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Why is a festival of Israeli film fighting for censorship in London?

The bid to ban men from seeing The Gift of Fire sets a very dangerous precedent indeed

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

You might think that Jews, faced with a relentless campaign to ban their culture, would think once, twice, a hundred times, about instituting bans themselves. After they had thought about it, they would decide that, no, absolutely not, prudence as much as principle directs that they of all people must insist that art should be open to all.

A good liberal idea, you might think. So good and so obvious there’s no need to say more. If you still require an explanation, allow me to help. You don’t try to silence others if you believe in artistic and intellectual freedom. You keep your mind open and the conversation going. Every little Hitler and great dictator in history has tried to tell the public what it can and cannot see, and no one should want to join their company.

It says much about the political and religious neuroses of our time that the best defence of artistic freedom came this week from entertainment corporations, so often depicted in the arts as the home of grasping tyrants who crush creativity as they push their opium on the masses. Specifically, the managers of the Odeon UCI Cinemas Group and the tax exile Guy Hands, whose Terra Firma Capital owns the chain.

They made their stand for freedom on The Gift of Fire, which was due to be shown at London’s Israeli film festival. As far as I can tell, it is a ripping romance about a beautiful Jewish woman in medieval Spain fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. I’d love to tell you more about her scrapes. Alas, I cannot, for I am a man, and my unfortunate possession of a Y chromosome prevents me from seeing the film.

Its screening had been due to take place at the Odeon Swiss Cottage. But the director, Rechy Elias, insisted that only women could attend. Elias is from the ultra-conservative Haredi sect of Judaism, which, like extreme movements in all the world’s major religions, is flourishing with a depressing vigour. As with so many other fundamentalist creeds and cults, sex is an obsessive source of interest to the Haredis. A Haredi school in Stamford Hill recently announced that, Saudi–style, it would not allow women to drive children to its gates. With similar reasoning, Ms Elias said her film was controversial because it contained scenes of women dancing. No man could see them, for lord knows what they would do if they did.

The Odeon refused to ban. The only legal ground for stopping people going into their cinemas was if they were children trying to sneak into an adult movie, it said. Far from supporting it, the festival organisers were so outraged by the company’s defence of equality that they promised to ‘stand outside the cinema and stop men from going in’. When the cinema refused to back down, they withdrew the film. The JW3 arts centre, a private club with no obligation to treat people equally, agreed to show it to an all-female audience instead. The centre’s directors, like the organisers of the festival, said that if the director had known men might see her work she would have made a different film. Not one of them stopped to imagine how their endorsement of selective bans and appeasement of prejudice might look to others.

The line between ‘anti-Zionist’ and ‘anti-Semitic’ protests in Britain has become so blurred of late you can barely see it. We have Jew-hating politicians and Muslim leaders feeding every type of conspiratorial fantasy, and artists have been cheering them on.

Last year London’s Tricycle Theatre banned the annual Jewish film festival because its organisers took a tiny amount of money from the Israeli government. The Tricycle did not insist that other performers — British or foreign — show that every penny of their funding met politically correct standards. The theatre did not believe that the hundreds of thousands of pounds it took from the British state was an endorsement of the government’s wars or policies. But when it came to Jews, different standards applied.

When Lord Keynes established the Arts Council he ensured that it worked at ‘arm’s length’ from ministers. Politicians would not then be able to impose their dogmas on publicly funded culture. The Tricycle offered a parable of how bureaucrats can hijack the public sector and subvert Keynes’s principles. It showed that while politicians, who whatever else you think about them are at least elected, cannot censor and impose party lines, unelected cultural bureaucrats are free to do both.

Individual artists are as disreputable as taxpayer-funded institutions. Just before the Israeli festival opened, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Peter Kosminsky and many another British film-makers called on cinemas to cancel performances. Imagine the malice or cold-blooded indifference it takes for one artist to try to ban the work of another. It wasn’t that Loach, Kosminsky and the rest had even paid their fellow directors the courtesy of watching their work. They weren’t saying that the festival was stuffed with Israeli government propaganda. They couldn’t, because it included the work of Israeli Arab and Palestinian film makers. No matter. Because the art was Israeli, it had to go.

Far from recoiling from the arguments of their enemies, the organisers of the festival showed that they were no better. Only in their case, instead of banning Jewish films, they banned Jewish men.

Racial, political, religious and sexual hysteria swirl round the art of a tiny people. Standing against all the prejudices is the profit motive of the modern corporation. I accept that Guy Hands makes an unlikely hero, and what with one thing and another there hasn’t been much good to say about capitalism of late. But I will say this. Capitalism may not be inspiring but at least it welcomes customers without regard for class, colour, creed, gender or sexual orientation. If it is legal to sell a product, it won’t care who buys it.

As extremists of all types tell us what we can see and say, that simple commercial creed feels pure and noble in comparison.

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