Does Israel’s cultural life offer hope for its democracy?

Over at the Project Democracy blog, which I am writing for ACRI‘s democracy initiative, I responded to a post Mati Shemeolof wrote last week for +972 Magazine. Shemeolof describes his fellow bloggers’ gloom regarding the future of Israel’s democracy by putting forward the theory that the situation is not really all that bad.

In his response to statements made by Yossi Gurvitz and Dimi Reider to a visiting delegation of Rabbis for Human Rights from North America, Shemeolof  points out that Israel’s cultural life – particularly the leftist cultural life –  is flourishing. He offers examples such as ActiveStills, Guerilla Culture and Tell it Not in Gath: the influence of the Palestinian nakba on Hebrew poetry. These cultural initiatives, suggests Shemeolof, should be a source of optimism regarding the future of Israeli democracy.

Shemeolof writes:

It still a very important task to ask why the cultural scene is so far from the political solution and why politicians refrain from using the artistic visions. I think that a great deal of positive and rich art and culture flourish in Israel-Palestine, and we can use its pluralism and multiculturalism to gain hope for the active struggle against fascism.

Shemeolof is absolutely correct about Israel’s Tel Aviv-centered, flourishing cultural life. The vibrancy and variety of Tel Aviv’s offerings in the arts are astonishing – even compared to much larger cities in countries like the United States or Canada. Every day, the city bursts with life: there are  gallery openings, concerts, clubs hosting cutting edge independent music groups from Israel and from locations as diverse as Iceland and Nigeria. There are film screenings, fringe theater, and 12 mainstream theaters performing daily. There are few sacred cows in the largely leftist Israeli artistic milieu; in the Bubble, it is possible to question received narratives, and to live an openly bohemian lifestyle.Does Israel's cultural life offer hope for its democracy?

There is also a palpably feverish quality to the creativity in Tel Aviv. It reminds me of descriptions I’ve read of Weimar Berlin, which was also the artistic, scientific and financial capital of a new democracy that was threatened and buffeted by an environment of political extremism. Not to belabour the point or anything, but Weimar Berlin did not exactly make Germany more democratic. It was a feverish and brief explosion of artistic and scientific accomplishment that occurred between two episodes of total war, both ending in incomprehensible destruction.

In contemporary Tel Aviv one can attend plays and view films that question the most basic aspects of the liberal- Zionist narrative. One can view contemporary paintings by Palestinian artists. One can view photos shot by a  female Palestinian photojournalist from Gaza – who could not receive a permit to exit Gaza in order to attend the opening of the exhibition in Jaffa. One can read dystopian novels about Israeli society that are written in Hebrew by Palestinian-Arab-Israeli authors, and by Jewish-Israeli authors.

For many Israelis, the existence of this thriving, questioning cultural life is a source of  pride – even when they disagree, to the point of taking offense, with the messages presented by their artists. In some cases, Israel advocacy (hasbara) groups – even the foreign ministry, which is currently headed by Avigdor Lieberman – have used the Tel Aviv arts scene as a means of burnishing Israel’s image.

As if the fact that Israeli artists can still say or perform what they want, without fearing arrest – or worse – is something that a democratic society should boast about, instead of taking for granted.

Of course, the Israel advocacy activists do not mention that actors who announced their refusal to perform in West Bank settlements now face the threat of having their public funding cut off, or even of being fired for contract violation.

But most of the actors agreed to perform at the new cultural center in Ariel, the West Bank’s largest settlement, with only four maintaining their intent to boycott. The debut performance was sold out, too.

So, is the existence of a vibrant, critical cultural life an indicator of democratic values? Do artists have the power to rouse the masses and effect change?

Or are they just the minority one finds in every society – the iconoclasts that comment upon, criticize, document and reflect the society in which they live. That is the artists’ role, is it not?