Likud MK Miri Regev.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
‘We got 30 seats [in the Knesset], you only got 20,” Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev taunted a group of leading arts administrators and actors in a meeting last week, as she threatened to remove their state funding and direct it instead to the country’s periphery and the West Bank. In so doing, Regev perfectly maintained her boorish image and played directly to her internal Likud audience for whom the theater is a hotbed of leftwing treachery and debauchery.
While treating the election results like a football score might sit well in her role as sports minister, as culture minister Regev should know that in a properly functioning democracy, the winning party does not seek to trample opposing views simply because it has the majority in parliament.
Moreover, as minister of culture, she should also be aware that the role of the arts in a liberal democracy is to examine society from all angles, even if this proves unsettling to some.
Freedom of thought and freedom of expression are the hallmarks of a true democracy.
By threatening to withdraw funding from cultural institutions that in the minister’s narrow view help delegitimize Israel, Regev is regrettably living up to her initial statements on being awarded the culture portfolio: “If it is necessary to censor, I will censor.”
Immediately on having made these remarks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should have pulled Regev into his office and reminded her of the ruling of his aunt, the former High Court justice Shoshana Netanyahu, almost 30 years ago. Back then, the state still censored plays (such censorship was only abolished in 1991), and in 1986 the Censorship Council banned a play called Efraim Returns to the Army.
No doubt Regev would have agreed with the council’s decision, which argued the play would offend public sensitivities and threaten public order because it promoted a negative attitude toward the state by arousing disgust for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in general and the military presence in the territories in particular. The play was also accused of comparing the IDF to the Nazi regime.
The Censorship Council’s decision was appealed to the High Court of Justice, where it was overturned. In his ruling, then justice Aharon Barak pointed out: “We live in a democratic society, in which this burning of the heart [resulting from offensive speech] is the heart of democracy. Its power is not in the recognition that I have the right to listen to pleasantries. Its power lies in recognizing that the other has the right to express opinions that are unpleasant and hurtful.”
More to the point, Shoshana Netanyahu witheringly remarked her in her ruling that she considered Israeli democracy as strong enough to stage as “corrupt and worthless [a] play as the one before us.”
Justice Netanyahu was certainly correct.Today, who remembers the play Efraim Returns to the Army?
REGEV’S DESIRE to censor or cut off funds from any theater with which she has a political disagreement shows a stunning lack of self-confidence in the rightness of her own views. And the extent of her vindictiveness against those who act according to their own conscience is meanwhile truly disturbing.
Regev’s initial threat to withdraw funding from the Jaffa-based Elmina multicultural theater for children because of a decision of its co-founder, the actor Norman Issa, not to perform over the Green Line in a production being staged by another theater company, took the concept of guilt by association to new lows.
Even Regev’s own Likud ministerial colleagues felt she overstepped the mark. Minister for Gender and Minority Equality Gila Gamliel, who apparently does understand the wider meaning of her portfolio, bluntly stated that Regev’s threat harmed the principle of equality.
“Even raising the possibility of punishing Arab and Jewish children by removing the Culture Ministry’s support for the theater is an unacceptable decision. What have the children done?” Gamliel told a newspaper. “This is clearly not a cultural decision. It’s an unacceptable declaration that harms the principle of equality.”
Regev later recanted but she has set a disturbing tone for the duration of her term as culture minister that no amount of frolicking with the Likud gay members at this weekend’s Gay Pride celebrations in Tel Aviv can offset.
As Israel looks to fight an increasing wave of boycotts, including cultural boycotts, the last thing the country needs is a culture minister whose sole motivation seems to be clamping down and boycotting those Israeli artists with whom she disagrees.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.