The Ariel Cultural Center: a crucible for Israeli democracy

The following is a post I wrote originally for the Project Democracy blog – an ACRI initiative that aims to raise awareness of the threats posed by the current government and society to Israel’s democratic culture.

Back in 1941, shortly after the United States entered World War Two, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously articulated the Four Freedoms in his State of the Union address, as a means of describing the essential democratic values for which Americans were being asked to fight.

Roosevelt’s freedoms are:

1) Freedom of speech and expression

2) Freedom of worship

3) Freedom from want

4) Freedom from fear

Later, the iconic American artist Norman Rockwell painted a set of four illustrations for each of the four freedoms. They were published on four sequential covers of the Saturday Evening Post, with an accompanying essay to describe each of the freedoms. The US Treasury Department adopted Rockwell’s illustrations and used them to help raise money for war bonds. “Save freedom of speech: Buy war bonds!”

The Ariel Cultural Center: a crucible for Israeli democracy
Norman Rockwell's illustrations of President Roosevelt's Four Freedoms

The idea was that the United States was allied with Great Britain (and the Dominions) to defeat the totalitarian regimes of Germany, Italy and Japan, where the freedoms were denied.

In today’s Israel, which was founded as a democratic state, the government is supposed to protect the right to freedom of speech. Lately, however, it seems as though the government is doing its best to suppress freedom of speech. As Yuval Ben-Ami points out in his article, “My prime minister described me as a backstabber,” it is becoming increasingly unacceptable to express an opinion that deviates from the consensus. Ben-Ami points to Netanyahu’s description of the actors who chose to boycott the Ariel Cultural Center as backstabbers.

The Ariel Cultural Center, which Netanyahu boasted of helping to found, is in the largest Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. The actors who chose to boycott the center did so because they oppose the occupation. In response, the prime minister called them traitors and the minister of culture proposed to link government funding for the arts to a commitment from the artists to perform in the settlements. This, of course, means that the artists would effectively be prevented from exercising their democratic right to free speech , because all the theaters and filmmakers in Israel depend on at least some public funding – as they do in every western democracy.

As Yuval writes,

This is a sad time in the history of this country. In the eyes of its government and of many of its people, it is no longer legitimate to voice an opinion that differs from the mainstream one. The government-approved point of view is the only acceptable one and those who oppose it are traitors. I signed a petition in support of the boycotters and spoke at their rally. I’m a theatre critic. That is my day job. I could not allow these brave artists, who took a rare moral stand against the use of the arts in legitimizing illegal and destructive settlements go without support.

Shortly after World War Two, at the height of the Cold War and the Second Red Scare in the United States, Senator Joseph McCarthy fomented an atmosphere of fear by accusing thousands of prominent Americans of being disloyal citizens, Communists or Communist sympathizers. People like renowned folk singer Pete Seeger were blacklisted, meaning they could not perform or be interviewed on radio or television. They lost their jobs, went to jail and saw their careers destroyed after they were accused, often on little evidence or by means that were later ruled unconstitutional, of being associated with Communism. Thousands of others – most famously, people who were prominent in the arts – avoided expressing opinions that deviated from the McCarthyist norm, lest they see their own careers destroyed due to guilt by association. Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, ostensibly about the Salem witch trials, is an allegory to McCarthyism.

McCarthyism is in contemporary usage a term for unfounded accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence. It is a term that describes an atmosphere of self-censorship based on fear. In the United States, the McCarthy era is generally regarded as a shameful time in American history.

Somehow, we don’t seem to be feeling the shame yet in Israel.