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Israel's culture minister is no friend of cultural equality

Culture Minister Miri Regev may be right in wanting to change the unbalanced distribution of Israel’s resources, but she’s going about it all wrong.

By Yossi Dahan

Culture Minister Miri Regev reacts at the Knesset assembly hall during a question period with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 18, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Culture Minister Miri Regev reacts at the Knesset assembly hall during a question period with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 18, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev is right to speak about the need for “social justice” in Israel, and she is correct when she says that the distribution of resources vis-a-vis cultural institutions is skewed and discriminates against different groups in Israeli society.

Yes, state funds dedicated to culture often go directly to institutions and art based in Tel Aviv, while communities in the social and geographical periphery are not properly allocated resources that will allow them to develop and enjoy culture that they can identify with. She is also correct when she states that there is a dearth of Mizrahim who get to make decisions regarding resource allocation for culture.

Statistics on the matter appeared in a document published by a coalition of Mizrahi organizations tht examined the distribution of cultural allocations between the years 2001-2008, according to different populations groups in Israel. This unjust allocation, which has continued for years, goes against a law passed by the Knesset in 2002, which calls for “fully expressing the cultural diversity of Israeli society and their different world views.”

Many people, among them Mizrahi cultural figures and activists who struggle for cultural pluralism and against historical cultural discrimination and oppression, support Regev’s stance.

It is difficult not to feel sympathy toward Regev’s position in the face of the staunch opposition by the perennial executive directors of theaters and cultural institutions, not to mention the often racist attacks against her by those who enjoy the fruits of the current status quo. However, it would behoove those who support Regev’s struggle to pay attention to her minimalistic definition of the term “social justice,” which actually turns her into one of the most dangerous enemies of that very ideal. For Regev, social justice is reduced to equal distribution of resources among Israel’s Jewish population. She has no intention of fixing discrimination against the Arab population.

Israeli minister of CUlture Miri Regev speaks at the EMI, the Israel Artists Association, lifetime achievement awards ceremony, held in Petach Tikva on February 17, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90

Israeli minister of CUlture Miri Regev speaks at the EMI, the Israel Artists Association, lifetime achievement awards ceremony, held in Petach Tikva on February 17, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90

It is important to note that the term “social justice” cannot simply be reduced to fair distribution of resources — it also includes the right of individuals and cultural groups to freely create and enjoy culture. Social justice includes, among other things, the right of individuals and groups to artistic freedom of speech — a freedom that Regev tramples when she tries to defund the Arabic Al-Midan theater for putting on a play that she did not like. Social justice need not be conditional on “cultural loyalty” tests Regev is proposing, according to which institutions can be stripped of funding if they harm the State of Israel or its symbols. The terms “loyalty to the regime” and “culture” are contradictory.

Regev claims that she is not an “ATM machine,” and that as the culture minister she enjoys the “freedom of funding,” that is — the right and authority to decide which works of art and institutions are worthy of state funding. This worldview came to the forefront last week when Regev claimed that the ruling party must be involved in appointments to and the content of the new Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation. Regev’s “freedom to fund” will mean that art and culture in Israel will have to reflect her and the ruling party’s preferences. Regev’s “freedom to fund” will mean a decrease in artists’ freedom of expression, restricting their imaginations, casting doubt on agreed upon conventions and principles, criticizing the existing economic, social, and political order and propose a create alternative.

Regev’s demand for a fair distribution of resources diverted to culture and art, and proper representation to the different populations, is a just one. However, Regev’s interpretation of the term “social justice” will create an anti-democratic reality, lacking freedom and justice, along with a docile, inferior culture.

Yossi Dahan is a law professor, the head of the Human Rights Division at the College of Law and Business and the co-founder of Haokets. This article was first published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth and Haokets.

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