Culture, Controversy and Contributions

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Federations in New York and Washington are being pressed to reconsider their funding of agencies whose programming seems critical of Israel, especially in theater and film, as Nathan Guttman reports in the Forward. Like the long-standing disputes over Federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and public broadcasting, they seem to be about money but ultimately center on competing notions of what is good and true.

These disagreements are typically framed as a conflict between journalistic or artistic independence on the one hand and accountability to taxpayers or donors on the other. That misstates the issue, however, because no one is attacking artistic freedom in principle. In practice there are always legal and moral limits to personal expression; the question is where to draw the line. The prerogatives of Federation donors or U. S. taxpayers are likewise a matter of degree. Most are content to see their money spent as their representatives in Federation or in Congress see fit, but they revolt when pushed too far.

The conflicts typically start with a visceral reaction against something like a supposed liberal bias in public radio and television, or alleged obscenity and profanity in NEA-funded art. These things are singled out because they symbolize concerns less tangible but more pervasive, like a perceived moral decay. In the Jewish context the hot-button issue is of course Israel, and the controversy over theater works and films is really a proxy for the rift between a conventionally pro-Israel establishment and progressive Jews who resent that stance. It is just one battle in a larger conflict over the nature of Jewish identity in America.

Fund-raising methods at Federations and other Jewish agencies exacerbate the problem. Their bias towards large gifts, and their willingness to let “lay leaders” overrule the professional staff, allows a few individuals to change policy decisions about allocations. Grass-roots fund-raising, based on small annual gifts by a large number of people, would make it much harder for a few individuals to exercise that kind of control.

Public broadcasting, for example, has become mostly independent of Congressional pressures because it has built a large and solid base of annual donors. If NPR and its stations lost their Federal funding they would face deep and difficult budget cuts, but they and their core programs would survive. Jewish arts organizations don’t have that kind of independence.

The producers and presenters of Jewish culture are doubly challenged because most of them are part of another organization that does not see Jewish artistic expression as essential to its core mission. That prevents them from raising money independently. And when cultural events threaten revenues or create bad publicity, a JCC chief executive may well decide that the arts are more trouble than they’re worth.

Public radio, on the other hand, has always raised private money alongside Federal support. Successful cultural organizations also attract contributions from individuals who believe in them and their work. The historic reliance of most Jewish arts organizations on federated funding consigns them largely to an instrumental role in carrying out non-artistic purposes like engaging the next generation, Jewish education, or strengthening Jewish identity. No one should be surprised when the arts are criticized with respect to that communal agenda rather than supported on artistic grounds.

Unless and until Jewish-culture organizations become financially independent, they will continue to be easy targets for those who think creative works should always have a message and the message should be one that they like. Values like originality, ambiguity, and nonconformity can thrive only where art is prized for its unique ability to reveal unexpected truths. Sadly, in the culture wars about Israel, neither side seems much interested in truths it doesn’t already know.

Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, worked for decades as an executive and consultant in public radio. He writes regularly for eJewishPhilanthropy and can be reached at bob [at] jewishcreativity [dot] org.