Cultural boycott? It’s already happening in Israel

Posted: January 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: culture, In the News, media | Tags: , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

The only democracy in the Middle East is getting a little less democratic by the day

I’m traveling abroad (currently in San Francisco), and so far I didn’t have much time to catch up with the local news; that’s the reason I haven’t been blogging for more than week. However, there is one recent affair I want to comment about – that of the Israeli film Lipstikka.

Lipstikka was originally planned to deal with director Jonathan Segal’s mother’s experience in the Holocaust.  Later on Segal decided to move the plot to Ramallah, and to tell the story of two girls struggling to end the Israeli occupation. Like almost all Israeli films, Segal received financial support for his film from the Israeli Film Fund (IFF).

Last Friday, Israel’s most popular columnist – and channel 2 anchorman – Yair Lapid of Yedioth Ahronoth, quoted on his weekly column a passage from a pre-production brochure advertising Lipstikka, which compared Israeli occupation to the Nazism. As a result, Minister of Culture and Sports Limor Livnat (Likud) contacted the IFF, which immediately decided to freeze all support for Lipstikka. Director Segal claimed later that the brochure was written by a British PR woman who was sacked from the production two years ago – and that Lapid never contacted him to get his comment on the issue – but at this point, nobody really cared to listen.

Basically, what the IFF and the Minister for Culture did was little more than censorship. It is important to understand that it’s almost impossible to produce a film in Israel without the IFF’s help. Allocating funds according to the political message of films means that from now on only certain views would be allowed to be shown.


Israel never misses an opportunity to remind the world that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. To me, this has always been an empty argument (because even a democracy can’t decide to withhold all civil rights from millions of people – who get nothing to say about this – as Israel is doing for more four decades), but it sounds today more hollow than ever. Israel is getting less democratic by the way. Examples are easy to come up with – from the arrest of the head of the Association for Civil Rights during a protest in Jerusalem, to the deportation of “pro-Palestinian” journalists. However, let’s stick to cultural affairs in this post.

Last year, the most important literary prize in Israel – the Sapir Prize – was striped from author Alon Hilu, which was even forced to give back the money that came with the prize. The official reason referred to some irregularities in the process of selecting Hilo as the winner, but throughout the public debate on the matter, it seemed that the main problem was that Hilu’s House of Dajani was, as the tabloids kept reminding their readers, “a post-Zionist novel”.

Most Israelis don’t view both cases – Lipstikka and House of Dajani – as censorship. They simply say that the state of Israel shouldn’t support those who are publicly criticizing it. But these are no more than technicalities. The issue at hand is the growing involvement of politicians and bureaucrats, under the influence of pundits and tabloid journalists, in cultural works. There is an ongoing effort in Israel to portray some views and acts – mostly those involving harsh criticism of the occupation and questioning Zionism altogether – as illegitimate. It can happen through legislation – such as the ban on teaching the Nakba – and it can happen in a ways of withholding support from films and books. In both cases, it won’t end here. Many people are already demanding to stop funding Israeli universities who teach “anti-Zionist” courses.

Censorship is a double edge sword. The next time Israelis would cry that boycotting our films or our universities is an act against freedom of speech which would even hurt the peace effort – since most criticism for the occupation comes from the cultural elite – they should be reminded of Lipstikka.

12 Comments on “Cultural boycott? It’s already happening in Israel”

  1. 1 Aviv said at 1:16 pm on January 27th, 2010:

    Free speech is a right. Getting subsidized by the state to produce movies is a privilege, not a right, no matter how you look at it.

    “from now on only certain views would be allowed to be shown” – Why should public money be invested in all views? Should the state subsidize a film saying that all people whose names start with N are evil? It’s an opinion that exists and it should be allowed to be expressed.

  2. 2 Aviv said at 1:19 pm on January 27th, 2010:

    Lapid should have contacted the director for comment. That the PR lady was sacked is of no consequence, the production should be held responsible for all marketing material. And he doesn’t deny that the movie equates Israel with Nazi Germany, so what’s the big deal.

  3. 3 noam said at 11:11 pm on January 27th, 2010:

    Aviv – If you think public money should be put into films it’s one thing (you might think it’s a wrong idea to begin with, but that’s a different argument). It turns into something very different when it’s the politicians who say who the money should go to. And note that this happened after the film was approved by the IFF. In that case it was better not to subsidize films at all. The same goes for the Sapir Prize.

    If a film about people with names starting with N is interesting or funny or thought provoking – than yes, I would invest in it, and have the result judged by the public. After all, culture is interesting when it goes far above and beyond the political consensus or the criminal law.

    You are right though in saying that everything on the film – even the PR’s work – is the producer’s and director’s responsibility. I only mentioned this point because I think Lapid did an unethical move when he didn’t even bother to call the person he was writing about.

  4. 4 Goy said at 2:15 am on January 28th, 2010:

    You may be seeing Reds under the bed here, at least as far as Ahuzat Dajani is concerned. It may very well be that there was a significant discomfort quotient prompted by the subject matter; it is also correct that the withdrawal of the prize was handled shoddily.

    But there isn’t any empirical evidence to suggest that it happened for anything other than the reason cited – an undeclared conflict of interest on the part of Yossi Sarid and Ariel Hirschfield. And, of course, it is worth remembering that the Prize wasn’t subsequently awarded to any of the other finalists; it was cancelled altogether.

    The censorship theory is seductive, but unproven, and I think it is fairer to give benefit of the doubt than to construct an argument that cannot be proven conclusively.

    BTW, the book is excellent, as I am sure you already know…

  5. 5 daria said at 6:27 am on January 28th, 2010:

    Aviv – in a civilized, democratic country, films getting subsidized is in fact a right rather than a privilege. Even more so, it is in the country’s interest to promote cultural creation.

    It is true that the identity of the subsidized films should be decided by the country, but this decision must be based on artistic standards not political – assuming you do want to be a democracy.

    You can claim Israel to be under marshal law, then the rules may be different and you may choose between the creation of propaganda, or rather entertainment to numb the masses.

    I agree with the Noam, and felt this especially yesterday, during the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Bibi’s attempt to make it about Iran, and turn every criticism on Israel to Antisemitism.

    This is ridiculous, and obviously a strong democracy is measured by its ability to allow and sustain political criticism.

    Censorship always indicates the opposite of democracy, and it is no coincidence that it was used through out history by totalitarian regimes.

  6. 6 noam said at 8:17 am on January 28th, 2010:

    Goy: as it was noted in the time, such conflicts of interests exist all the time when it comes to the small literary world in Israel, yet Hilu was the only writer ever to be asked to give the prize money back. This is an important point – nobody thought that Hilu used his editor’s link to Sarid to affect the decision, but the prize was taken from him (than some of it returned). All this, I think, can be explained by the politics of book.

    Regarding Lipstikka, nobody denies that politics is the issue here.

  7. 7 Aviv said at 12:57 am on January 29th, 2010:

    “it is in the country’s interest to promote cultural creation.” – This is true, but not everyone gets to create art on the taxpayer’s dole. It would still be a civilized, democratic country if nobody got paid to create art.

  8. 8 noam said at 7:20 am on January 29th, 2010:

    Aviv – Yes it would be still a democracy without supporting the arts with taxpayer’s money, but once you decide that support is needed, it becomes the main and sometimes only way to do things – and then you can’t start allocating the funds based on the politics of authors and directors.

    Don’t you see the problem when a government minister can make a phone call and withdraw money from a film already in production? Considering the consequences for the director and the producer of the film, nobody is likely to take this risk again.

  9. 9 lisoosh said at 8:30 pm on January 29th, 2010:

    Art that only conforms to the ideology of the current government is no longer art, it is propaganda.

  10. 10 dawn said at 4:19 am on January 31st, 2010:

    I’m sure that Mr sagall was hoping to have his film shown in festivals such as sundance, Cannes and the Toronto film festival and to get pats on the back from the Danny Glover and Jane Fonda crowd. Maybe he still will but NOT at the Israeli’s taxpayers expense. The original true story of his grandmothers own holocaust experience would have made an excellent movie, but sagall needed the fame so he changed the story for a something more controversial. Something that would put him in the spotlight. Well he certainly got controversy.

  11. 11 Jewish Jihad said at 1:34 am on February 1st, 2010:

    More proof that Israel is an Apartheid state. So much propaganda and racism. It is looking like a young Nasi/Nazi nation. This is the beginning of the end of Israel.

  12. 12 Michael LeFavour said at 5:20 pm on February 1st, 2010:

    “More proof that Israel is an Apartheid state. So much propaganda and racism. It is looking like a young Nasi/Nazi nation. This is the beginning of the end of Israel.”

    More proof that Noam’s writings attract some really ignorant Jew haters.