The Israeli government temporarily banned a controversial television play at the last minute Monday, causing a barrage of protest here that eclipsed for a moment even the great issues of war, peace and Anwar Sadat.
The play, which depicts Israeli soldiers treating Arabs harshly in the war of 1948, has been criticized for showing Israelis in a bad light when delicate negotiations with Egypt are in progress and when a not-so-delicate propaganda war is being waged for world opinion.
But the "postponement" by Education and Cultural Affairs Minister Zevulun Hammer strikes liberal opinion in Israel as an ill-disguised attempt at political censorship.
"The only pertinent issue at this stage is whether there is to be freedom of expression on the monopolistic broadcasting media, or are they to become a "guided" instrument as they are in certain countries with which we do not wish to be compared," one liberal paper said recently.
Israeli television went off the air for 40 minutes Tuesday night in protest. The liberal press has continued to thunder its disapproval and 25 of the bestknown writers in Israel have publicly called for Hammer's resignation. The issue was debated in the parliament's education committee yesterday but no decision was reached.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin said that Hammer was withing his legal rights to postpone the program. This power has not been used before, however, and sources close to the prime minister said he was concerned over the potentially dangerous impact the issue could have on public opinion both at home and abroad.
Hammer cancelled the show only 1 1/2 hours before it was to go on the air. The play is a television adaptation of a short sotyr by S. Yizhar, one of Israel's best known writers, called "The Tale of Hibert Hiza."
It has become a classic of Israeli literature and is required reading in many high schools. It tells the tale of an Arab village, named in the title, at the close of the 1948 war and of a detachment of Israeli soliders who take it over and cold-bloodedly expel the Arabs from their homes.
Another famous Israeli writer, Amos Elon, has called it "perhaps the most conscious stricken, deliberately guilt-ridden piece of contemporary Israeli literature."
Some of the soldiers describe the Arabs they are forcing into exile as animals. They speak of how wonderful it will be when Jews move into the village. But the conscious-stricken protagonist of the story asks himself, "Who will remember that there was once a Hirbet Hiza [whose inhabitants] we drove out and inherited? We came shot burned, blew up, repelled, pushed and exiled . . . Will the walls not scream in the ears of those who will live in this village.?"
Those who support Hammer's action say that literature is one thing but television is although more universal and that the broadcast would be used against Israel.
The newspaper Hatzofeh, of Hammer's National Religious party, defended the action by saying that the play "portrays the Israeli solider in a distorted light, depriving him of his courage and humanity.
"The timing was disastrous," the paper said. "When the Arab media from the PLO to the Egyptians are portraying Israel as hard-hearted and domineering, the play would have been misrepresented as an Israeli admission of cruelty."
The play was "harmful incitement" from Israel's left wing and would have been damaging to Israeli youth, the paper said.
Another critic said the play brought into question the "morality" of the whole Zionist undertaking and "our very right to be in this land."
The majority of the Israeli press, however, agrees with the Jerusalem Post, which said the banning of the plya, even if temporary, had done more harm to the country's image "as a sober, mature and self-critical democracy, than a year's daily screening of such a film."
For 30 years, the paper said, Israel has prided itself on "unfettered freedom of its mind" even when "besieged and beleaguered from outside."
Education Minister Hammer is feared by liberals in Israel for what they consider to be his dogmatic views and his ability to impose them. He is remembered for having said the school curriculum should go back "to our roots" in order to bring authentic Judaism into education instead of "mere dry book learning" - a remark that reminded some liberals of the late Mao Tse-tung.
Hammer is a founding member of the Gush Emunim movement that seeks annexation of the occupied West Bank and is challenging the government's authority by threatening to set up unauthorized settlements on the West Bank.
Thus, the story written 30 years ago takes on a fresh meaning. Ironically, when the film crew members went to the West Bank looking for a location to film Herbet Hiza, the local Arabs - thinking they were Gush Emunim settlers coming to take their land away - tried to hinder them.
Like Britain's BBC, the Israel Broadcasting Authority is a government enterprise, but its directors are supposed to be free from political control. If a minority of board members object to showing a film, however, as they did in this case, they may appeal to the minister of education and culture.
The minister has the power to postpone the screening pending a full review of the broadcasting authority. Hammer has the power to delay but not to ban the "Tale of Hirbet Hiza." Nevertheless, his unprecedented use of his power has caused widespread fear of political censorship over cultural and educational affairs.