Imagine, Ms. Regev, our world, your world – without books, without music, without poetry, a world where no one prevents the nation from celebrating the 30 [Likud Knesset] seats in whose wake march a herd of straw and cud-munching cattle. – Actor Oded Kotler to Miri Regev, Jaffa, June 14.
Nothing but a smoke screen
The row that erupted last week over the announcement by the newly appointed culture minister, Miri Regev, that she would no longer provide state funding for cultural institutions, activities or artists that call for the delegitimization of Israel was not really about what it was said to be about.
It was not about the preservation of quality cultural activity but about societal control, thinly veiled in cultural camouflage.
Indeed it was, to a large degree, a smokescreen for a longstanding political dispute that has created bitter divisions in Israeli society for decades – whose origins can be traced back to the era before the state.
For today, as in the past, the real schism in Israeli society is not between the religious and the secular, not between the Sephardi and the Ashkenazi, not even between the rich and the poor.
This is not to say that these divisions do not exist, but they are all superseded by one far more abiding, far more emotive and far less bridgeable, that cuts across them all.
This is the rift between what can loosely be termed the dovish political Left and the more hawkish political Right, which over the years has taken on varying forms in terms of style, substance and emphasis.
Today, this manifests itself as a clash between those who advocate, with ideological fervor, the establishment of a misogynistic, homophobic Muslim-majority tyranny (a.k.a. a Palestinian state) on the eastern fringes of Greater Tel Aviv, as the panacea for virtually all the country’s ills, on the one hand, and those who dispute this, on the other. It is between those who harbor a profound loathing for the presence of Jews across the pre-1967 Green Line, no matter how productive and beneficial to others it is, and those who do not.
For those who find this unconvincing – hold your judgment, and read on.
Echoes from the past
In many ways the pseudo-cultural façade of the current furor is an echo of past acrimony reflecting the ideo-political rivalry that raged between the once hegemonic Labor Party (David Ben-Gurion’s historic Mapai), and the Revisionist Herut Party of Menachem Begin. The current uproar is merely a continuation by latter-day proxies – the modern mutations, associates and offshoots of these old antagonists, clustered around today’s Zionist Union (Labor) and Likud (Herut).
For the skeptical (and perhaps less-informed) layman it may be difficult to grasp – indeed believe – the depth of animosity that prevailed in the early decades of the state, and the scope of the ostracization that the Labor-dominated establishment employed to delegitimize its Revisionist rivals.
But such understanding is essential, if one is to fathom how the tradition of using ceremony and culture to diminish political opponents is being used today.
I could hardly ask for a more telling quote to illustrate this than the one provided by Prof. Udi Lebel, author of works such as “Beyond the Pantheon’ Bereavement, Memory, and the Strategy of De-Legitimization Against Herut.”
He writes, “Ben-Gurion was a genius at cultural engineering, and understood very well the significance of the culture of memory in creating political status... It was clear to him that if the right was not part of the national memory, then its political standing would also be affected.”
‘The man sitting next to Dr. Bader...’
Thus, Ben-Gurion refused to utter Menachem Begin’s name in Knesset debates, stubbornly referring to him as “the man sitting next to Dr. Bader [another, less prominent, Herut MK].” So visceral was his enmity to his ideological revisionist adversaries, he refused to allow the remains of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder of the Revisionist Movement and an outstanding Zionist leader and intellectual, who died in 1940, to be brought from New York for burial in Israel. It was only after Ben-Gurion left office in 1963 that the government relented and Jabotinsky, and his wife, Hanna Markovna Halpern, were re-interred on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
Moreover, as Prof. Jonathan Mendilow points out in his Ideology, Party Change, and Electoral Campaigns in Israel
, “to stigmatize Herut[,] Mapai could exploit its control of state apparatus... Herut members were denied access to the highest bureaucratic and military positions.”
Arguably, the most galling measure of marginalization was Ben-Gurion’s decision to exclude the fallen combatants of the pre-state underground organizations associated with the Revisionists, the Irgun and Lehi (Stern Group), who fought for Israel’s independence, from official commemoration ceremonies, and deny their families benefits provided to families of members of the Mapai-dominated Hagana.
Moreover, as Prof. Lebel points out, national monuments are a significant factor in creating national memory.
For Irgun and Lehi members, such monuments were of great importance, but, Lebel tells us, the state acted to thwart private efforts to build them. “Only in cities that were not controlled by Labor members could such monuments be built locally.”
It was only in 1977, with the rise of the Likud to power, that the disparity between the fallen pre-independence warriors was eliminated, and Irgun and Lehi members were included into the national pantheon.Stalinist roots & totalitarian rigidity
Journalist Amnon Lord, formerly a left-wing Peace Now supporter, has, based on his personal experience and disillusionment, written extensively of the Stalinist roots and totalitarian rigidity of much of the Israeli Left.
In an opinion peace written some years ago (“On being a ‘traitor,’” The Jerusalem Post, March 11, 2004), he writes of the Left-dominated elites’ control of the discourse – despite the will of the people: “We have reached the point where anyone identified in any way with the ‘Right’ cannot participate in a public debate.
The very definition of his person or position as ‘rightist’ automatically puts his arguments outside the limits of public discourse. A strange situation in a country where just a year and a half ago the rightist parties won an overwhelming majority...”
He characterized the pathology that, since the Left’s traumatic electoral defeat in 1977, has, to a large degree, taken hold of its collective psyche, its obdurate enmity toward the Right, and its scant regard for democratic outcomes: “The Right is the enemy, and if the Right happens to be the Israeli people, then too bad.”
This was starkly demonstrated on the night of that fateful election by the then-iconic, firebrand, seven-time Labor MK and union leader Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, who was a member of a television panel assembled to comment on the final ballot. On hearing the results of the exit polls predicting his party’s defeat, he reacted instinctively, exclaiming: “If that is the will of the people, I do not accept it.” (He is also widely cited as proclaiming, “If that is the will of the people, we need to replace the people.”)
Self-anointed elites’ disregard for ‘plebeians’
It is this sense of self-attributed superiority and elite entitlement that spawns a disdainful disregard for vox populi, reflected in the scant importance ascribed to the collective opinion of the plebeian public. Indeed, as long as the public supports the Left’s political rivals, this serves to reaffirm the Left’s perception that their collective opinion is not worthy of serious consideration.
But another insidious process also began to take place.
As Labor and its Left-leaning affiliates had vehemently demonized the Begin-led Likud, they clearly had to distance themselves from the policies of their despised adversaries. However, as it turns out, these were not all that different from those undertaken by the previous Labor government. After all, it was Labor that had launched the settlement activity in Judea-Samaria and Gaza; vehemently opposed negotiations with Arafat’s PLO; adamantly refused to recognize Palestinian nationhood or endorse the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Accordingly, to differentiate itself from the political Right, the political Left found itself compelled to adopt increasingly radical policies that it had previously rejected.
Thus, trapped in the web of its own rhetoric, Labor drifted further and further to the left, forsaking the robust, assertive “activism” which had characterized its pre-1977 policies, making it the dominant political force for almost four decades.
As its electoral appeal among the public contracted and its political clout eroded, the Left fell back on its remaining centers of societal control – select groups of civil society elites, whose power far exceeded their representation in the population.Last vestiges of power
As a result of decades of hegemonic control of much over the country’s civil society apparatus (in no small measure due to “Ben-Gurion[‘s]... genius at cultural engineering,” on the one hand, and the Right’s continuing ineptitude, on the other), the Left continued, overwhelmingly, to dominate these small but highly influential elites.
Any time the Right attempted to introduce some measure – no matter how eminently sensible and democratic – to reform any portion of the civil society establishment, which the Left perceives as its last vestige of power, it is met with ferocious resistance and vociferously denigrated as gravely endangering democracy, imperiling civil liberties and threatening freedom of expression.
This was the case when, in the face of rapidly eroding public credence in the courts, the Right attempted to introduce measures to ensure greater openness in the selection of the judiciary. This was the case when, in the face of growing public concern as to financing of politically partisan (read “radical leftwing”) NGOs by foreign governments, whose national interests clearly differ from those of Israel, the Right endeavored to introduce measures requiring greater transparency as to the source of their funding.
The Qatari alternative?
Just as it was absurd to brand initiatives to promote greater openness and greater transparency as a menace to democratic governance and individual liberty, so is the current brouhaha over the demand that Israel should finance organizations, activities and individuals that promote its delegitimization and imposition of detrimental punitive measures on itself and its citizens – who are expected to finance their own economic privation with their hard-earned taxes! Really? After all, commitment to the principles of democratic governance is not a suicide pact.
The absurd deepens on realizing that what Regev is proposing is not to silence the expression of views that diverge, or contradict, those she holds. She merely declares that the elected government, which must choose how to allot the limited resources at its disposal, should not fund activities which in its judgment – and that of its electorate – are deliberately detrimental to the country. Nowhere does she suggest that the unfunded/defunded organizations/individuals should not seek alternative sources – some of whom have already threatened to approach... Qatar, one of the most significant backers of Hamas.
Hmm. Could it be that Regev has a point? Regev as poster-girl for Left?
Truth be told, Miri Regev is not entirely my cup of tea. I have found her demeanor often a little crass, her rhetoric a little raucous, and her behavior overly brusque. But in many ways she should be embraced by the liberal Left as epitomizing the socio-cultural values that it purportedly wishes to propagate: Cultural diversity; gender equality; empowerment of women – especially in male dominated environments; advancement of the periphery and so on.
After all, Regev hails from a development town in the South – Kiryat Gat – is of Eastern (Moroccan) origin, holds a master’s degree, worked her way through the male-dominated military echelons of the IDF attaining the rank of brigadier-general and acting as IDF spokeswoman.
But none of this could prevent her from being excoriated by many of the nation’s best known cultural icons. Her hawkish political views, that diverge from those held by the dovish Left, put her beyond the pale, fair game to be denigrated in the most uncouth, uncultured terms.
To remove any doubt as to whether the dispute is over politics, not culture, consider the words of theater director Ofira Henig. Having stated that she would not be in the same room as Minister Regev, Henig declared: “In artistic creation, there are no redlines only a Green Line [the pre-1967 armistice lines] which we must not cross.”
In other words, cultural diversity can and should embrace everything, except the notion of Jewish presence in the cradle of Jewish civilization.
I rest my case.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.net) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. (www.strategicisrael.org)