The controversy around Israeli artist Achinoam Nini’s (Noa) upcoming performance at Vancouver’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations is but the latest in a collection of knee-jerk reactions to left-wing politics where conservative fury foments around one particular artist or artistic project. By now the response is boilerplate.
Prompted by the ire of even a single donor, an organization declares the artist persona non grata and raises a ruckus, drawing great attention to the cause at issue. Rarely (and gratefully) is the artistic expression ever quashed; rather it usually finds an outlet, now championed as a wronged underdog. Indeed, for Noa, the show will go on despite having been vociferously maligned.
Factions on the far left equally call for artists to be uninvited to present in Canada and for the annulment of artistic projects. (Recall the 2009 rancorous TIFF focus on Tel Aviv.) At one end of the spectrum are boycotts, divestments and sanctions, and at the other end are disassociations, cancellations and withdrawal of funds. Each side aims to shut down creative expression and the free flow of ideas. While some art indeed crosses the line, “the line” is increasingly becoming a vast gulf.
Meanwhile, Jewish tradition offers a generative problem-solving model. The concept of machloket l’shem shamayim, literally “an argument for the sake of heaven,” promotes a constructive path for disagreements.
Heading up the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ national civility campaign, Melissa Weintraub explains: “Building machloket l’shem shamayim [is] about creating institutional infrastructure for speaking openly about charged topics, naming and exploring our differences honestly, and doing so without attacking, dismissing or caricaturing each other.
It’s about teaching our stakeholders and constituents to passionately pursue a thorough understanding of those who disagree with them in order to expand and clarify their own thinking and release learning, creativity and fresh ideas.”
With Passover approaching, the metaphor of the four sons comes to mind. There are Jews who are absolutely convinced that they are the Chacham – the one imbued with true wisdom and insight. Those self-appointed wise ones insist that those who oppose them are the Rasha – no good, even evil, and intent on harm.
In actuality, I think our situation is degrading rapidly to where the Tam, the simple one, is dominating the dialogue: simple solutions, simple rationale. However, the topics affecting the Jewish world (including but not limited to the situation in Israel) are far from simple, requiring nuanced thinking and multi-pronged strategies. If anything, artists can lead the way into the heart of the complexity.
Even more disconcerting than the ascendancy of the small-minded simple one is the proliferation of She’eyno yodeya lishol – the one who does not know to ask, the one who does not know to ask for more information or clarification. The one who does not know to question one’s own biases or to unpack a decision driven by feelings rather than clear thinking. The one who does not know how to ask with keen interest for the other’s perspective or evaluate the context of an action. The one who does not know how to listen deeply.
Rabbi Joel Alter of the Jewish Theological Seminary speaks of the Torah of Listening: “Listening means fully recognizing the reality of the person with whom one is in encounter. It means seeing and affirming the other’s experience. It means granting that the other knows what they know for good reason, even if you know differently from your own experience.”
A healthy, vibrant community does not invent evildoers, does not settle for simplistic and uninformed thinking, does not remain complacent about asking hard questions of itself and others. Rather it nurtures wisdom and creativity, approaching conflicts in a constructive manner.
Artists must not be pressured into safe stances by having their parnassah (livelihood) and their reputations threatened. Great artists spark debate. A community without lively debate and quality arts is not truly a live community. Artists are not the enemy. Simple thinking is.
For more information on Jewish frameworks for constructive conflict, visit The 9Adar Project.
Evelyn Tauben is a producer, curator and writer in Toronto.