelch free expression. Ultimately art draws its energy from the spiritual realm, from the belief that each person is made in the image of God. Culture emerges from inspiration- in-spiritus,man bringing spirit into society. Just as science is the search for truth in the physical world,art helps man partake of the universal and immortal realms, that
which will survive when political figures no longer exist.
The function of government is to mediate and maintain order between different power groups, to bring people together. It protects the society from outside aggression and internal strife. But it must not use “security,” as an excuse to suppress the spirit of the individual it is supposed to be defending. When a government does not see the image of God in those whom it should be protecting, its citizens, as well as those who are “other,”in the society,it is important that there are gatekeepers, artists or free speakers that rise up and remind the powers of order and control, that they have gone beyond their limits, the balance must be restored between the power of the individual and the power of the group.
There is no doubt a danger in anarchy, artists guilty of trying to be politically fashionable, harboring a romantic rebelliousness against government, but this is not commensurate with the self-aggrandisement of rulers who see themselves as all-powerful. Unable to bear criticism, they identify their own will with the good of the people and suppress anything that veers from their narrow vision. The spirit and beauty in art, the belief in the deep moral sensibility art engenders, the manifold possibilities that emerge from the play of the Imagination working itself out in the world, far exceeds the dangers of rebellious art to society’s security. It is a counter to the tight control of today’s small-minded politicians.