This is a letter I received from the management of an Israeli festival scheduled to happen sometime next year, somewhere in the world.
I wanted to get in touch with you to ensure that you are happy with your involvement and all that we have discussed and outlined for it.
We would like you to play a very significant role with your participation in 3 of the events within our program and wanted to ensure that we are on the same page with the content you will be providing as well as the wider context of the festival.
We wanted to stress to you that the (Festival's name) festival is focused solely on celebrating culture, tolerance, diversity and all of the fields such as food, art, music and fashion that Israel can offer to the (Name of city) public. Showcasing the finest of Tel-Aviv and tapping into an atmosphere of unity, togetherness and multiculturalism, along with a platform that looks to connect and bring people together, are the values upon which the festival was created and organized. I have emphasized to many of the participants in the festival that we will be giving the (Name of city) public a feel of Tel-Aviv with the exemption of anything to do with Israeli politics.
Our aim is to spread only positivity and utilize this festival as an opportunity to bring people together and celebrate the culture proudly.
For these reasons, I wanted to ensure that you understand all of the above and that we are on the same page with regards to all of the aspects of the Festival. We are delighted to have you on board and are confident that you will enhance the program and help spread our message and fulfill our values with all of our endeavors in the festival.”
I do not wish to disclose this certain festival’s details, because I am still in the midst of the debate with them, clarifications are being made, and results are yet to come, but also, because this letter is merely an example for a far more serious and wide spread phenomena. You see, within, and between, these lines, that were written in a very “nice” tone, by a very lovely person, lies the ugly face of a hideous monster: Censorship.
Let's run through it again: The festival wants to “ensure that we are on the same page” with the content I will be providing. So badly did they want to ensure this, that they needed me to write back confirming this text, which does not demand, but only implies that I (as part of the festival) will only be dealing with the specific fields of “culture, tolerance, diversity, and all of the fields such as food, art, music and fashion”, and in accordance to the festival's guidelines should advocate “unity, togetherness and multiculturalism” and “spread only positivity”.
The festival managers could have stopped here, and the letter could have been interpreted as somewhat of a guideline, but they did not. "I have emphasised to many of the participants in the festival (Why not ALL if you're at it?) that the festival will be giving a feel of Tel-Aviv with the exemption of anything to do with Israeli politics”.
And yet again, they could have put a full stop here, and could have claimed later this is only the festival's declaration of intent and does not oblige anyone. But no, the festival manager felt the urging need to ensure that I “understand all of the above” and to repeat the emphasis of us being “on the same page” for a second time, just in case I did not get it the first time.
Well, I DO understand all of the above, I understand it too well, and that is why I know for certain we are NOT on the same page.
Dear festival managers, after reading your letter, I was deeply troubled.
Although you say you are delighted to have me on board, maybe you have not thought this through, and maybe you do not want me at your festival after all. Because, you see, I am that kind of person whom when talking of diversity, will surely mention inequality! And when dwelling on tolerance, will not be able to ignore the increasing intolerance! When praising multiculturalism, you can be damn sure I will also be describing the ways in which one culture can feel superior to another. And sure, I do LOVE Tel-Aviv, and would love to showcase its’ good sides! But I’m not the person who can do that while ignoring the less wonderful sides of this city: The fact that it is a secular cosmopolitan bubble in what is becoming a religious extreme right-wing country. The troubling socio-economic gaps between rich and, well, the rest of us. And what about the African refugee camp in the south of Tel-Aviv? What about the gentrification of Jaffa? Are these political issues? Hell yeah! Ones that I might just be mentioning if asked the right (or wrong) question, at one of the Q&A’s you want me to participate in.
In addition, during your festival, I am supposed to be giving a talk about my complex identity. So, will I be allowed to say that my dad got expelled from his village when it got occupied by Israeli forces in 48? Will I be permitted to tell the story of how I couldn’t rent an apartment because of my Arabic last name? Or is this too “political”? Oh, and my favourite: Officials in the Israeli government believe that God himself granted this land to one "chosen people", that he preferred over all the other peoples he created, and that's why all these unchosen ones don't have a right to be here! Does this fall under “Israeli politics”? Mmmmmmm...
Dear festival folks, the bottom line is I do not know how to be un-political. The air I breath when I wake up in the morning is political. The first question I get asked when I’m out for a beer with my husband and we meet new people, is political! (“How is it to live together as an Arab and a Jew”?). The fact that minister of culture tries to prevent me from singing at the award ceremony where I am the one receiving the award is utterly and completely political!
Are you sure you want me at your un-political all-positive festivity?
Or maybe you do not realise the implications of your own letter.
I should say, I am not a conspiracy theorist, and I do not believe this letter was a dictation by the Israeli government or anything of the sort. I can imagine it was issued as a “precaution”, just to avoid any “unnecessary media turmoils”. I have encountered this claim from many event producers and festival managers in the last two years who just don't want the fuss. But let’s dwell on that for a moment: The mere fact that you are afraid of a fuss is a sign of something dangerous. I'm guessing you don't want minister Regev to say your festival is not Israeli enough, or Bennet to think it's not Jewish enough, or Liberman to claim it's not patriotic enough. Sure, you don't want the mess that happened at the Acco festival, nor the Balagan that hit the Israel festival nor the debate around the Ofir or Acum or Sapir award ceremonies, you do not want to"rock the boat".
But, the duty of art and artists is exactly that: To rock the boat! To challenge the status quo, any status quo. It is our job to doubt everything and anything, and ask questions. It is exactly our talent to present narratives, all narratives. If we start to put a lid on our own work, if we agree to such “friendly” letters of consent to avoid the so-called unpleasant political issues, we are accepting a reality that will only get worse.
Self-censorship is exactly what right wing politicians aim for. They know they cannot really prevent artists from expressing themselves. In Israel, it is still not in the power of politicians to control artistic content, so they use any other tool they have: Controlling budgets (Or threatening to control budgets!), stirring public discourse and creating media tsunamis against artists they dislike, thus hurting their popularity and their very livelihood. So, even though politicians cannot really (and legally) harm us, they know how to shut us up nevertheless. And mind you, silencing artists is only the beginning.
In the last few years I find myself more and more fascinated by the concept of Artivism: Activism through art. And have been searching for ways to empower myself, and other local artists, who believe in freedom of expression. I think that together we are more powerful, so I believe we need to create a community of cultural resistance. But creating a community is a challenge. How do you promise the people’s safety? That their livelihood would not be harmed? It is a great responsibility.
Last month, I was on a 5 day creative retreat hosted by Seeds Of Peace, where we aimed to do exactly this: Locate and gather artists who are like minded, from both sides, Israelis and Palestinians. Trying to start a community that would find the strength in numbers and in a groups experience, adding to that the support of an entity like Seeds of Peace that’s been around for a while, tackling exactly the subjects that we aim to. We are really hoping that we are on the right path to creating something real, but we hold no fantasies, we know exactly what challenges lie ahead, to find ways to support this community and help it sustain itself, so that it is not subject to threats and bullying. I believe in this mission, and have willingly dedicated myself fully to it.
In the process, I have decided to launch an Artivism festival, to celebrate resistance by art, in all it’s forms: Film, Music, Dance, Literature, Fine Art and even Fashion (You’d be surprised). Resistance is not only political, it can be regarding social issues, or maybe gender, economics and so on. This project will also probably take lots of energy and time till it comes to fruition, but in the light of the increasing meddling of Israeli politicians in artistic content, I believe there is no better time than now to do this, in order to remind the artists first, and the public second, of the duty of art.
But with all these big plans in mind, I know that it eventually starts with one individual, saying: “No! I will not be silenced”. And another individual saying: “No! I will not let the artist that I love be silenced!”
And together, artists and public, we stand a chance, we can resist.
Mira Awad - Artivista.