In a surprise move in reaction to the attempt to ban a controversial play now being performed in Tel Aviv, the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, today took the first step toward abolishing the country's system of film and theater censorship.
The 44-30 vote was a preliminary step and may lead no further, but it underlined the uproar that has been caused by the attempt of a government censorship board to halt performances of the play "The Patriot" by well-known Israeli writer Hanoch Levin.
The play is a series of often savagely satirical skits about Israeli life and values that the chairman of the censorship board said today "offends the very fundamental values of Judaism, the state and the people of Israel." The play opened Monday night to a full house, including two Knesset members, and continued last night and tonight while authorities decided if and how to enforce the ban. While Arabic-language plays have been banned here, it was apparently the first prohibition of an entire Hebrew-language play.
Israel radio reported that the owners of the Tel Aviv theater where the play is being performed were questioned by police today, and that the Israeli Supreme Court has agreed to hear a petition from the youth wing of the National Religious Party demanding an immediate closing of the production.
The Film and Theater Censorship Board was created in the 1920s by British Mandate authorities in Palestine, and, like many institutions of the mandate, was adopted by Israel when the state was created in 1948.
It operated in obscurity until this week, when its decision to ban "The Patriot" immediately provoked a clash between opposing sides that depicted themselves as defenders either of free speech and democracy or of Jewish and Israeli values.
Haim Druckman, a Knesset member of the National Religious Party, said the play would harm Israeli youth and undermine "the most essential values of the state of Israel, our nation and Judaism."
"So it seems to me it's terrible," he said. "How can you allow such things?"
But Shulamit Aloni, a left-wing Knesset member who attended the opening night performance, said that in a democracy "we have to accept that every person has a right to decide if he wants to see something or not."
Joshua Justman, the chairman of the censorship board, said the 22-member panel found several parts of the play offensive "to an unbearable point." Citing examples, he said there is one scene in which Israel's rabbinical council is seen conferring with American Mafia chieftans, and it is later depicted providing a kosher certificate to dog food.
Justman, a recently retired journalist, denied charges by critics of the board that the ban was politically motivated and an attempt to shield the conservative values espoused by the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
"If it attacked the government or Begin, I wouldn't care," he said. "But the attack here is directed at basic values and not at any establishment. It is also offensive to the Arabs. It depicts them as spineless. It's offensive to everyone, really."
Censorship in Israel is uneven. There is severe censorship of Arab publications, textbooks and other material in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. While the ban of an entire Hebrew-language play is believed to be unprecedented, Justman said that twice during his five years on the censorship board Arabic productions were prohibited because they were considered "incitements" against the state.
There is also stringent military censorship in Israel, but it does not extend to political questions as evidenced by the flood of damaging stories to the military in the Israeli press after the massacre of Palestinian refugees in West Beirut.
Justman's panel is the only civilian government institution with a censorship role, and it has generally confined itself to questions of pornography and violence. Under Israeli law, every film and theater production to be shown in Israel must first be submitted to the board.
Last year, according to Justman, of 235 films seen by the board, six were banned -- two because they were considered pornographic and four because of excessive violence -- and portions of four others were cut. The board also reviewed 41 plays, banning one Arab production, he said.
The measure to abolish the censorship board, introduced by the two Knesset members of the left-wing Shinui Party, had languished without notice since last November. In today's vote, four members of Begin's government coalition voted with the opposition to abolish the board. The measure must clear several parliamentary hurdles before becoming law.