By Merav Levkowitz
A number of Israeli artists have signed a letter proposing to boycott a cultural center set to open shortly in Ariel, a Jewish settlement beyond the Green Line. The boycott has sparked much controversy among the artist community and in Knesset. Some Knesset members have expressed disappointment with these Israeli artists who have received government funding and have used their public platform to criticize and, in some cases, de-legitimize Israel. Members like Yariv Levin and Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat have recommended that restrictions be extended to government-funded artists and cultural institutions.
This tense situation brings forth a variety of important issues. On one hand, the outrage of some Knesset members towards these government-funded artists makes perfect sense. A venture capitalist who supports a fledging start-up would not be pleased to find the start-up defaming him publicly. Likewise, Israeli taxpayers have a right to express concern about where their funding goes and to disapprove supporting bodies that criticize or even threaten them. Ironically, the residents of Ariel themselves pay the taxes that support many of the artists boycotting their cultural center and the settlement itself. As Knesset member Otniel Schneller stated, “The artists’ apartheid letter, which boycotts Israeli citizens, not only does not promote national willingness to achieve peace, but also pushes it away. Ariel, as a settlement bloc, will be included in any peace agreement within the borders of the state. Every big party leader must stress to artists who receive the Israel Prize [a government-awarded prize for excellence in four different fields] where the peaceful borders of the State of Israel are to pass.”
On the other hand, the fact that government-funded artists are free to do as they please with their sponsorship is a sign that Israel remains a vibrant democracy. Diverse opinions among citizens and the freedom to express them distinguish Israel from many of her neighbors. Tighter restrictions on artists and cultural institutions could challenge some of this openness. Furthermore, such constraints risk narrowing Israel’s vibrant public art scene. While denying artists funding does not stop them from creating art in protest of the country—and may even encourage them to further do so—it can impede them. In so doing, it limits the creative face Israel shows to the world, exposing only a small part of its diverse mosaic, its beliefs and expressions.
This controversy is not limited to the world of art, but rather can be extended to any government-sponsored public figures and images. It seems reasonable for sponsors to demand certain criteria of those they support, but it is difficult to know where to draw the line on such criteria. Politically motivated restrictions risk stifling art and even the democratic freedom Israel prides itself on.