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News Analysis: Dance Troupe Controversy Spurs Fears of Cultural War

May 6, 1998
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Israel’s jubilee celebrations were held under the official slogan, “Together in Pride, Together in Hope,” but Israelis emerged from the festivities even less together than usual.

All over the country, people are speaking of a “kulturkampf,” a cultural war – – and even a civil war — in the wake of a controversy that erupted between the religious and secular over last week’s “Jubilee Bells” gala that served as the climax of the 50th anniversary celebrations.

The controversy brought the issue of Orthodox influence in the Jewish state into the headlines, sparking intense debate over the nature — and future — of the country.

The episode also had political implications, resulting in a new contender for the premiership — the popular Likud figure Roni Milo.

It is doubtful whether the guest of honor at the event, U.S. Vice President Al Gore, fully realized the import of what was happening as he and the rest of the audience — along with millions of television viewers across the country – – were informed that the Batsheva Dance Company would not be appearing.

Sitting beside Gore at the Jerusalem stadium where the event was held April 30, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu probably tried to make light of the change of program, which arose because of Orthodox objections to the partial nudity involved in one of the troupe’s performances.

As the premier said later, Netanyahu had both hoped and believed that daylong, behind-the-scenes negotiations between the company and the organizers would result in an acceptable compromise.

Batsheva, Israel’s premier modern ballet company, has won prizes at home and abroad for its show “Anaphase,” part of which was to be performed at the jubilee extravaganza.

The performance was to focus on the text “Echad Mi Yodea,” the popular “Who Knows One?” song from the Passover Haggadah.

Orthodox objections focused on the dancers’ stripping down to their underwear just as they are reciting, “One is for our Lord, God of Heaven and Earth.”

A deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Haim Miller of the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc, threatened to bring out 30,000 demonstrators to disrupt the “Jubilee Bells” event unless the act was omitted from the program.

The minister of education and culture, Rabbi Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party, joined other leading figures in the Zionist-Orthodox camp in siding with the fervently Orthodox, arguing that the performance was bound to offend religious viewers and therefore had no place in a state-sponsored gala.

In the artistic world, and among the political parties of the left and the liberal center, a cry of state censorship erupted.

President Ezer Weizman tried to mediate, and at one stage the company’s artistic director, Ohad Naharin, appeared to agree that his dancers would wear body stockings as a compromise.

But Naharin himself set the fuse for the eventual explosion when he announced that while he accepted the compromise, he was resigning in the interests of the company’s future.

Then, a half hour before the gala event began, the dancers announced that they were going home.

Last Friday, the day after the jubilee event, matters grew worse as hundreds of actors, playwrights, musicians, singers and others demonstrated against Levy at a jubilee reception he was to host for the cultural elite at the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv.

Many of the artists who had appeared the night before claimed that had they known of Batsheva’s last-minute decision to withdraw, they, too, would have pulled out of the jubilee event.

Others argued that to quit at that stage would have been wrong. But they, too, wholeheartedly supported the dancers’ contention that they, the audience and the country as a whole had been the victim of a religious power-play that was threatening to take over cultural life in Israel.

The demonstration looked ugly at times. Levy’s NRP colleague in the Cabinet, Transportation Minister Shaul Yahalom, had to be escorted by the police from the premises for his own safety.

Adding fuel to the fire of the dance episode was another religious-secular clash that took place a day earlier, when Israel held Remembrance Day observances for its war dead.

Rabbi Meir Porush, the leader of United Torah Judaism and the deputy housing minister, was heckled and pelted with plastic bags of water by irate demonstrators at a military cemetery in Holon, near Tel Aviv, where he sought to represent the government at the memorial service.

The government sends ministers, deputy ministers and Knesset members to all the military cemeteries on this annual solemn commemoration.

Some bereaved families objected to Porush’s participation because although he himself did a brief stint in the army, he represents a fervently Orthodox, or haredi, constituency — most of whom never perform army service.

But he insisted on going anyway, and the result was a religious-secular altercation.

The waters were further roiled by two subsequent incidents involving extremist fringe groups in Jerusalem: A soldiers’ memorial site was vandalized, apparently by fervently Orthodox vandals, and a nude photo composite of the late Yitzhak Rabin was posted in a Jerusalem playground operated by Dor Shalom, a peace group chaired by the late premier’s son, Yuval.

The photo was circulated by unknown people purporting to represent the outlawed racist Kach movement.

Against this backdrop, the Israeli media were full this week of passionate articles exhorting the secular majority to take up arms — figuratively, but literally if the need arises — against Orthodox censorship and coercion.

Politicians on both sides of the divide are warning that, given the present mood, the cultural war could turn violent if a controversy erupts over a Shabbat observance issue or some other volatile question.

Meanwhile, the still-raging controversy over the canceled dance performance has triggered the creation of a new, openly anti-clerical political party.

Tel Aviv’s popular mayor, Roni Milo, announced Monday that he would form a new centrist party and run for the Knesset and the prime ministership in the next election, slated for 2000.

Milo, a political protege of the late Menachem Begin who served as a minister in the government of Yitzhak Shamir, has been moving steadily toward the center in recent years and has long contemplated setting up a new party.

He said Monday that he announced his move now because he was “shocked and shattered” by the controversy over the dance performance and the worsening of secular-religious strife.

“I shall not be seeking haredi votes,” he said. “I shall not pander to them.”

Political pundits said Milo would sap support from Labor and the left-wing Meretz, but would also siphon away voters from Netanyahu.

Such a scenario could require a second round in the next prime ministerial election, which could primarily hurt Netanyahu, who will be depending on the haredi vote. The haredim, who will come out to vote for their own parties in the general Knesset election, might not bother to turn up again for a second- round runoff for the premiership.

Meanwhile, in an effort to avoid future clashes like the Batsheva furor, the education minister announced Monday the creation of a religious-secular forum at which leading intellectual figures would thrash out some of these issues.

But the bitterness already engendered by that episode ensured that Levy’s initiative received a cool response in secular, intellectual circles.

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