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What Did You Do in the Loyalty Oath War?

In defense of Mike Leigh and other boycotters

Liel Leibovitz
October 18, 2010
Mike Leigh.(Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)
Mike Leigh.(Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)

When famed British-Jewish filmmaker Mike Leigh canceled his visit to Israel this weekend in protest of the loyalty oath legislation and other “policies,” the consensus among the Jewish state’s cultural illuminati was that Leigh was punishing the wrong guys. “The students, teachers, artists and various professionals from these institutions who are waiting to hear you are not the elected government of Israel, nor are they responsible for its policies,” wrote the director of the Jerusalem film school where Leigh was supposed to speak. “By this boycott that you are effectively imposing in canceling the visit, you are creating an association between the cultural-artistic genre and the policies of the government and the military.”

As I’ll go on to explain, all that is debatable. But either way, Leigh is in fact sending exactly the right message to exactly the right audience.

It is hard to argue seriously that precisely such an association between Israel’s government and its artists doesn’t exist. In fact, the association is particularly strong in the movie industry, where the Israel Film Fund, established in 1979 by the Ministry of Education and Culture, has been a major backer of practically every major Israeli film produced in the last three decades.

Receiving government money doesn’t necessarily require or imply adopting the government line; some recent IFF-backed productions, most notably the Academy Award-nominated Ajami, have been openly critical of the Jewish state and its policies. But if the loyalty oath bill—the heinous legislation (heinous in my opinion, anyway; Tablet Magazine Mideast columnist Lee Smith would beg to differ), recently passed by the cabinet, that would require non-Jewish immigrants to pledge allegiance to a Jewish and democratic state—is any indication, Israel is well into the era of the ideological litmus test. Films are an obvious target: After Scandar Copti, Ajami’s Israeli-Arab co-director, stated that he did not feel like a representative of the State of Israel, some members of Knesset called on the government to change the criteria for awarding funding to artists. The National Union’s Michael Ben Ari captured the spirit most eloquently: “Support for a film should not be granted,” he said, “unless the editors, producers, directors, and actors sign a declaration of loyalty to the State of Israel, its symbols, and its Jewish-democratic values.” Anyone who thinks this is just empty political talk should again examine the rise of the loyalty oath from fringe idea to soon-to-be law.

Still, if Israel’s artists were affiliated with their government merely by merit of receiving public funds, then that would not be enough to indict them. It would be both silly and heartless to expect anyone to always place ideological purity above practical concerns.

However, my main argument against Israel’s directors and writers, its musicians and painters, and those patrons who support them, lies elsewhere. As a now-notorious Time cover story noted, the lion’s share of Israelis are deeply ensconced in a cocoon of comfort and apathy, going about their daily lives while largely ignoring the political realities thundering about them. Again, none but the most mindlessly dogmatic of demagogues would consider blaming normal people for wanting to lead normal lives. But Israelis—who have repeatedly proven themselves capable of terrific feats of willpower when the spirit moves them—must also learn to seriously contemplate the moral and practical implications of their government’s actions. This, of course, includes the artists.

All available evidence suggests that most Israelis are far from accepting this rudimentary civic responsibility. To cite just one baffling example: During August of 2006, 60 percent of Israelis expressed strong support for then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his military campaign against Lebanon; fewer than three weeks later, 68 percent replied that they were deeply unhappy with Olmert, suggesting that Israeli public opinion is unmoored, devoid of convictions, and ready to lend its support to whichever argument happens to sound more convincing at any given moment. The dramatic, and serial, rise-and-fall of powerful political parties over the last two decades—Tzomet, Shinui, the Retired People’s Party, and, to an extent, Kadima—speaks to the same sorry state.

Which brings us back to Mike Leigh. He—like the Pixies and Elvis Costello and numerous others who have recently canceled their visits to Israel—is telling those Israelis most likely to be critical of their government and its ruinous actions that meek protestation is no longer enough. If they want their society to be accepted for its robust democracy and its commitment to liberties, they must help it rid itself of loyalty oaths, a prolonged occupation, and other challenges to dignity and peace. In other words, if they want to be taken seriously, they must get serious.

Of course, Israelis, like people the world over, have the right to choose otherwise, to remain impassive as the Jewish and democratic state they’ve worked so hard to build betrays its most deeply held Jewish and democratic values. But if they do, they cannot expect to attract Mike Leigh or any other visitor of merit.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.