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.