Distance himself from the new Im Tirtzu (“If You Wish”) smear campaign waged against left-wing artists in Israel as he might, Netanyahu and his government are thoroughly complicit with the efforts to brand their political opponents and artists opposed to the status quo as traitors. The tactic is nothing new. It was developed and honed in the months leading up to the assassination of Prime-Minister Yitzhak Rabin in mass right-wing rallies—where Rabin was depicted with Hitler’s moustache and uniform—attended and addressed by Netanyahu. Then, there is the more recent government bill, demanding that the Israeli NGOs, recipients of funding from abroad, make a public declaration to that effect and face strict regulations as a result. Finally, a few days ago, the Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev tabled a proposal for a “Loyalty Bill” that would allocate government grants solely to artists supportive of the regime. So, aren’t there good reasons to be skeptical regarding Netanyahu’s comments that he does not view his political opponents as traitors?
In the mainstream media, the proposed Israeli legislation has been likened to the McCarthyist witch-hunts in the US of the 1950s. The terms of comparison are quite inevitable in light of the admiration the founder of Im Tirtzu has publically expressed for Senator McCarthy. But we need not travel so far in time to find alarming parallels. It is obvious that the Israeli right is emulating above all Putin’s Russia of the 2010s. Putin, too, considers the Liberal opposition to his “vertical of power” treacherous, and its representatives—the agents of the West, bent on destabilizing the country by undermining its social cohesion, of which he, presumably, is the only guarantor. He, too, has endorsed a law that potentially bans any organization relying on funding from abroad from operating on the territory of the Russian Federation. And he, too, has clamped down on renegade artists, especially in the wake of the international success of Andrey Zvyagintzev’s feature film The Leviathan (2014), partially funded from state coffers and highly critical of the reigning political and economic corruption.
The analogies between the measures being introduced in the two countries are not accidental. Former residents of Post-Soviet states, after all, comprise over twenty percent of Israel’s population. Likewise, the political objectives of Putin and Netanyahu dovetail: colonial expansion of the respective territories they govern is high on the agenda. Both leaders are obsessed with “internal enemies,” the critics whom they deem to be collaborators with the hostile outside forces. At any price, they strive to hold onto a nineteenth-century version of nationalism, outdated virtually everywhere else in the West and based on the construction of a homogeneous political entity.
Among all these similarities, however, we should not overlook some glaring differences to do with the divergent historical contexts of Putin’s and Netanyahu’s rule. The former is an inheritor of Soviet censorship, where the political repression of those artists who did not fall in line with the regime was rife. I am referring not only to the heyday of Stalinism but also to the so-called thaw of Khrushchev’s period, when Joseph Brodsky stood trial for “parasitism” and was condemned for hard labor in Siberia. Along with, before, and after Brodsky, who will later on go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, many other Jewish writers and artists suffered at the hands of political authorities they did not please. In Nazi Germany, for instance, Jewish art and thought were labeled degenerate as a stand-in for all the innovative, avant-garde trends of modernism.
In the face of the painful—indeed, tragic—historical experience of Jewish artists, their freedom within the State of Israel should have been sacrosanct. Similarly inviolable in the eyes of the state should have been the artistic freedom and freedom of thought of non-Jewish residents, given the clear resemblance between their position and that of countless diasporic Jews, practitioners of “the creative occupations.” Philosopher and cultural critic Theodor Adorno once said that “[t]o write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Perhaps. But I also have no doubt that more barbaric still is to persecute certain writers of poetry, novels, drama, music in the name of the state that has emerged “after Auschwitz.”