An anti-government protestor in Tel Aviv (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

April 4, 2024   5 mins

In the city of Haifa, in northwest Israel, the sounds of Arabic, Hebrew and Russian chatter fill the streets. In the Arab-Christian neighbourhood of Wadi Nisnas lies Beit Hagefen, an Arab-Jewish cultural centre set in gleaming white stone. For 60 years, its aim has been to promote tolerance between Jews and Arabs — until last month, when one of their events was postponed and then cancelled following a recommendation from the city’s legal advisor, Yamit Klein.

The event in question was a book launch for the Hebrew translation of Apeirogon, a novel by Irish author Colum McCann that tells the story of two grieving fathers, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, who are united by the death of their daughters. The event was supported by the Parents Circle-Families Forum, a joint Palestinian-Israeli group of families who have lost relatives in the conflict.

But the launch would never take place. The official reasons for its cancellation were concerns about its “commercial aspects on municipal premises” and the potential distress it could cause to those affected by past violence — with references made to objections from families of terror attack victims. However, the move has also been interpreted as an attack on democratic principles and freedom of speech. In the eyes of many liberal Israelis, it is part of a broader, two-decade-long campaign led by Benjamin Netanyahu to suppress collaborative efforts between Israelis and Palestinians.

Such tactics aren’t confined to Netanyahu, however. The Israeli government has a long history of censorship: in 1970, for instance, the national unity government threatened to withdraw funding from the Cameri Theatre over Hanoch Levin’s play The Queen of the Bathtub. Often regarded as the most contentious theatrical work in Israel, Levin employed musical satire to critique what he saw as the nation’s militaristic tendencies, self-righteousness and racial prejudices following the triumph in the 1967 conflict. The play was stopped in 1970 after merely 19 shows, following a bomb threat at the Cameri Theatre, actors being pelted with stones in Jerusalem, and accusations branding Levin as a traitor to Israel.

But since then, Netanyahu has turned cultural censorship into an art form, encouraging journalists, politicians and charity workers to actively attack, censor and suppress any Left-wing efforts to cultivate a shared Jewish-Palestinian culture. This includes any initiatives that criticise or acknowledge the oppression or unequal treatment of Palestinians, or which hint at contentious events surrounding the nation’s birth.

“Netanyahu has turned cultural censorship into an art form.”

His efforts have paid off. This strategic reshaping of Israel’s cultural landscape has weakened the Israeli Left by silencing any talk of the occupation, Palestinian self-determination or Israel’s Zionist ethos. And it hasn’t been difficult: in Israel, much of the cultural sector — including theatre, music, and art — is funded by taxes and therefore subject to oversight by the Knesset and the government. In 2023, for instance, Netanyahu’s culture minister, Miki Zohar, took issue with H2: Control Laboratory, a documentary about Israeli settlers’ occupation of Hebron. He ordered a retrospective examination of the film’s budget, arguing that “works that harm the state will not be funded”. That same year, Zohar also threatened to withdraw the budget from the film Two Kids a Day, about the arrest of Palestinian minors, while a performance by a 13-year-old was cancelled for fear of offending the ultra-Orthodox.

And that’s not all. In 2015, the Ministry of Education disqualified a book for school study because it describes a romance between a Jewish woman and an Arab; in 2017, the Acre Fringe Theater Festival barred a play about Palestinian prisoners, leading to a boycott by eight theatre groups; in 2022, a police officer went on stage during a performance by Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar and ordered him to stop singing songs “against the police that incite against Israel”.

This is the core of the Netanyahu doctrine: any work of art that reflects on the shared grief of Israelis and Palestinians, or that challenges the official government narrative in any way, cannot be allowed to stand. The greatest champion of this effort is Miri Regev, who, as the Minister of Culture and Sport from 2015 to 2020, was notorious for her aggressive approach towards what she deemed as the cultural elite of Israel, referring to them as a “cultural junta”. (She once boasted: “I am proud of having never read Chekhov.”) And while her stated aim was to correct a historic cultural imbalance that has marginalised Mizrahi and other non-European Jewish traditions in favour of Ashkenazi norms, in reality, her tenure was marked by a number of campaigns against Leftists, Palestinians and secularists. In 2019, for instance, she allocated 8 million shekels (ÂŁ1.7 million) for films promoting settler life.

Arguably, Regev has done more than anyone else to stifle free speech in the Israeli arts. In 2018, she championed the “Loyalty in Culture” law, which allows the Ministry of Culture to reduce or refuse funding to cultural institutions that are perceived to deny the Jewish and democratic nature of the State of Israel; incite racism, violence, or terrorism; commemorate Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning; or desecrate the state’s flag or national symbols. With this law, Right-wing politicians can strangle pretty much any cultural movement they deem ideologically treacherous.

And for those they don’t tackle, there are plenty of other Israeli groups lining up to enforce Bibi’s doctrine. One of these is Im Tirtzu, founded by Right-wing activist Erez Tadmor, who has a criminal record for stealing military equipment. In 2016, Im Tirtzu launched its “Shtulim” (“moles”) campaign, which implicated well-known human rights advocates, artists and writers in terrorist activities, effectively branding them as traitors to Israel. Tadmor went on to serve as an advisor for the Likud Party under Netanyahu in 2019. Another organisation is Betzalmo, founded by ultranationalist Shamai Glick. Despite presenting himself as a human rights advocate, Glick uses legal intimidation and political pressure to cancel or disrupt Left-wing events run by “the enemy”.

Unsurprisingly, since October 7, many of these organisations have increased their crackdowns on artists and writers demonstrating against the war, especially those from the Arab community. Elsewhere, liberal academics have been suspended and social media influencers persecuted. There is a growing sense among Israel’s cultural figures that any anti-war expression will be punished.

Israel thus risks facing a fate worse than state censorship — and that’s a culture of self-censorship, which will render a shared Israeli-Palestinian narrative not just improbable, but unattainable. Terrified of losing out on public funding, or provoking a public backlash, Left-wing cultural figures are already tiptoeing around certain political subjects. Yet pandering to the government can create other problems, as Left-wing groups such as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) will boycott any cultural institution associated with Netanyahu. As a result, even artists who critique his policies, but rely on government support, may be vulnerable to boycotts themselves.

Faced with this hostile climate, the path of least resistance is usually to stay silent. Already in 2019, a study by Professor Dana Arieli revealed that self-censorship among Israeli artists and curators had significantly increased: in 2005, fewer than 10% reported experiencing censorship, but by 2019, their number had risen to more than 50%. Even before October 7, then, an ominous hush was descending upon Israel’s theatres. Over the past six months, it has only grown more pronounced: a deafening silence of acquiescence, as poets and thespians lay down their scripts and pens in despair.

Etan Nechin is a New-York based contributing writer for Haaretz.