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Stifling Our Artists

The fourth annual Schmooze conference took place at the hip City Winery in Lower Manhattan on January 11 and 12, bringing together Jewish artists and presenters to debate, discuss and, well, schmooze. There was talk of a “sea change” this year, and not just because of the financial meltdown or the growing popularity of Fox News.

Instead, the panelists in the session I moderated spoke of a palpable sense of fear and retrenchment in the communities they serve and from many of the donors who fund their work. The elections of Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, combined with the vicious international fallout from Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, have created a chilling atmosphere unlike any these veterans have seen in a long time.

And so the Koffler Centre of the Arts in Toronto was forced to sever ties to an exhibit because the artist was involved in anti-Zionist activities. Theater J in Washington, D.C., was condemned for staging a 10-minute play that was slammed by some as “a ten-minute blood libel.” The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s decision to include a sympathetic film about a pro-Palestinian activist who was killed in Gaza as one of its 71 offerings this year caused an uproar in the notoriously tolerant city.

Provocative art that might have raised eyebrows a few years ago now raises bells of alarm.

The boundaries of acceptable discourse have shifted, and those who care about Jewish art and culture are scrambling to understand where the new lines are drawn. Lines do need to be drawn — not every film, play or art installation deserves an airing in a Jewish context, just as not every opinion is suitable to be published in this newspaper.

Besides, there is a cyclical nature to this dynamic: Artists who care deeply about their craft often challenge the status quo, and funders have sought to shape the outcome of work from the time that royalty sponsored statues and symphonies.

Nonetheless, the current chilling atmosphere needs to be recognized and addressed. The Jewish institutional world ought to pay attention to those on culture’s front lines, and have the confidence and courage to allow dissenting voices to be heard and provocative issues to be raised. The fear that this will somehow embolden Israel’s enemies has to be tempered by the knowledge that our survival depends on embracing creativity, not censoring it.

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