By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
If Miri Regev didn’t exist, Israel’s cultural elites would invent her. She is the culture minister of the Jewish state. Don’t let your stereotypes of the rich Jewish culture that existed in the diaspora fog your understanding of what this means. The very existence of a “culture minister” means that culture is nationalized, that it is under the shackles of the state and thus ossified and putrid.
Cultural flowering in history have never been tied to the state. They have only been tied to the circumstances provided by the state, often involving times of peace and prosperity, where private initiative of open minded individuals have led to investment in the arts. A large enough audience of upper and middle class consumers of culture have helped underpin these achievements.
We are reminded of the great and strange statue of “Appennino” (1579-1580), a colossal sculpture by Giambologna, located at an estate in Tuscany. When it was constructed it was at the time of the Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, but the reason for the construction of the estate, of all things, was to please his mistress. It is like the story of the Taj Mahal, that shining symbol of India, constructed for less than clear “cultural” reasons.
We can see the overall arch of the cultural void created later in the nation’s history because the estate was partially torn down in 1820. The great statue almost forgotten. And it isn’t the only example of culture thrown to the side. In many countries the modernist brutalist tendency of the 20th century sought to “rationalize” the human condition and in doing so destroyed the human soul through the populating of concrete edifices that might have been better suited to housing prisons. This was “culture” as well. The great culture of the state imposed values of concentration, rationalization and use of the “human material.”
Israel was built on such foundations. It was a Labor Zionist state, which means its underpinning was radical modernist socialism combined with ethno-centrism. It sought to rationalize the Jewish experience through the ingathering of the Jewish people into a national entity. One of the pre-state Zionist leaders, who played a major role in immigration and also settlement policy in Mandate Palestine, was Arthur Ruppin, who advised bringing only the best “menschenmaterial” to Palestine to feed the Zionist ethos. Early Zionism was infused with the nationalist ethos of Soviet-inspired culture of the “workers.” The workers were concentrated in settlement inspired by Walter Christaller’s “Central Place Theory,” the same disastrous settlement policies pursued in fascist Germany and Soviet Russia.
This was what constituted culture. “Culture for the national good.” Culture in the hands of the state. Culture funded only by the state to improve the national soul, to encourage people, like the culture on offer in Orwell’s 1984.
Over time what happened in Israel was that the cultural elites and the state entered into a ‘kulturkampf’, a struggle over who would hold the lever of cultural power. When there was a political revolution in 1977 the cultural elites rebelled. First of all their rebellion was based on simple self-interest. They were the beating heart of the official cultural line of the state. In the early state no non-national culture was tolerated. The country tried numerous times to ban such publications as HaOlam Hazeh, the dissident paper of Uri Avnery and Al-Ittihad, the newspaper of the Communist part. Even the Beatles were banned by the “progressives” in 1965 because in those days they were considered antithetical to the correct national morality.
So when we talk about “culture” in Israel we talk about a history of censorship. Those cultural elites in Israel today waging a Jihad against Miri Regev are the censors of old. They are direct ideological descendants of the commissars of culture that once reigned supreme. The culture war on offer is a struggle not between notions of freedom of expression but between two competing forces that believe in two competing national cultures.
There is no culture in Israel. That is the fact of the matter. Israel’s national culture and its cultural elites have deracinated, denuded, diluted, deconstructed, destroyed, disassembled, and thrown to the winds the rich cultural heritage of the Jewish people. There is more culture in one square foot of Gaudi’s Park Güell, one sonnet of Shakespeare, one etching of Goya, one tapestry of a ketubah from Jewish Persia, than there is in all the cultural figures today in Israel who are up in arms.
Israel’s cultural elites are not cultured. They have more in common with Andrei Zhdanov than they do Kahlil Gibran. Theirs is a war for the soul of Israel, primarily a war for the forced production of culture that their colleagues, nepotistic families and small circle wants to hold the chains of so as to shackle the people to one consistent cultural ethos of domination. Domination because this world of Israeli cultural elitism is primarily a closed circle. Diversity is almost non-existent. It is not open to the poorer classes of strivers, the weaker members of society, those from what they disdainfully call “the periphery.” It produces the same kinds of movies over and over, from ‘Beaufort’ to ‘Waltz with Bashir’ to ‘Lebanon.’ Who among the poets is not primarily known for writing about “peace”? It is one massive cultural void, not a culture of diversity, color and beauty. It is a negative culture of negative views. It is involved in its own national struggle for the re-conquest of the state from those it views as “beasts” or “kissers of mezuzah,” as Oded Kotler or Yair Garbuz have intoned. It is the cultural elite of “Israel Prize Winners” who on a regular basis say the most racist things against people of color.
Remember “cultural” figure Natan Zach who said in 2010 on radio: “The idea of taking people who have nothing in common arose. The one lot comes from the highest culture there is – Western European culture – and the other lot comes from the caves.” Another prize winner called Israelis a “mob of primitives and monkeys.”
The uncultured contempt and hatred on display for the mainstream Israeli society by the cultured elites is part of the production of the racist manifesto of Arthur Ruppin Zionism. Because culture was tied up with nationalism, when the nation had a democratic revolution, the cultural figured, tethered at they were completely to one political party and one ideology, saw the majority of Israel as “beasts”, “primitives”, “monkeys” and other derogatory terms. These terms had been bandied about on the kibbutzim and the kitchens and cocktail parties for years, but they became more ingrained the more threatened the minority felt. Surely the way they feel is the way the official poets and filmmakers of Eastern Europe felt during the revolutions of 1989, as their social experiment fell around them, they had anger for the masses overthrowing their system of patronage.
But don’t mistake official court poets and filmmakers with culture. The culture of China or Iran under the regime is heavily managed. The culture produced in Israel, managed as it was in the early decades of the state, never escaped those shackles. The harm done to the immigrant cultures and the rich Jewish experience of the diaspora was complete because of the mass soulless housing projects and impoverishment visited on the new migrants. Can Ethiopian Jews, Yemenite Jews or other salvage the cultures ripped from them by the state which sought that they become “human material” in factories, rather than an indigenous culture of diversity? How can the Jewish contribution to philosophy and other things in Europe exist in a state that demanded Jewish loyalty to one system and the sacrifice of the individual for Zionism? How can anyone born in places deprived of funding and education in the periphery hope to create culture, when they are officially kept from it by acceptance committees and race-based planning regimes? The concept of cultural elites was imposed from the beginning so that there would only be official culture from official places. Schools for culture, army units for culture, all of it was put in place to create a strata of cultured official society. Can you go to a film school if you come from a certain place in Israel? Why are almost all the “cultural prizes” only for people from one narrow segment of Ashkenazi society? Remember the struggles of those like Sasson Somekh and Nissim Rejwan in Israel, coming from Iraq where they had a rich culture to Israel in the 1950s where they were told they were primitive, kept in barbed wire camps and told their place was to do construction work?
No one wants to talk about that, but the mission of official culture in the 1950s was the total destruction of any culture that was not official. Iraqi Jewish culture had to go, Egyptian Jewish culture, every Jewish culture that was not part of the narrow ethos. The concept of “freedom of speech” never existed. Now the cultural figures speak about “freedom of expression,” but what they don’t tell the public is that what the public truly demands is freedom from expression. The tethering of the cultural sphere to the nation, to the state, to the government budget, created a devil’s embrace, whereby to remove any of that support “threatens” freedom of expression. But there was never freedom of expression, precisely because of the constrains and shackles placed on culture.
Could it be said that the creation of Israel and the tragic imposition of national culture on the Jewish ingathering created one of the greatest reductions in Jewish cultural productivity ever? The fact is that this was one of the by-products, intentional and also unintentional of the 1950s. It has a lasting legacy today in the insular and weak nature of the cultural scene in Israel. In a more diverse, wealthy and rich culture one Miri Regev would mean nothing to the robust nature of the culture. Does anyone think that one government official sent to oversee culture in Florence of the Medici would had an impact on the cultural production there? No, because even the most inane things like building a house for a mistress involved massive cultural production. But in Israel, so narrow and weak is the cultural sphere that the threats of one government official to one theatre is a cause for mass chaos.
Israel’s culture cannot be salvaged because it has such a paucity of cultural figures and a paucity of places to allow the freedom for the production of culture. It has deracinated millions of Jewish people from the ability to be creative by putting them in concrete boxes in “development towns.” It has dismissed as “primitive” the brilliant legacy of 2,000 years of Jewish diaspora. If all the cultural elites of Israel produced nothing for a year people would pay little attention. They call the masses “beasts” and “kissers of amulets,” but it is not because the masses of the people are bad, it is because the masses were told generation, after generation, that they are not cultured and can play no role in culture. In a cultured society the people have a free market of culture and prosperity and experimentation leads to a flowering of culture. In an uncultured society a narrow group forces culture on the masses who reject it because they know in their hearts it is shallow and false.
Rather than accept the binary debate between Regev and the old elites, Israel should call their bluff and demand to move on from the old cultural failure and find a new birth of culture. This article has not mentioned Arab culture much, but Arab culture, mostly discriminated against and shunted to the side, is also part of the future of Israeli culture. It too has been shackled by the failed state policies. It too demands a flowering. Escaping the shackles of the state’s role in culture and the old elites demand to control culture, is the only way Israel can free itself from 6 decades in the cultural swamps.