Shayna Abramson

Why It’s Wrong to De-Fund ‘Subversive’ Art

Imagine a country in which there are heavily state-funded newspaper and TV news programs, as well as arts programs that are broadly supportive of the government’s policy agendas and its national narrative.

This country is a democracy. People vote in free and fair elections, and there is an opposition paper as well: Because it is known as the voice of the opposition, anybody not involved in actively opposing the government dismisses it as “fake news,” and it’s constantly on the brink of bankruptcy. But most of the newspapers, even those not in the government’s pocket, avoid being overly critical of it, for fear of losing advertisers and customers, as well as the various government favors that make it just a little bit easier to be in business — favors that often involve cigars and dark rooms.

There are also arts programs that heavily criticize the government — in fact, some criticize the national narrative the state was built upon. Because these programs receive no government funding, they are unable to compete with the mainstream arts programs, which receive most of their funding from the government. Without government funding, these state-critical art programs are forced to either compromise on quality or charge extremely high prices, which means that they can only draw on the small pool of committed activists willing to pay lots of money to sit through shows with no sets or awful lighting.

Because both the opposition newspaper and the opposition artwork know that they cater purely to a highly self-selecting audience, they grow increasingly radical, appealing to and spurred on by the echo chamber in which they exist.

The country I am describing is Israel if Miri Regev’s bill passes. The bill would de-fund art engaged in the following activities: “Denying the State of Israel is a Jewish, democratic country; inciting racism, violence, or terror; supporting the armed struggle or acts of terror against Israel by an enemy state or a terror group; marking Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning; any act of destruction or physical degradation of the flag of the state or any state symbol.”

Most Israeli arts groups rely on the government as their main source of funding, therefore, de-funding “subversive” art is a way of ensuring that it ceases to exist. Without government subsidies, it will be unable to compete with art that is government-funded. It will be forced to cut costs (and staff) and/or to raise prices. Because most Israelis’ disposable income is lower than the OECD average, many will be unable to afford to go to the higher-costing theaters and galleries. This means that many of the institutions that don’t have government support will be unable to rely on ticket sales, and will be forced to close. This is not about the “freedom to choose” or the “marketplace of ideas”. Freedom to choose means putting art of all different political views on even footing, and letting people decide. It does not mean rigging the game so that it is much cheaper for people to see one type of art -if anything, doing so deprives people who don’t have a high salary of the right to choose to see “subversive” art.

Additionally, it’s important to keep in mind that not many democracies that begin talking about “subversive” art remain democracies.

As for the newspapers and TV news, although “Yisrael Hayom” is not directly government funded, it is funded by a supporter of the Netanyahu government – Sheldon Adelson. (Interestingly, the Israeli right, which is so concerned about foreign funding for left-wing organizations, seems relatively unconcerned about a right-wing Prime Minister and settlements getting funding from Americans.) If the allegations about Netanyahu are true, then he is cutting back-room deals with other papers as well, and already, any public body or media outlet that is too critical may risk being part of a smear campaign targeting it as “left-wing” and a “traitor”. Additionally, Netanyahu’s recent attempts to meddle with the Israeli Broadcasting Authority show that he is increasingly trying to control the television news as well.

Similarly, Haaretz and left-wing arts groups are increasingly in conversation with an echo chamber; when there are no moderates left in the room, the conversation is bound to get more extreme.

Dr. Martha C. Nussbuam, a Law and Ethics professor at the University of Chicago, praised the arts for allowing people to “see the insides of other people in a more generous and magnanimous way, that can transform all of your actions”.

But empathy is a threat to the current government. It’s strategy is based on making right-wing and centrist Israelis view everybody else as “the Other”.

Similarly, art is one of the key means of bridging between Israel and the world: Artists from Israel exhibit and perform abroad, and artists from around the world perform and exhibit in Israel. This allows for vibrant cultural exchanges and dialogue; many artist exchange programs are with European countries, providing a conduit for exposing Israel to Western values.

However, connections between Israel and the rest of the world are a threat to the government, because when Israelis feel connected to the rest of the world, they don’t feel isolated and afraid, and this government relies on fear to get votes. In fact, BDS is one of the greatest gifts to Netanyahu: All he has to do is yell “BDS”, and Israelis feel isolated and vulnerable, like the whole world is against them, and only Bibi the warrior can save them. The Western values* of democracy, tolerance, and freedom, are increasingly seen by the government as threats to Israel -that’s why they recently passed a Nation-State Law in order to officially make Israel’s Jewish nature legally superior to its democratic nature.

So make no mistake: Miri Regev’s bill is not just about government funding. It is about having a society with respect for freedom and dissent, or one that actively works against disturbances to the social order.

I know which society I’d rather be a part of.

* As extremism and anti-democratic movements gain momentum in many Western countries, can we still call these Western values?

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.