Bellicose culture mogul

Minister Miri Regev takes aim at Israel’s national theater, Habima.

Minister Miri Regev (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Minister Miri Regev
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
HAVING BEEN asked by Moscow’s Habima Hebrew theater to design the set for one of its plays, Marc Chagall refused and explained, “Habima’s actors don’t act; they pray.”
It was 1920, and the fabled Jewish artist was referring to the troupe’s heroic, and in his view quixotic, efforts to sound natural while acting in an ancient language, which back then was only beginning to return to life.
Habima (meaning the stage) was indeed trying to do on stage what Zionist farmers were trying to do on the land and what Hebrew poets, authors and scholars were trying to do with their pens ‒ herald a Hebrew future on the debris of the Jewish past.
In post-czarist Moscow’s momentarily free artistic scene, Habima competed with the State Jewish Theater, which acted in Yiddish and, while hailing the Communist redemption of the Jews, still saluted the shtetl Jew, personified by megastar Shlomo Mikhoels who would later be murdered by Joseph Stalin along with other Jewish artists and literati.
The gaunt, big-eyed, and grotesquely ugly Mikhoels contrasted sharply with Habima’s lean and muscular Aharon Meskin and stunning beauty Hanna Rovina.
The characters created by the latter two and their colleagues, wrote the late literary critic Gershon Shaked, bore a messianic vision.
Habima’s actors could not be challenged the way their Yiddish competitors were in 1937, during a backstage visit by Stalin’s right-hand man Lazar Kaganovich, who scolded Mikhoels and the others.
“This is a disgrace; look at me, at who I am, I am a Jew, my father, too, was a Jew, tall, fair, healthy. Why are you dragging across your stages such Jews – deformed, limping, handicapped? Where are the Maccabees, where is Bar-Kochba, where are the Jews of Soviet Birobidzhan who are building their new life?” Habima’s Jews were the antithesis of all this.
So divinely were they shaped that when their greatest actress portrayed a prostitute in Frantisek Langer’s “The Outskirts” and, while at it, bared her legs, there was an outcry. Actress Rovina’s body was “charged with nationalist messianic aspirations,” wrote Tel Aviv University historian of Jewish drama Yair Lipshitz.
Understandably, then, when the troupe arrived in Tel Aviv in 1928 during a world tour, its actors saw no reason to return to Moscow.
The city, which by then was already speaking, writing, reading, singing and cursing in Hebrew, was their emotional home, and from then on would also be their physical home.
Habima’s competition then was no longer a socialist Yiddish theater, but pre-state Tel Aviv’s Zionist Hebrew theaters like Ohel (Tent) and Ha’matateh (The Broom), from which it distinguished itself with its star-studded cast and high-end repertoire, ranging from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid” to Schiller’s “Wilhelm Tell” and Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”
Coupled with a steady outflow of biblical and Zionist themes such as “David’s Crown”, its 1929 rendition of the Israelite king’s court of intrigues, and “Jud Suess,” its 1933 presentation of a court Jew’s downfall as an emblem of the futility of exile – pre-state Habima’s blending of quality and nationalism made it the Zionist enterprise’s undisputed flagship theater.
Though some still found its acting overly dramatic, the “praying” that Chagall had attributed to its actors vanished as Hebrew proliferated and Habima came of age along with the Jewish state of which it dreamed, and which, in 1958, formally crowned it as its National Theater.
These days, however, they are praying again at Habima, only now they are seeking the exorcism of the dybbuk that has been haunting Israel’s artistic community since last year, and which is now honing in on Habima. Her name is Miri Regev.
“THEY TOLD me to always start with a quote because it leaves a cultural impression, so here it is,” the outspoken culture minister told the Haaretz Conference on Culture in March where she faced in one packed auditorium the artists, literati and media she likes to provoke. “As a Chinese Jewish philosopher once said,” came the quote delivered in English, “cut the bullshit!” The retired brigadier-general was referring in that particular moment to a law that forbids stores to cut book prices for the first 18 months after publication to keep authors’ royalties intact. Regev’s stance on this would not have made headlines, but for the disdainful tone in which it was delivered and what came before it ‒ a frontal attack on high culture, in general, and Israel’s, in particular.
A former chief IDF spokeswoman and military censor, the 50-year-old Regev climbed to those positions from the bottom, having hailed from provincial Kiryat Gat, where her parents settled after leaving Morocco.
Having served as the IDF’s senior press liaison during the disengagement from Gaza, Regev now says she was actually opposed to that policy and only fulfilled orders. At heart, she says, she was a diehard Likudnik all along, and that includes, in her view, revulsion with what she sees as anti-patriotic art.
Once in power, Regev lost no time making her misgivings known and felt. Hardly a month after becoming a minister last year, she blocked funding for a fringe theater in Haifa called Almidan, because it staged a play inspired by the kidnapping and murder in 1984 of IDF soldier Moshe Tamam, despite his family’s protestations.
It was a declaration of intent that overnight redefined what was previously seen as the least important cabinet portfolio.
Though overseeing a mere NIS 961 million, which is but a fraction of a percent of the overall budget, Regev realized the funds she oversees are dear to the cultural elite, which to the electorate she is wooing is often anathema.
The Culture Ministry has the power to decide whether and how much to help theaters, museums, publications, music halls and film productions. Regev, therefore, scanned the field in search of targets and soon resumed sniping.
Having left a budgetary casualty in Haifa, she proceeded to Jaffa, where she found in a children’s theater called Elmina a director named Norman Issa who refused to perform, as an actor in a different theater, beyond the Green Line.
Issa, a Maronite Christian, is married to a Jewish woman with whom he runs the theater where the couple have Arab and Jewish kids stage apolitical plays together.
Despite this, and also despite the fact that his political statement was made outside and regardless of the Jaffa project, Regev said she was reviewing her ministry’s support for the children’s theater.
Regev – who once during a speech to students uprooted a blue-and-white flag with its pole from the stage’s corner and while pacing with it exclaimed, “This is our state, and our job is to preserve it with Zionist lawmakers” – seemed to enjoy the outrage she now triggered.
“The left,” she charged in a meeting with theater managers and event organizers, “possesses” Israeli culture as if it owned it.
“We should not be confused about who the public is and whom the public elected,” she said abstractly before turning practical.
“I decide the criteria,” she asserted. “I can decide that certain institutions don’t get money, and that all funding goes to the periphery, and to Judea and Samaria,” all of which led to one bottom line and overarching quest. “The artists won’t dictate to me!” By then, Regev had long established herself as a fixture of the political gladiator ring, a status underscored by her repeated portrayal in the highly rated TV satire “Wonderful Country” as a know-nothing vulgarian.
The accumulating provocations quickly positioned Regev as what she evidently wanted to be: the archenemy of the cultural elite.
First came veteran actor Oded Kotler, who called the electorate in whose name Regev spoke “grazing beasts.” Then came playwright Yehoshua Sobol, who called on Regev to rename her agency the “Propaganda Ministry,” explaining that such ministries existed in the past and, alluding to Joseph Goebbels, added that “they had wonderful ministers.” Finally, a battery of senior artists, including photographer David Rubinger, choreographer Ohad Naharin and actress Gila Almagor, all Israel Prize laureates, vowed in a petition never to “censor or castrate our creations because of mighty laws, threats and intimidations.”
As usually happens in Israel in such situations, both sides have since taken a step back.
Regev backtracked from her threat to close the children’s theater and then said she wanted to be “everyone’s culture minister” and that all she wanted was that the artistic community would know her boundaries, if they wanted her funding.
Across the divide, novelist Amos Oz reprimanded Kotler for dehumanizing Regev’s followers. “Those who call for dialogue with the [Palestinian] enemy,” he said, “must also dialogue with tough and dangerous political enemies.”
Even her adversaries agree that Regev, an MBA and a graduate of the IDF Command and Staff College, is calculated, savvy and, indeed, stands for something, as was reflected by her placing fourth in the Likud’s primaries. “I am the daughter of Felix and Marcel Siboni,” she said in one interview. “I never read Chekhov, I hardly went to see plays in my childhood, I listened to [Moroccan-born singer] Joe Ammar and to Sephardi songs, and I am no less cultural than consumers of Western culture. You won’t dictate to me what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Regev’s grievance, then, is not only political, but also cultural and social, and it not only reflects cynical calculation, but also expresses genuine pain.
Now, the minister and her agenda, ambition and emotions are heading toward the towering bastion at the heart of her battlefield – Habima.
TUCKED BETWEEN central Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Blvd. and Dizengoff Center, the national theater’s 71-year-old building is, today, a brightly lit celebration of glass and stone that, following a 100 million shekel renovation, salutes its original Bauhaus design.
The tasteful but expensive renovation underscores Habima’s unique life between centrality, pretension and scandal. Due to its status as the national theater, as it was formally defined by the Ben-Gurion government, Habima’s renovation was generously financed by City Hall and the Finance Ministry. Due to the tax-funded handouts, the renovation exceeded its original budget by 43 percent.
While the renovation itself was not Habima’s purview, the theater itself also suffered from poor management, resulting in a 2.8m. shekel deficit in the mid-90s, and a 42m. shekel deficit in 2011.
Both crises resulted in debt rescheduling plans and government loans, all of which still left Habima struggling, so much so that State Comptroller Joseph Shapira launched an investigation into Habima’s management.
The report he is scheduled to issue in May is expected to unveil more mismanagement.
That is where actors, directors and playwrights fear Regev plans to come in, pouring political salt on financial wounds.
“Habima is important,” she said in a statement in April. “However, the question is how does it being a national theater come into expression.”
To find the answer, the minister set up a committee of culture officials, academics and jurists that will delve into the question and provide Regev with recommendations.
Everyone knows Habima needs a new managerial formula alongside the 17m.
shekels it receives from Regev’s agency and an estimated annual 45m. shekels its events earn. The fear is that new management will come coupled with a new mission statement.
Just what a national theater doesn’t need is much of a definition. More than 50 countries worldwide have them, from Britain’s Royal National Theater to Japan’s National Theater. The common denominator among them are public funds, high-end casts and smart mixtures of classical and modern repertoires, both homegrown and foreign.
Political expectations from national theaters are not new. In 1997, the director of the Barcelona-based National Theater of Catalonia was forced to resign after inaugurating his arrival with a foreign play, Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” And during the French Revolution, the Théâtre de la Nation was disbanded and its actors were also briefly arrested for what the committee for public safety saw as a subversive rendition of “Pamela,” a tale about the personal transformations of a landowner and his maid in what begins with rape and ends with marriage.
Regev will not get anyone arrested in Habima or elsewhere in the artistic scene, but there are fears that while redesigning the relationship between Habima and the government she will also seek ways to impact its repertoire.
Habima has already been in this situation, when in 1964, it faced, and ignored, Foreign Ministry pressure not to stage Rolf Hochhuth’s “The Deputy,” which lampooned Pope Pius XII for his passivity in the face of the Holocaust. Despite the passage of generations, that spirit of defiance will clearly still be there if challenged this bluntly.
Israel’s many subversive plays usually came from other theaters. Hanoch Levin’s seminal “Bathtub Queen,” a 1970 anti-war satire, was staged in Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater; Yehoshua Sobol’s “Jerusalem Syndrome,” a depiction of ancient Judea’s zealots that was understood as a parable on the Shamir government as the 1987 intifada approached, was staged by the Haifa Theater, and Levin’s “The Patriot,” an anti-war cabaret written after the outbreak of the 1982 First Lebanon War, was staged by the Neve Tzedek Theater.
Scenes in such plays – like a fallen soldier scolding his father’s patriotism from under his tombstone (“Bathtub Queen”); Jewish nationalists portrayed as rapists and cannibals (“Jerusalem Syndrome”); or observant Israelis using a Sabbath candle to roast an Arab’s hand (“The Patriot”) – have made right-wing politicians fume.
Ultimately, such plays came to be seen as precursors of post-Zionism, and as celebrations of what critics like Regev deride as self-flagellations and one-sided distortions of the Arab-Israeli conflict that do not deserve state funding.
Despite other theaters’ leadership when it comes to political provocations, Habima’s status as Israel’s theatrical flagship, and its vulnerability as it struggles financially, add up to a political temptation Regev might find difficult to resist.
Chances she will seek a way to bluntly and systematically interfere in its content selection are low, but chances are good she will try to introduce definitions for blurry concepts like “insult to national values” and then use them to condition funding.
Similarly, Regev may decide to earmark larger funds for cultural development in the geographic periphery – places like her childhood town Kiryat Gat – at the expense of the big theaters. Few measures can announce such a reorientation more potently than trimming Habima’s funding.
The results of such change are unpredictable.
While surely effective for Regev personally as she electioneers among Likud members, how much such reallocation will actually transform the periphery remains to be seen.
What does not remain to be seen is Regev’s already harsh alienation of the artistic community, which in such a case will surely intensify, possibly to an extent that will be disagreeable to her own party, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A hint of such homegrown discomfort already surfaced when Regev’s party colleague, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel, criticized her for threatening to shut down the Arab-Jewish children’s theater in Tel Aviv. Gamliel is a protégé of Netanyahu’s.
Regev is not, and might not have been a minister but for her high ranking in the Likud primaries.
In “The Dybbuk,” the 1922 blockbuster that catapulted Habima to international stardom, attempts to confront supreme mystical forces result in death. Just who is more mystically empowered in the fight Regev has picked – art or the multitude – is what she and Habima may soon find out.