A conflict between Israel’s draconian culture minister and artists using nudity in their performances has been thrown back into the spotlight with the opening of one of the country’s most important contemporary dance festivals.
For the third time in a year a big Israeli arts festival – this time Jerusalem International Dance Week – has been told by officials acting for the culture minister, Miri Regev, that it cannot use government funds to subsidise three of 28 performances because they involve either full or partial nudity.
Instead, the programme for the event, which attracts dance festival organisers from around the world, will carry an asterisk noting the partial nudity and the fact they are not “supported” by the culture ministry or the city’s municipality.
The move comes despite a legal opinion from Israel’s deputy attorney general suggesting the stipulation is illegal.
It represents the latest front in Israel’s growing culture wars that have seen Regev and other rightwing ministers – who regard the arts as being “left-leaning and elitist” – take aim at everything from theatre and film productions, to literature on the school curriculum, and the question of who should receive the prestigious Israel Prizes.
The latest intervention follows a similar move targeting two performances involving nudity in the Israel Festival this summer and in the recent Curtains Up dance festival.
Among the artists whose work has been drawn into the row are Adi Shildan and Nir Vidan, co-creators and performers of The Restlessness of Winged Creatures.
The artists, who are gay, told the Guardian the purpose of the work was to challenge stereotypes by asking the audience to observe their bodies even as the performance deconstructed ideas of gender.
Shildan said the recent efforts to cut funding to performances involving nudity were part of a wider effort by Israeli conservatives to narrow the public space for discourse.
“Nudity is un-extraordinary in contemporary dance,” she said.
“But in Israel we are a step back from Europe,” adding: “We are both without shirts but it is the woman’s body that ‘offends’.”
More chilling, said Shildan, was the message it sent to artists. “In practical terms I am dependent in part on subsidies that come from the government.
That creates a relationship between the establishment and creators, and it is dangerous when government goes inside the content.
“It is not what art is supposed to be and the atmosphere that the minister of culture has created … You can feel it, and it is very fragile.
And it is on the surface now in people’s artistic choices and in festivals.”
For Vidan, the culture ministry’s moves were as baffling as they were worrying.
“It’s not clear what this sentence means,” he told the Israeli paper Haaretz, referring to the programme note, “except for the provocation it causes.”
Ruby Edelman, the artistic co-director of Machol Shalem, the dance house involved in organising the festival, also appeared to have been blindsided by the issue.
“When I saw the pieces I didn’t notice the nudity because when I see something I am thinking whether it is good.
So I was surprised. And it is always in a closed space, so it is not as if any one outside is exposed to a nipple.”
He said the issue emerged after a rightwing religious councillor in the increasingly conservative Jerusalem municipality drew attention to the three performances.
Edelman said that, even though he was keen to avoid the controversy and focus on fostering new art, he saw a degree of opportunism in the efforts to cut funding to performances with nudity.
“There are many political streams in Jerusalem, and one of them is strongly ultra-orthodox.
They have influence in the municipality and have to show the city is becoming more conservative. It is an opportunity for political gain [with their constituency].”
He said it was part of a wider emerging issue.
“We are feeling a lot of attention on the body as a problematic tool for expression.
But we are trying to isolate the political white noise to deal with the art involved.
“But it is also important to add that we are not disconnected from the [sensitivities of the] communities we are working with [in Jerusalem].
For example, we are producing a community-based dance project only involving ultra-orthodox women. We are fully aware of how complex Jerusalem is.
In this case we are clear that this is a performance no men will ever see.”
For Shildan, despite the potential loss of future funding, there is a positive aspect to the row.
“I think it motivates me. It is a feedback that encourages you to expose things that are true.
And I have a sense that maybe more artists are using nudity as an action against what is happening.”