Degenerate Culture: Inside the Israeli Govt's Persecution of the Jewish Left and One of Its Most Daring Artists

Netanyahu’s right-wing government is treating Natali Vaxberg Cohen's art as a criminal act

In recent weeks, Israeli media revealed that the government is producing a “blacklist” of artists whose works are “politically undesirable" and plans to press charges against one artist for the crime of “desecrating the national flag."

After five separate interrogations and an investigation that has lasted for over a year, Israel’s deputy state prosecutor and the Tel Aviv police cyber crime unit revealed that they will soon indict 32-year-old video artist and playwright Natali Cohen Vaxberg over a video released in 2014, in which she can be seen defecating on the Israeli flag, among numerous other national flags. Israeli police say they are treating the investigation as “an important case."

Leading the assault on artists the government deems insufficiently nationalist are minister of culture Miri Regev and education minister Naftali Bennett. Regev and Bennett, known for their anti-African and anti-Arab racism, have taken to their demagogic roles with gusto, excoriating cultural productions that portray Palestinians in a positive light.

Under Regev’s reign as culture minister, Israeli theaters have canceled screenings of films with universalist messages, including a film about a romantic relationship between a Jewish-Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. Last month, Bennett’s education ministry rejected for the Israeli high school curriculum a novel that portrayed a Jewish-Palestinian couple.

Under the slogan “Cultural Loyalty," Regev has vowed “to make support for a cultural institution dependent on its loyalty to the state of Israel” and seeks to pull state funding from artists for “physical desecration or debasement of the flag." The government-linked youth group Im Tirtzu, which has received the full-throated endorsement of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the past, has embarrassed the government by going even further, launching a campaign to name and shame Israeli artists who dare to openly support human rights groups.

There are only a few million Hebrew speakers in the world, making it difficult for Hebrew-language artists to be financially sustainable without Israeli government support for the arts. When the government takes the extra step of actively stigmatizing progressive artists as unpatriotic, it suffocates their creativity, depriving them of work and impugning their reputations. Imagine if Joseph McCarthy had triumphed and secured control over the government—that is what life is like in Israel today.

For provocative artists who criticize the Israeli government from the left, it can be exceedingly difficult to find any work at all. Natali Cohen Vaxberg told the blog The Hottest Place In Hell, that a fear of being publicly associated with her has led some production companies to censor her name from adverts for plays she performs in. This same fear has led other artists to decline to work with her altogether, she says.

Bringing the Wrath of Israeli Authorities

Cohen Vaxberg says that as a child, she was often picked on by her schoolmates and intended to drop out of high school, until at the age of 16, she discovered a democratic arts school where her quirky creativity was appreciated and nurtured. “Because I had been excluded, I had already developed sensitivity for the other, the excluded. Now I gained new knowledge, as well,” Cohen Vaxberg told AlterNet from her home in a Tel Aviv-area suburb.

“I started to think things over,” she said. “I realized that it didn’t make sense: the education system, these stupid ceremonies, singing the national anthem, everything—there’s something wrong here....That’s when my way of thinking began to develop politically, socially, artistically.”

Cohen Vaxberg began to write plays on taboo topics, especially Israeli society’s most sacred cow: the national directive to have children so that they can grow up to become soldiers. She achieved professional success when her work was picked by the prestigious Acre Fringe Theater Festival.

Cohen Vaxberg said one of her viral videos is the real reason she is facing legal troubles. “The indictment is not only because I shat on the flag. I think that the cuckee on the flag is just an excuse, and that it’s obvious that there is fear and anger towards all of my art, and especially over the video The Holocaust Visits Yad Vashem. I was interrogated over that video three times, while they screened the video for me in the interrogation room."

The video features the artist presenting herself as the living embodiment of the Holocaust, speaking at Israel’s national Holocaust museum, castigating the Israeli people for allowing her to be exploited in order to justify the continued oppression of Palestinian people.

“Also, the prosecuting officer twice mentioned that video at my Tel Aviv court hearing last year. He asked for me to be punished for that video too, but the judge refused, saying that it did not constitute any illegality."

Betrayed by Progressive Israeli Artists

Cohen Vaxberg acknowledges that after the controversy following the publication of the Shit Instead of Blood video and her resulting arrest, she received some support from other Israeli artists, and even earned some public expressions of solidarity. "Have you gone completely crazy?? Members of Knesset on the public payroll metaphorically shit on the flag once a week—so it’s forbidden for someone to do it as art?” leftist zionist Meretz Party leader Zehava Galon posted on Facebook after the planned indictment was announced.

“But from most of the artists and activists in the country, including from those who I knew beforehand,” Cohen Varberg said, “I haven’t heard a thing. They are ruled by fear.”

Some supposedly progressive voices have attempted to distance themselves from her and what she represents, she says.

After Shit Instead of Blood went viral, Israeli left-identified writer Haim Baram attacked Cohen Vaxberg in the Jerusalem local paper Kol Ha’Ir, writing that her work “obviously stinks and evokes revulsion” and that she is one of the “real crazies.” Baram suggested leftists should cut ranks with provocateurs like Cohen Vaxberg:

“The Left is disparaged, and its ability to defend itself admittedly still exists, but it is weaker than it has been in the past. Rightists and centrists that were very attentive to our opinions of them now demonstrate non-empathy, and even open hatred, for leftists. It won’t be easy to deal with this wave of darkness.

Cohen Vaxberg argues that Baram’s criticism of her reveals that in the face of a rightist ascendancy in Israel, self-described progressives are willing to abandon important liberalist principles in exchange for social acceptance.

“This is a good example, and an important one, because it shows how successfully they have scared the leftist establishment, to the point that they are starting to speak out against art as concept, and as a way to legitimately protest; essentially, they are speaking out against basic freedom of speech,” Cohen Vaxberg told me. “This is the left in Israel.”

“At the moment I am the most persecuted artist in Israel, and if they charge me, I will become the first artist to be put on trial in Israel for her art. And if that really happens, then it’s a slippery descent to the bottom,” she concluded.

Despite the repression and hyper-nationalist hysteria each of her performances seems to inspire, Cohen Vaxberg hasn’t lost her bravado. “The police and the government are getting more and more annoyed by me, because they see that they can’t silence me or stop me. I continue to create my art, and as much as they persecute me, my criticism of the state and those ruling it increases, as well. They know there is truth in it, and they are afraid of the truth,” Cohen Vaxberg said.

“I dare to interfere with the regime, as it tries to bury the truth deep, deep underground, and I bring it back from the grave. They bury it, and I bring it back, and it drives them crazy.”

Fascism In The Air

Radical leftists have long warned that Israel’s political system, undemocratic as it might be, is in grave danger of further disintegration. Every time they try to call attention to the dangerous direction Israel is heading in, their apocalyptic visions are dismissed. With her artistic stunts, Cohen Vaxberg has brought the wrathful repression of the state, proving her very point. Her prognosis for the future of Israeli society is unsettling, but not entirely uncommon among the whispers in leftist circles:

“It starts with suppressing discourse, indictments and arrests of artists that object to Israel’s policies, and it gets more and more violent from moment to moment. In my opinion, it won’t be long until we see concentration camps and death camps for all kinds of minorities, and the world will stand by without lifting a hand to help, just as it does now.”

Despite the adversity she faces, Cohen Vaxberg has no interest in respect from the Israeli establishment. “I prefer to get cancer in my anal sphincter over a play at the Bima or the Cameri,” she said, referring to Israel’s two most reputable theaters.

Cohen Vaxberg lives on the edge of poverty and says she dog-sits in order to supplement her income.

Meanwhile, the Israel Artists Association EMI was scheduled this week to grant a lifetime achievement award to singer-songwriter Ariel Zilber, who sang in praise of the late Israeli fascist leader Meir Kahane and supports ethnically cleaning Palestinians.

In his song, “Kahane Was Right,” Zilber sings,

“In this country, there is only room for the Jewish people. Kahane was right, Kahane was right… He said there is no choice: 'Enemies out!' he cried. Everyone shouted, 'That’s horrible to kick someone out of his home.' But after a few years, the courts set a precedent: we can expel, can we ever!”

David Sheen is an independent journalist and filmmaker. His website is www.davidsheen.com and he tweets from @davidsheen.

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