By Yitzhak Laor

published in Ha’aretz 25 July 2008

A few years ago, I was invited to a poetry festival in Barcelona. I was happy. I dutifully faxed my poems, had them translated into two languages – Catalonian and Castilian – and checked whatever I could check. Then, in the midst of the dialogue-by-fax, the deal was canceled, the invitation withdrawn – for budgetary reasons, they told me.

I was uneasy about the whole thing until the next invitation arrived, from the Sydney Festival. By then I already knew the ropes, and after the excitement on the other end of the line I said that I wasn’t sure the Israeli Foreign Ministry would “contribute to my expenses,” in the polite phrasing of those who run the state’s cultural affairs, meaning the international “schnorr” system that Israel managed to benefit from, especially in the days of budgetary crisis among cultural institutions. The organizers in Sydney told me I could relax, because the previous year my friend Ronny Someck, who speaks a lot about peace and coexistence, had been there and his ticket had been paid for by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, so I told them they could give it a try. Why not? After all, the money would be coming out of my taxes.

So we began the process, and eventually, after several e-mails and telephone conversations, the dialogue with Sydney petered out and then, of course, the cancellation arrived. I know they can always issue denials; that is the foundation of a government’s power – the fact that it’s hard to pin it down.

No serious discussion about “acceptance,” even in Israel in recent decades, can deal only with what takes place within the meaningless “writer-review-reader” triangle, as if such a mystical relationship is valid anywhere. Even the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, with its best translator from Hebrew to English, Dalya Bilu, and its dedicated staff, cannot really contribute to the success of its translations abroad without foreign tours of the writers it translates. Publishers abroad know such things much better than art festivals, which in their innocence think that the Foreign Ministry’s Division for Cultural and Scientific Affairs is the equivalent of Germany’s Goethe Institute, Italy’s Dante Institute or France’s Alliance Francaise. But that is not the case.

Below is the text of the contract that authors and artists sign with the Foreign Ministry in exchange for funding for the most important component in their international career: their trips to cultural and literary events, including film, theater, and dance festivals. The contract (dating from 2007) was e-mailed to me by someone who prefers to remain anonymous. The abbreviations in the body of the text are designed to spare the reader the long-winded legalese.


Between the State of Israel, via the Foreign Ministry, Division for Cultural and Scientific Affairs, by the deputy director of the CSA division and the Ministry’s accountant (hereinafter, ‘the Ministry’), on the one hand, and Mr./Ms./Company/Organization … (hereinafter, ‘the service provider’), on the other hand.”

Right in its introduction, the contract states:

“The service provider undertakes to mention the name of the Ministry and/or Israeli representation in the abovementioned countries in any publication concerning the services provided by him, in Israel and abroad. He must also undertake: To provide the Ministry with a detailed report of the provision of services by him, including samples and evidence, as stated in subparagraph C, below (hereinafter, ‘the services’).”

Now that the relationship between the Israeli government and the artists it sends abroad has been defined, the contract continues:

“Whereas the Ministry is interested in acquiring from the service provider the following cultural/artistic/educational/scientific services …

“The service provider hereby declares that he has the experience, expertise, qualifications and knowledge to execute the services.”

Now comes the main part:

“He is interested in providing services to the Ministry.” (The service provider must be equipped, of course, with all the legal documents, so the state will not be paying someone who is deceiving the income tax authorities, for example, or the Registrar of Nonprofit Organizations.)

Paragraph 5:

“In consideration for the provision of services by the service provider as detailed in this contract, and in keeping with the laws, the Ministry will pay the service provider the sum (hereinafter – ‘the consideration’) of up to [this figure varies, depending on the contract], for the following matters. The consideration will be paid by the Ministry, in part directly to the service provider, and in part directly to third parties [these include the foreign organizations issuing the invitations, such as film festivals and publishers], as specified below:

“A. The purchase of tourist-class airline tickets for the service provider, by the Ministry, via a travel agency chosen by the Ministry; alternatively, with the advance approval of the Ministry, the reimbursement of expenditures for the purchase of the abovementioned airline tickets by the service provider, against the presentation of acceptable receipts.

“B. The reimbursement of food, beverage, and lodging expenses, up to a sum of – NIS/$US/euro, in keeping with the Ministry’s practices and against receipts (here, too, the sum varies depending on the specific contract.

“C. Master artist’s fee, in amount of – NIS/$US/euro, including VAT.

“D. Reimbursement for land travel, up to a sum of – NIS/$US/euro, against conforming receipts.

“E. The packaging and air/sea shipment (including/not including land transportation) of the service provider’s luggage, required for the provision of the service, by a shipping company chosen by the Ministry; alternatively, with the advance approval of the Ministry, the reimbursement of expenditures for the above by the service provider, against receipts, up to a sum of – NIS/$US/euro. (This clause applies to artists, theater companies and sports teams sponsored by the Foreign Ministry).

“F. Reimbursement of expenses, or payment to third parties, for advertising, public relations and publications relating to the provision of the services to the Ministry by the service provider, against receipts and up to a sum of – NIS/$US/euro.”

It is important to understand that this entire process requires tremendous budgetary flexibility. The embassy and the cultural attache determine the value of each artist and how large a favorable audience they can attract with author X or author Y. This in turn determines the value of the hotel, the flights, and of course the fee paid for the presentation, another aspect of that budget.

A contract is a boring read, so I will jump ahead to Paragraph 12 and the crux of the matter:

“The service provider undertakes to act faithfully, responsibly and tirelessly to provide the Ministry with the highest professional services. The service provider is aware that the purpose of ordering services from him is to promote the policy interests of the State of Israel via culture and art, including contributing to creating a positive image for Israel.”

In order to conceal the above – after all, culture is “culture,” without intervention, without mechanisms, without state-sponsored translation machines – Paragraph 13 stresses:

“The service provider will not present himself as an agent, emissary and/or representative of the Ministry.”

Paragraph 15 even contains a warning:

“The Ministry is entitled to terminate this contract, or a part thereof, immediately and at the Ministry’s sole discretion, if the service provider does not provide the Ministry with the services and/or does not fulfill his obligations under this contract and/or does not provide the services and/or fulfill his obligations to the Ministry’s full satisfaction, and/or provides the services in an inadequate fashion and/or deviates from the timetable, and/or if the Ministry does not need the services of the service provider for any reason and/or for budgetary, organizational or security and/or policy reasons, and the service provider will make no claim, demand or suit based on the termination of the contract by the Ministry.”

It goes without saying that the artists are presenting our democracy in total freedom.