Lebanese civil society groups have voiced concern for cultural freedom and individual liberties, after Moroccan-French comedian Gad Elmaleh pulled out of the Beiteddine Festival this week, due to accusations of supporting Israel from Hezbollah’s TV station, Al Manar.
Elmaleh, who is Jewish, had been scheduled to perform his latest show, Papa est en haut (“Dad is upstairs”), at Lebanon’s famous summer festival, but after the Beiteddine organizing committee announced this year’s line at the beginning of June, Al Manar broadcasted a report accusing Elmaleh of being a veteran of the Israeli army who acted as Israel’s “Francophone Ambassador.”
By way of proof, the report showed a photograph of a soldier that viewers were told was Elmaleh, as well as comments in which the comedian apparently said Israel was misrepresented in the media and that his friends would like the country if they visited it. Both the comments and the picture appear to have been pulled from two open source websites.
The accusations, which both Elmaleh and the Festival’s organizing committee flatly reject, caused enough of a stir to prompt the comedian to cancel his scheduled performances, tickets for which had already sold out, citing concern for his personal safety.
At a press conference held in the wake of Elmaleh’s withdrawal, Nora Jumblatt, who heads the committee and is the wife of Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, said, “We were faced with an organized campaign, which accused the committee of permitting attacks on Lebanon’s sovereignty and Arab identity. This is of course not true.”
Lebanon’s Information Minister Tarek Mitri, in a statement released by the National News Agency, said that while “it is the Lebanese citizen’s right and duty to boycott Israel and people who appear to have served the Israeli army or worked in any of Israel’s official institutions… [Elmaleh’s] and the organizing committee’s [rebuttal] of what was attributed to him as unauthentic makes the campaign lose its purpose.”
It’s a matter of culture
While the controversy over Elmaleh has come to an end with his withdrawal from the festival, a number of civil society advocates are unsettled by the campaign against the comic, and its implications regarding cultural freedom, freedom of expression and civil rights in Lebanon.
“It indicates a violation of cultural and individual liberties, which constitute a red line that we will always defend,” said Antoine Courban, a journalist and professor of Medicine and Philosophy of Medical Sciences at St. Joseph University. “The state granted this artist a visa; no private group can interfere with that because it would be a denial of the state’s sovereignty and power.”
The problem in Lebanon, Courban added, is that the nation is, in effect, divided into two societies with completely different values. He said that when the state is unable to guarantee freedom of speech and civil rights under the rule of law, civil society must speak up. “We have to be courageous and prepare ourselves psychologically for a long and tiring struggle. If we surrender on issues concerning those fundamental rights, we will end up in a state of barbarism, where cultural production has nothing to do with freedom.”
Young activists similarly disturbed by the campaign against Elmaleh have created groups on Facebook, such as “Bring Gad back to the Beitiddine Festival now,” which was started by 22-year-old graphic designer Christian Asmar. The comment page for the group features a wide array of opinions, with some maintaining that charges against Elmaleh represent intimidation by an armed group or a purely political message sent by Hezbollah to Walid Jumblatt, while others argue that art, culture and politics are inseparable and that the Beiteddine Committee had not adequately researched Elmaleh.
Still for Asmar, “the main problem is how the issue was tackled. If indeed there is such a problem [with Elmaleh], they should present a complaint to the concerned authorities because Elmaleh has been invited twice and granted a visa. If there was a problem, the government should have handled it.”
“We got lots of reactions asking us how we could take such a stance and defend Israel,” he said, in an interview with NOW. “I have to say this is not why we opened the group, we did it because politics and religion are always forced to mix with culture.”
Another group on Facebook, which has attracted nearly 9,000 members, is circulating a petition written by Professor Courban in support of cultural diversity and freedom of expression. Supporters of the group are condemning the incident as “intellectual terrorism.”
Differing views of the controversy
Al Manar, for its part, maintains that it is not Elmaleh’s religion that was at issue, but rather his support for Israel, and the station’s website has posted links to interviews and reports in support of the charges against Elmaleh, including one in which the comic says that he visited Jerusalem in 2006 and found Israeli society to be “healthy, balanced and alive.”
Such a description of the Jewish state is a political opinion that should be countered and condemned, said Samah Idriss, the editor of Al Adab magazine.
“[Elmaleh] visited Israel and promoted it, telling all people to go,” Idriss said. “This is to be condemned, because when an Arab goes to Palestine, he goes for a cause: to support the Palestinian people that are suppressed by the state or the Jews… He has called for visiting Israel when there is a whole campaign calling for the total boycott of the country and you expect me to just consider his art?”
Others contend that expressing sympathy for Israeli society is not necessarily grounds for boycotting an artist.
“If it not his Judaism they are attacking, then the attacks have no grounds, because nothing has been proven against him,” said civil rights activist Shirine Abdallah.
Christine Tohme of the Lebanese Association Ashkal Alwan, said that the Elmaleh controversy is by no means the only instance where a campaign to censor art or an artist has been waged in Lebanon. While unsure of the motives or authenticity of the accusations against Elmaleh, Tohme said that she opposes all forms of censorship.
To that end, Courban insisted that a culture that fosters cultural freedom is in danger, because censorship is contagious, saying, “Standing up to it democratically is the only thing we can do to make sure that it doesn’t recur.”