The politics of Israeli culture

Culture Minister Miri Regev’s strategy to climb politically by picking patriotic fights may have exhausted itself.

Miri Regev
‘If Netanyahu won’t make me a minister,” warned Likud’s Miri Regev back in December, “I will launch a rebellion.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did appoint the outspoken Regev, but Likud’s most powerful woman is rebelling anyhow, proving that even in the marginal Culture Ministry, one can stir money, conviction and ambition, and unsettle the public sphere.
Though hardly a month in her new job, the retired brigadier-general has already scattered commands, quips and threats that have pitted her against much of the artistic community that, as they see it, she is meant to serve.
On the executive level, Regev has suspended the transfer of funds for the Haifa-based Almidan Theater, whose play Parallel Time was inspired by the story of a Palestinian convicted of involvement in the kidnapping and murder in 1984 of IDF soldier Moshe Tamam. The play’s staging offended Tamam’s family, whose protests the theater ignored.
Regev, who was the IDF’s chief censor before her appointment as IDF spokeswoman, is not mandated to censor cultural creations or to shut down their venues. She is however assigned with leading her agency’s choices concerning the size and destination of state funding for theater, film, literature, the plastic arts and the institutions that host them.
Indeed, had Regev’s move vis-à-vis Parallel Time been isolated it might not have made so much noise. Yet the bullet it received was but one in a salvo that seems shot from the hip.
Having learned of Israeli-Arab actor Norman Issa’s refusal to join, as an actor, a Haifa Theater performance across the Green Line, Regev said she would review her ministry’s support for a theater he runs in Jaffa, called Elmina.
Issa’s case is entirely different from that of Parallel Time. A Maronite Christian, he has played in numerous Hebrew plays and films and established with his Jewish wife a theater where Jewish and Arab children learn drama and act together. Moreover, his protest was personal rather than in the name of any institution, and it was for a cause that, while controversial, is shared by large parts of Israeli society.
Meanwhile, Regev opened a third front, this time outflanking her critics by emerging to their left. With the Jerusalem International Film Festival scheduled to show a documentary that reportedly humanizes former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, Regev threatened the festival with a withdrawal of funding. The festival’s organizers duly balked, announcing they would delete the film from the event’s formal program, and only screen it among the festival’s previews.
Finally, in a meeting last week with the country’s leading cultural executives, Regev defined, blamed, and warned the enemy she chose to challenge: “We won 30 mandates and you won just 20,” she said. Asked to whom she was referring as “you,” Regev explained: “The Left.” The Left, she elaborated, “possesses” Israeli culture as if it were its property. “We should not be confused about who the public is and whom the public elected.”
And having presented her cause Regev now displayed her weaponry.
“I decide the criteria. I can decide that certain institutions don’t get money, and that all funding goes to the periphery and to Judea and Samaria.” And in case she wasn’t clear enough she said in summation: “The artists won’t dictate to me.”
As often happens with declarations of war, this one’s objects lost no time replying.
“Behind your 30 mandates marches a herd of grazing beasts,” said actor Oded Kotler during a speech in Jaffa that immediately triggered wall-to-wall condemnations, ranging from Prime Minister Netanyahu to head of the opposition Isaac Herzog, who said Kotler dehumanized his adversaries, to novelist Amos Oz, who said that “those who call for dialogue with the enemy” must also “dialogue with tough and dangerous political enemies.”
Kotler, who starred in the film based on Oz’s novel My Michael, would not retract his comments. Others concurred. “Regev should call her ministry the Propaganda Ministry,” said playwright Joshua Sobol, adding that “there were regimes that established ministries of propaganda, and they had wonderful ministers of propaganda.” The apparent allusion to Nazi Germany’s Joseph Goebbels made Sobol’s interviewers on Channel 10 ask him to retract it. He refused.
The gathering war of words soon produced general commotion. “We won’t censor or castrate our creations because of mighty laws, threats, and intimidations,” declared a petition signed by hundreds of artists, including photographer David Rubinger, choreographer Ohad Naharin and actress Gila Almagor, all Israel Prize winners.
Having drawn that much fire, Regev staged a tactical retreat, first rescinding her threat to the Jaffa children’s theater, and then by telling Channel 2’s Meet the Press that she is “everybody’s culture minister” and as such was not out to make everyone think like her. “That would be boring,” she conceded, explaining all she wants is that the institutions she funds respect the boundaries she will draw.
Bellicosity will now likely give way to pragmatism, as expressed by Actors Association director Ori Reshtik’s call to establish with Regev a forum that will jointly define “the fine borderline between a legitimate work of art and what defames Israel extremely.”
REGEV’S BUDGET of NIS 961 million is less than one-third of one-percent of the national budget.
Maneuver space within it is therefore narrow, even before recalling that it also finances less contentious causes like sports and public libraries. What has been done in this agency before Regev’s arrival will likely continue to be done after it, with some adjustments on the margins as she and her budget’s beneficiaries learn to cope with each other.
The question is therefore not how Regev will impact art, but why she has picked this war and where it will land her.
Regev’s assumption that Israel’s artists oppose her politics is indeed the conventional wisdom she said it is. Even so, it is inaccurate.
True, the days when some of Israel’s most legendary cultural icons believed in Greater Israel are gone.
There are no political equivalents today of poet Natan Alterman, novelists S.Y. Agnon, Moshe Shamir, and Haim Hazaz, filmmaker and satirist Ephraim Kishon, or songster Naomi Shemer, all of whom emerged from the Six Day War as unabashed hawks.
Today’s bestselling authors, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, and Meir Shalev, are all outspoken land-for-peace advocates, as are other prominent names across the artistic scene, from sculptor Yigal Tumarkin and painter Yair Garboz to poet Natan Zach. They were the kind of names that presumably inspired Regev’s us-and-them exhortation. However, their generation, whose ages range from sixty-something to mid-eighties, is giving way to a less political generation that was born into the post-67 era. Writers like Etgar Keret, Eshkol Nevo and Asaf Givron shy away from the political high profile of Oz et al.
Moreover, the artistic scene is less monolithic than Regev suggests, with the Right supported by senior artists like Israel’s greatest actor, Haim Topol, iconic singer Yehoram Gaon, and comedian Moti Giladi.
Regev’s “we won, you lost” statement, then, was a bit of a generalization, just like the ratio she cited, 30-20 was actually 30-24, assuming she was referring to the number of seats Likud and the Zionist Union won, respectively.
Still, Regev was not out to map the balance of power between the Right and the art scene nor to reinvent it. Rather, she was out to tap into what she sees as her electorate’s disdain for the cultural elite.
Born to immigrants from Morocco and raised in proletarian Kiryat Gat before rising in the IDF Spokesman’s Office ranks, graduating the IDF’s Staff and Command College, and earning an MBA, Regev’s transition to politics was animated by public appearances checkered with populist bravadoes and nationalist gestures.
In one case, while appearing before students and repeatedly concluding her sentences with the command “applause!” she grabbed from its stand a large Israeli flag and while waving it stated: “This is our state and our job is to preserve it with Zionist lawmakers.”
The strategy worked. Regev’s image became a fixture of high-rating TV satire Eretz Nehederet, where she was caricatured as a vulgar ignoramus, an image that did not hinder, and apparently helped, her subsequent emergence as No. 4 in Likud’s primaries.
Judging by her first month around the cabinet table where this strategy was designed to land her, Regev sees no reason to change course. She has, however, begun to annoy more than just the adversaries who have been her targets.
Referring to Regev’s initial threat to withdraw funding from the Elmina Theater, her party colleague Gender Equality Minister Gila Gamliel said the thought was “un-cultural.” If anything, she said, “I would expect the culture minister to expand funding for this theater, which gives children an opportunity to enjoy culture.”
Regev, in an apparent throwback to her military days, retorted by ordering Gamliel: “Mind your own ministry’s business.” She doubtfully will. Regev’s strategy, of climbing politically by picking patriotic fights, has spent itself.