Anyone who wants to defame Israel will do it without the government’s help or funding, Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev told the Knesset plenum on Monday, responding to a no-confidence motion by the Joint List titled, “Harm to Culture for Political Reasons.”
Regev’s speech came a day after a conference of artists protested her decision to defund Jaffa-based Elmina Theater, for Jewish and Arab teens, after its founder, Norman Issa, in his capacity as an actor with the Haifa Theater, refused to perform in Jordan Valley settlements over the Green Line.
At the conference, actor Oded Kotler said, amid cheers: “Imagine your world silent, Ms. Regev, without books, music, poems. A world where there is nothing to disturb the nation from celebrating 30 Knesset seats followed by a herd of cattle chewing their cud.”
Kotler attempted to walk back the comments later Monday, saying that he meant all of Israel, not just Likud voters.
“Mr. Kotler, are the 61 [coalition] MKs sitting here crude cattle, or refined cattle in your eyes?” Regev asked. “Do the dozens of artists who applauded you and your metaphor think, like you do, that a million people are just chewing their cud?”
Regev compared Kotler’s comments to comments about Likud voters that artist Yair Garbuz made ahead of this year’s election, calling them “amulet kissers, idol worshipers and bowers at the graves of saints,” and comments by the late comedian Dudu Topaz at a 1981 rally, in which he used the anti-Sephardi slur “chahchahim.”
“Is this discourse cultural in your eyes?” she asked Kotler.
Regev said she will not support cultural organizations that boycott and delegitimize Israel, and that her policy is one of “shouting the shouts of many in the nation who can no longer stand the fact that there are voices in this house who call to boycott large groups and exclude them just because of their origins, their geographic location, the color of their skin or the language they speak.
“What is all the fuss about? That the government of Israel and I, as its representative, thought that a sane government should not commit suicide? What is the shouting about? That we expressed a clear stance, that the government of Israel will not use its cultural budget for plays or institutions or artists who boycott Israel? Is there something immoral about that, or does that harm freedom of expression?” she asked.
Regev declared that freedom of expression is “the air that a democratic society breathes” and that it will always be protected.
However, that does not mean the government has to use taxpayer money for those who seek to undermine the state.
“Whoever wants to defame Israel can do it alone. We won’t block it, but we won’t fund it,” she concluded. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also came out against Kotler’s statement, calling it “outrageous and deserving of denunciation,” and in favor of Regev’s policy.
“This is the most talked about country in the world and the most talkative in the world, so there is no question of freedom of expression and speech in Israel. This right is grounded in the law, but there is no automatic right for everything that is said to be publicly funded,” he said at a Likud faction meeting.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said Kotler and Regev are equally problematic.
“Regev is the cultural minister and doesn’t need to continue using what she learned when she was the [IDF Spokesman],” he said. “There’s no reason for any artist to be threatened with defunding… just because they expressed their opinion in a democratic country.”
As for Kotler, Herzog says he has “disdain for his ugly words and disdain for those who thought they were worthy of applause.”
“We will never be able to convince people of our way if we are not happy that Israel is multicultural, has a lot of colors and opinions and traditions and faiths. We will never touch the hearts of the people whose support we want in an election if we speak of them with disdain and derision and condescension,” he added.
Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal- On called Kotler’s comments doubly problematic, because “they stain an entire public, and secondly, because they distract the discussion from what Regev said, who lit the fire and is now acting like a victim.”
At the same conference where Kotler spoke, Ortal Tamam, the nephew of Moshe Tamam, a soldier who was murdered by Israeli Arabs in 1984, spoke in favor of defunding a play written by her uncle’s murderer, and she was booed off the stage, leaving in tears.
Last week, Education Minister Naftali Bennett called for the play, A Parallel Time, to no longer receive a government subsidy to be performed in schools.
On Monday, Bennett visited the Tamam family and promised to continue to stand by their side. Later, in a Bayit Yehudi faction meeting, he vowed not to fund plays that support terrorists.
JTA contributed to this report.