JENNI FRAZER: Censor and sensibility: the fight for the future of Israeli free speech

JENNI FRAZER: Censor and sensibility: the fight for the future of Israeli free speech

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Jenni Frazer
Jenni Frazer

By Jenni Frazer

Jenni Frazer
Jenni Frazer

Like an endlessly weeping wound, the issue of boycott and delegitimisation of Israel continues to trouble all those who care about the Jewish state.
At last month’s Israel strategy conference, a project of the Jewish News, it was all many speakers could talk about.
Cynics might usefully observe that if only Israel had taken BDS more seriously long ago, instead of ignoring the increasingly desperate cries of the diaspora, then it might not be such an international phenomenon. As it is, of course…
Boycott and its attendant moral choices were brought to mind this week when reading of two typically opposing Israeli stories. One should trouble us and the other should cheer us.

Miri Regev
Miri Regev

It does seem to me, sometimes, that those who shout loudest about boycott are those who don’t hesitate to impose it themselves. And so, sadly, it has proved to be in the case of Israel’s new minister of culture, Miri Regev.

Ironically Miri Regev was once the country’s chief military censor, so she ought to have a good idea of what can and what cannot be said in a democratic state.

Instead Regev has attracted jeers and opprobrium, after she announced a policy of withdrawing funding from those arts endeavours of which she and the rest of the hard-right government disapprove. 
Israeli newspapers now routinely speak of a “culture war” between the minister and the arts community. Ms Regev has fanned the flames of this “war” by going on television and accusing the artists and performers of being “tight-assed hypocrites” when they objected to her policy.
So far she has said she would cut government funding to those who harmed the army or contributed to the “defamation” of Israel. She followed this with a toxic mix of threats and actions. She threatened to pull funds from an Arab-Jewish children’s theatre after its founder, Arab-Israeli actor Norman Issa, refused to perform with the Haifa Theatre at a West Bank settlement.

Last month she cut funding to the al-Midan Theatre, whose play, Parallel Time, follows the prison life of a Palestinian who killed an Israeli.
Perhaps these actions could be dismissed as peripheral. But then, somewhat shockingly, the Jerusalem International Film Festival dropped a film about Yigal Amir, who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, after Miri Regev threatened to withdraw funding. It will be shown, but not within the festival.
More than 3,000 Israeli artists have now signed a petition against Ms Regev’s policies. But this is beginning to smack of Stalinism. She told her TV interviewer that a leading actor had asked her to explain what was permissible and what was not in order that he could complete a screenplay. She replied: “Within a month you will know exactly what is permitted and what is prohibited.”
So far, so depressing. But just as I was wondering how far down this tunnel of darkness Miri Regev was prepared to drag Israel, came more cheering news. It is the release of a documentary called, pleasingly, Censored Voices, which takes the viewer back to the immediate aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War. I am told by a friend who has seen it that it does not make for comfortable viewing, but we are grown-ups and do not live in fairyland and must learn to deal with harsh truths.
Weeks after the war, the novelist Amos Oz and his fellow kibbutznik Avraham Shapira borrowed a reel-to-reel tape recorder and interviewed as many soldiers as they could.

To the outside world the young men were heroes; privately many of them were deeply unhappy with their actions, and told Oz and Shapira so. The pair tried to publish the material in 1967 but about 70 percent of it was censored. The remaining 30 percent was published in Shapira’s book, The Seventh Day: Soldiers’ Talk about the Six-Day War.

Last year, director Mor Loushy and producer Hilla Medalia persuaded Shapira to give them access to the tapes. The documentary combines archive footage and news accounts with the original tapes and new, contemporary interviews with the surviving soldiers of the Six Day War. 
It has been screened at a variety of prestigious international film festivals, from Sundance to Florence to Toronto, and has received a rapturous response: and, I learned this week, the BBC plans to show it on TV in the UK in October. And all of the hurt and the moral ambivalence was, yes, passed this time by the Israeli censor.
At the end of the film, Amos Oz, now 78, is asked what he thinks of the tapes. “I feel we spoke truth,” he replies. 
I hope Miri Regev is paying attention.

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