A new play about an Israeli army officer who is troubled by his country's military occupation of the West Bank of the Jordan River has rekindled a national debate over Israel's complex code of cultural censorship.
The play, written by one of the first Israelis ever jailed for refusing to do military reserve duty on the West Bank, was banned early last month, on purely political grounds, by the Film and Stage Censorship Board in a rare application of its power.
The board said the play drew a "distorted and vicious" picture of the occupation authorities and would probably provoke anti-government reaction if seen by Arabs.
Decision Called 'Illegal'
Amnon Rubenstein, the minister of communications and a former dean of Tel Aviv University's law school, said in an interview that the decision is "blatantly illegal." The operators of the theater where the play was to be staged have appealed to the board to reconsider.
The controversy has focused new attention on the question of censorship, which as applied here has been wide-ranging but usually low-profile.
It is generally recognized that Israeli military censors review what they define as security-related material reported by the local and foreign press, but there are many other aspects of censorship. It extends from an unofficial prohibition on public performances of Wagnerian music to the banning of several hundred books on the West Bank.
A special Interior Ministry force called "Sonia's Commandos," named for the official who directs it, confiscated 90 prints of unauthorized--mostly pornographic--films in raids on movie theaters last year. Most of these movies had not even been submitted to the censor.
Censorship is particularly strict in the occupied territories, where Arab-language newspapers are frequently prohibited from printing even translations of articles already published in Israel's Hebrew-language press.
This week, the Interior Ministry closed the East Jerusalem newspaper Al Darb on the grounds that it is a mouthpiece for the radical Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The newspaper is appealing to the Israeli Supreme Court.
Israel prides itself on being the most democratic and open society in the Middle East, and even its most severe critics generally concede that its censorship, in practice, is relatively benign.
Compared with the stifling constraints of the Soviet Bloc, for example, Israel is wide open. One can see and hear lively public criticism of the government on either side of the so-called Green Line that separates pre-1967 Israel from the territories it captured in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.
But Yehoshua Yustman, chairman of the Film and Stage Censorship Board, argues that Israel, as a young country characterized by passionate differences among various segments of its population, still needs the protection of censorship.
"We have lots of stresses in our population," he said in a recent interview. "It hasn't crystallized yet; it's not a homogeneous public."
Yustman is himself something of an anomaly, a journalist and self-proclaimed advocate of free speech who is "in theory against censorship." But he sees no contradiction between his beliefs and his position on the board.
"I think freedom of speech or any freedom cannot be absolute," he said. "I think the danger to any freedom is that it becomes absolute."
Volunteers Man Board
Yustman and his 23 colleagues on the Film and Stage Censorship Board are all volunteers, appointed by the interior minister with the approval of the Cabinet. Typically, they review 200 to 300 films and about 50 new plays a year.
Their standard, according to Yustman, is a broad one: whether a film or play would be "seriously offensive to a part of the population." Most of the half-dozen or so films that are banned every year are rejected for reasons of pornography or what the board determines to be excessive violence. "Deep Throat" and "Caligula" have been among the casualties.
The board is also concerned about trampling on sensitive religious toes. It once banned a film depicting the Crucifixion of Christ as a hoax. "For Jews, it was very positive, but it was terribly offensive to Christians," Yustman said.
Another sensitive subject is Nazi Germany. The unofficial ban on Wagnerian music, for example, is in deference to the 100,000 or so Holocaust survivors living here who were forced to listen to the works of Hitler's favorite composer broadcast over concentration camp loudspeakers.
Unwritten Law on Wagner
There is nothing in law to prevent performances of Richard Wagner's music but, by general agreement, Israeli musicians do not perform it and the state radio and television networks do not play it.
When the board banned the play "Ephraim Returns to the Army," it cited, among other factors, comparisons in the script between Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Hitler's occupation of Europe.
"I am against comparing even Arafat with the Nazis," Yustman said, referring to Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. "This is a desecration of the memory of those who suffered from the Nazis. . . . This is a phenomenon that stands out in the history of mankind."
Yehoshua Sobol, artistic director of the Haifa Theater, where the banned play about the army officer was to have been performed, argues that the play does not compare the West Bank occupation with Nazism. "It is more in the nature of a warning," he said.
The playwright, Yitzhak Laor, said: "All I want to say is what happens to us . . . , how we lose our souls by being nice in words but something else in action."
He said the work is an attempt "to investigate the psychology of a generation" that has grown up since the West Bank occupation began in 1967.
Active in Leftist Causes
Laor, 37, has long been active in leftist political causes. He would not say how he voted in the last Israeli election but he has worked with the Committee for Solidarity with the Students of Birzeit, an Arab university on the West Bank that is frequently in trouble with the occupation authorities.
Laor, who was drafted in 1966, was doing his compulsory service when Israeli troops occupied the West Bank area the following year. "I remember how we were embarrassed," he said. "We hoped it (the occupation) would be finished in a year."
He said he was recalled to active duty on the West Bank in 1972 but refused to report and, as a consequence, spent two weeks in prison.
In June, 1982, he was arrested on the second day of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon for taking part in a demonstration he helped organize to protest the invasion.
In "Ephraim Returns to the Army," Laor's hero is a reserve officer named Ephraim who is assigned to a West Bank military command. The story revolves around the aftermath of a demonstration in which an Arab boy is killed by an Israeli soldier, but the anti-occupation message comes through more in terms of symbolism.
Power Without Reason
For example, Ephraim is impotent, and this, Laor said, is related to "the impotence of power--how power without reason brings sterility."
In one scene, Ephraim says, "The first two Arabic words I learned were 'curfew' and 'identity card.' " In another, he reveals his deep ambivalence toward the occupation to a television reporter. Asked if it is possible to prevent demonstrations, he responds:
"Is it possible to prevent disturbances in South Africa? In Ireland? In places where there is foreign occupation? We force ourselves on a living society, a living people. They do not want us. But we need patience and we will succeed. The people of Israel always succeed in overcoming their troubles."
The indirect comparison with Nazi Germany comes in an anecdote that is repeated three times, like a refrain. Ephraim recalls being ordered by an Israeli officer many years earlier to stop an Arab youth walking down the street with a backpack. In the backpack, the officer assures him, he will find jewelry. The officer turns out to be right, and when Ephraim asks him how he knew, the man explains that as a youth in Eastern Europe he used the same technique to smuggle his family's fortune past the occupying Nazis.
While the Film and Stage Censorship Board has banned several Arab-language plays as politically provocative, its action against Laor's play is believed to be only the second in 15 years against a Hebrew-language production.
Some Dialogue Deleted
In 1982 the board banned a play called "The Patriot," which also drew a damning picture of Israeli action on the West Bank. The decision was appealed and the play was permitted to go on, with the provision that 18 lines of dialogue be deleted.
Yustman said he sees no possibility of redeeming "Ephraim." It was banned, he said, due to "a number of factors which taken together produce a certain impact." And he added, "It produces a reaction of deep revulsion against the army in general and toward the military government in particular."
Meanwhile, there is a measure before the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, that calls for an end to censorship of plays, though not films, and among the backers is Communications Minister Rubenstein.
"Movie audiences," Rubenstein said, "are different from stage audiences. There is a general acceptance, post-World War II, that there is no place for (stage) censorship by the fact of the kind of audiences you have."
Sobol, the Haifa Theater's artistic director, said: "The audience of theatergoers is very well read and experienced. They can make their own judgments. There is no need at all to protect them. It is simply anachronistic."
Even Yustman said he can see the point of abolishing stage censorship. But the fate of the legislation is nonetheless uncertain. Israel's powerful religious parties oppose it, as does a portion of the big Likud bloc.
Ironically, as Moshe Negbi, a commentator on the Voice of Israel's "Weekly Law Magazine," pointed out not long ago, Israel's censorship has its roots in British law of the Victorian Era. Britain imposed its standards here in 1927, when it ruled what was then Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, and they were carried over into the new state of Israel after independence in 1948.
Britain repealed its cultural censorship in 1968, but Israel continues to apply those standards.