Sunday, June 27, 2004

A cultural dictatorship*
One morning, in the early days of April 2002 I think it was, I turned on the radio as I always did and tuned in to the Voice of Music’s morning concert. The Voice of Music is a classical music radio station belonging to Kol Yisrael, the Voice of Israel, Israel’s state radio service.

It was a difficult time. People were being killed daily en masse on buses and in crowded public places. Sending the girls off to school every day made me feel like a negligent mother. Finally, after months and months of restraint, we were just beginning to strike back in an attempt to bring back some sense of security to our beleaguered streets. Our soldiers were in the West Bank cities, endangering their lives to protect us by going from house to booby-trapped house, rooting out terrorists. And our hearts were there with them.

Listening to the Voice of Music had always had a calming effect on me. Every Friday, I would tear out the week’s music schedule from Haaretz’s weekend supplement and take it with me to work, where I would mark my favorites and make an effort to tune in at the appropriate times. Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, I’m no highbrow and not very knowledgeable, but I know what I enjoy.

And this morning was no different, except that someone had slipped in something that didn’t seem to be on the schedule, a piece called “War – there is no logic in it”, or something on those lines. I can’t remember who the composer was and it didn’t really matter to me much. What mattered to me was that someone was hijacking a state radio station to make his or her private political statement, which was in direct opposition to government policy. Under the circumstances, I was very upset. I felt betrayed.

I didn’t hear the piece. In fact, I was so dismayed that I switched station, and didn’t tune into the Voice of Music again for about a year and a half. I still don’t listen to it very often.

This was just one moment of awareness. I have gradually become more and more sensitized to the fact that certain political viewpoints dominate many aspects of public life in Israel, often in contradiction not only with government policy, that’s freedom of speech after all, but also with the facts or with common sense, while other political viewpoints, just as interesting, just as worthy, just as intelligent, and sometimes far more sensible and coherent, are completely ignored, as if they didn’t exist.

On the Head Heeb’s comments, Danny said, for instance, that, “What makes (Rotblit’s) song even more childish is the fact that the Israeli Left is not even in power”. But there are no democratic elections in Kol Yisrael’s music stations or in the state prosecution or in the media.

Maybe Diane was right after all. Maybe I didn’t move left in my early twenties because it pained me to see a twelve year old Palestinian boy washing the floor of a Tel Aviv restaurant at one o’clock at night, or an old woman making her way slowly with her sacks and her donkey along the sandy road to Han Younis, occasionally looking up at the sparkling white villas in the settlement on the hill. Maybe I never really believed that the Palestinians deserved a state of their own alongside ours, or that we would all be better off as a result.

Maybe all I wanted was to belong, just a lonely immigrant child trying desperately to fit in, by holding the right beliefs, by thinking the right thoughts. Maybe I was intimidated by the ever-powerful cultural elite that continues to high-handedly dictate the appropriate views and opinions in this country, and nonchalantly brands the renegades ignorant, dangerous, primitive, childish, irresponsible, inept, morally corrupt, mentally ill, or just plain stupid, even if they have been democratically elected, by an unmistakably large majority of the people, to rule the country.

I’m not trying to say that the semi-official opinions propagated by Israel’s cultural dictatorship are necessarily wrong. They are often wise, noble, and wonderful. But it is wrong to shut out other voices. It is wrong to ridicule and belittle what anyone else has to say, even if one disagrees vehemently. It is wrong to illegitimize those who dare swim against the prevailing cultural current, by claiming they have ulterior motives.

Once one becomes aware that this is happening, one cannot help but see it manifesting everywhere one looks. And one cannot help but begin questioning the wisdom of the very opinions and views that must be forcefully upheld in this fashion.

The Israeli right has been shouting this for ever and I personally always thought it a ridiculous claim. I have only in recent years begun to be able to see what they were talking about. No wonder so many people holding alternative opinions in this country feel so alienated and detest anything that sounds or smells remotely ‘smollanee’ (lefty), even the really good stuff. We all ultimately lose.

* The idea of calling it a cultural dictatorship is Bish’s.