Thousands of teenagers swoon — Arabs and Jews alike — as Tamer Nafar takes the stage. He’s a member of Israel’s Palestinian Arab minority, a founding member of the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM — and he sings in Arabic.
At this concert last month in northern Israel, part of a multicultural gathering on the sidelines of the Haifa Film Festival, where Israeli musicians of Ethiopian and Indian descent are also performing, “I’m not political,” he raps.
But Nafar is known for other lyrics that are political, like his song “Who’s the Terrorist?” in which he says Israel “raped the Arab soul,” leading to the birth to terrorism.
Those lyrics, which Nafar didn’t sing at the Haifa concert, have offended some Israelis and prompted about two dozen protesters to push their way toward the stage here, yelling at Nafar and his fans and waving Israeli flags.
The controversy over this Arab rapper’s lyrics is part of a bigger battle in Israel over the limits of artistic freedom. The Israeli Culture Ministry has sought to rein in acts it says could cause violence. And some Israeli musicians and playwrights are fighting back.
“I love my Arab friends. I love Arab music and art. But this is no art,” says protester Edan Zadok, a Jewish Israeli of Indian descent, who says he sympathizes with ethnic minorities in Israel. “Listen, there should be absolute freedom for artists. But when the art becomes hate speech, there is no place for it.”
Backstage, Nafar tells NPR he has rapped about terrorism, saying it’s sadly a relevant topic in Israel. But he doesn’t endorse it, he insists. That would be illegal under Israeli law.
“[My lyrics] discuss sex, love, poetry — also women’s rights, also gay rights, also the problem with the occupation,” Nafar explains.
He’s talking about the Israeli occupation of what he considers Palestinian land. It’s an artist’s job to bring up taboos and push the boundaries, he says.
Free speech or incitement?
But Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev, a former military censor, disagrees.
One of her previous jobs in the Israeli army was to prevent sensitive information from being published in the media. She’s a controversial figure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party, infamous for having once called an Arab member of Israel’s Knesset, or parliament, a traitor who should “Go back to Gaza!” (He was born in Israel). She called African migrant workers “a cancer in our body.” She’s also sought to halt public funding for Israeli artists who refuse to perform for Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Regev wrote a letter to Haifa authorities, who made it public, urging them to drop Nafar from this concert’s lineup because he “opposes the idea of the State of Israel.”
When the rapper spoke in September at the Ophir Awards — the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars — Regev got up and walked out of the auditorium. She objected, she later explained, to Nafar’s reading aloud an excerpt of a famous poem by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
The poem, entitled “ID Card,” contains this line: “I will eat my oppressor’s flesh; Beware, beware of my starving; And my rage.”
An Arabic-language film, Sand Storm, won the Ophir award for Best Picture for the first time in Israeli history. It will be Israel’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at next year’s Oscars. But at the awards ceremony in Israel, the two lead actors, Arab women, refused to appear onstage with Regev because of her treatment of Nafar.
Regev’s office declined NPR’s requests for an interview. But in the past, she’s raised the issue of state funding for events where artists are critical of the state.
“I won’t be an ATM. I have responsibility for the public’s money,” Regev said in a statement earlier this year, arguing that state funding for any artwork should factor in allegiance to the state of Israel and respect for its symbols.
Pushing the boundaries
In the ancient Mediterranean port of Acre, the Muslim call to prayer mingles with a Beyonce song at the city’s annual alternative theater festival, now in its 37th year. This is another place where artistic freedom is being tested.
The festival has long had a reputation for pushing the boundaries, with nudity and sex scenes onstage. But organizers say this is the first year in the history of the festival that Israel’s Culture Ministry has demanded to review the contents of one of its plays.
“Yes, they wanted to review the play, but we didn’t let them,” says Einat Weitzman, the writer and director of the play in question, entitled Palestine Year Zero.
It’s a satire, in Hebrew and Arabic, about the diminishing value of Palestinian homes as Israeli soldiers demolish them. By the end of the one-hour performance, the stage is a pile of rubble — a metaphor, Weitzman says, for the destruction of Palestinian society.
In a statement, the Culture Ministry said it received complaints the play contains messages of “incitement that undermine the state and insult its symbols.”
Weitzman refused to hand over her script, and the publicly-funded Acre festival stood by her.
In the end, audiences got to watch her play. But Weitzman says she’s worried other artists may think twice about addressing politics in their work.
“I think the problem these days is that artists censor themselves, because they’re afraid,” she says. “I received a lot of hate messages. People want to kill me. People spit on me in the street. So I know that other people — they don’t want to take risks.”
The play’s lead, Palestinian actor Georges Ibrahim, ended up winning the best actor award at the Acre festival. The rapper Tamer Nafar is still performing, and the culture minister’s crusade against him has catapulted him to a household name in Israel.
But Regev’s campaign is also gaining notoriety, with her message that the state isn’t obligated to subsidize material critical of the state, and that such performances can incite violence.