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Israel's culture minister is turning artists into enemies

Miri Regev’s attempts to pull funding from artists who ‘delegitimize’ Israel expose the lengths to which this government will go to try and silence its critics.

MK Miri Regev points on a map of the city of Rahat, during a Negev tour by the Israeli Knesset Internal Affairs Committee regarding the Prawer plan, in the Bedouin city of Rahat, November 24, 2013. (Photo: Activestills.org)

MK Miri Regev points on a map of the city of Rahat, during a Negev tour by the Israeli Knesset Internal Affairs Committee regarding the Prawer plan, in the Bedouin city of Rahat, November 24, 2013. (Photo: Activestills.org)

Last week Israel’s new Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev threatened to pull state funding from a children’s theater in Jaffa after its manager, Norman Issa, an actor with the Haifa Theater, refused to perform in a West Bank settlement. She claimed that as opposed to her, Issa is not an advocate for coexistence.

After it provoked some backlash, she went on the defensive and stated that because her Likud party won 30 Knesset seats, and the “Left” (read: Labor/Zionist Camp) won only 20 seats, that she was at liberty to do as she pleases with state funds for the arts.

“I decide the criteria, I can decide which institutions get money, that all the money go only to the periphery and Judea and Samaria..The government doesn’t have to support culture. I can decide where the money goes. The artists will not dictate to me…We got 30 Knesset seats, you got a total of 20 seats.”

This kind of talk shows that Regev has a total lack of understanding of what it means to be an elected official, and speaks volumes of the current leadership’s understanding of how a democratically-elected public servant is supposed to act.

But here is the real kicker:

Institutions that delegitimize the State of Israel will not receive funding. We had a crisis with FIFA and with Orange, who apologized, because they realized that Jewish power is consumer power. We can’t apologize for our existence as the State of Israel. I am for pluralism that allows for views to be expressed – but not for tarnishing or for boycotts against Israel….As minister of culture it’s my job to ensure a diversity of voices in Israeli society, [but] currently we are in the midst of a diplomatic campaign and we must do everything possible to stop giving ammunition to our enemies. (emphasis mine – M.Z.)

Regev’s comments raise serious doubts about her ability to tolerate dissent and freedom of expression, but her use of the word “delegitimize” gave me pause and is worth elaborating on. The word has been used over and over again by Prime Minister Netanyahu in recent years when discussing the boycott movement. Actually, he used it most recently in relation to the Palestinian effort to suspend Israel from FIFA.

It is worth noting that Regev — who previously referred to African asylum seekers as a “cancer” — chose to use this word during an internal Israeli discussion over state funding for cultural institutions. It is no coincidence. It is because she sees Israeli citizens whose artistic work or personal views challenge the status quo of Israel’s Jewish nationalist hegemony as “delegitimizers” — whether they are Palestinian or Jewish. That they pay taxes, follow the law and fulfill all their civic duties does not matter; if they are seen to be “delegitimizing” Israel, their work may be under threat of not being funded.

Last September, I wrote an op-ed in the The New York Times about how Israel was silencing dissent. In it I described how after so many years of Israeli repression of Palestinians, “the transition to targeting ‘one of your own’ isn’t so difficult. Now it is the few Jewish Israelis who speak the language of human rights who are branded as enemies.”

With the new government in place, this silencing of dissent has become even more explicit in the halls of government. The “enemies” Regev talks about are not only the surrounding Arab countries, not only Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, not only Palestinian citizens of Israel, not only non-Israeli Jews who support boycott efforts, and not only Jewish Israeli artists who support boycott efforts, not only those who oppose settlements — but even those whose art  somehow “delegitimizes” Israel, whatever that means.

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    COMMENTS

    1. mt noise

      If you’re going to bash your country why do you have the expectation that they will reward you money to do so?

      Reply to Comment
      • falde

        Since when is the political majority equal to the government or the country. That’s a one party state you are inferring in such comments.

        Why not taking this a step further and redraw funding from the oppositional parties as they are “bashing” the state, that’s sort of what the opposition does. At least with your definition where state equals the political majority.

        Reply to Comment
    2. The last sentence of the first paragraph is incomplete.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        The crude, vulgar lies you, Mr. Bruce Gould, spread against North Korea re Our Dear Leader are gratuitous and designed to smear and demonize ethnic Koreans. What reasons do you have to hate so much? What have ethnic Koreans done to you? Where is this deranged, brutish hate hatred of ethnic Koreans coming from, Mr. Bruce Gould?

        LOL! Sorry, Bruce I couldn’t resist!

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          You’d be surprised!

          Reply to Comment
    3. Ben Zakkai

      Government funding of art is problematic because it gives bureaucrats and politicians power to reward cronies and toadies and exclude or punish others. I guess I’d be annoyed if I was a typical Israeli who supports occupation of Palestinian territories, including the use of military dictatorship to steal Palestinians’ land, water and other resources, and then some friggin’ artist had the temerity to use some of my tax dollars to produce art that challenges that status quo. Myself, I’d prefer that my own tax dollars not be used to fund the paranoid-fascist-religious-nationalist propaganda being excreted by numerous government orifices, cultural, educational, or otherwise; but hey, I’m not in the majority. But what is striking here is the sheer thuggishness of Regev’s attack on a children’s theater in Jaffa, not because that particular theater had done anything wrong, even by her twisted standards, but because the theater’s director, Norman Issa, had declined to participate, as an actor, in another theater’s performance within the Occupied Territories. He didn’t make speeches or call for anyone else to boycott the Occupation; he just followed his conscience. I suppose that if Regev had been Welfare Minister rather than Culture Minister at the time, she could have denied Issa’s mother’s eligibility for old age and disability benefits, because, after all, if you raise a son who refuses to endorse cruel and immoral government policies, you really have no right to receive government handouts.

      Reply to Comment
      • JOEL CANTOR

        Ben-Zakai, just imagine the west bank jordanians had been expelled in the 6 day war and Israel had annexed Yesha. Your entire thesis would be irrelevant at this stage. There would be no occupation and the “p” people would never have been invented. The arts funding question would not crop up. The reality is that the Jordanians need to be repatriated ASAP in order to restore their true sense of identity (as legitimate Jordanians not fakestines).

        Reply to Comment
      • “Norman Issa, had declined to participate, as an actor, in another theater’s performance within the Occupied Territories. He didn’t make speeches or call for anyone else to boycott the Occupation; he just followed his conscience. I suppose that if Regev had been Welfare Minister rather than Culture Minister at the time, she could have denied Issa’s mother’s eligibility for old age and disability benefits, because, after all, if you raise a son who refuses to endorse cruel and immoral government policies, you really have no right to receive government handouts.”

        Exactly right, in my view. The logic of the Minister is absurd. But part of the point here is she doesn’t have to be reasonable. It’s fear she’s dishing out.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          By Gideon Levy
          Published 01:33 11.06.15
          Norman Issa did almost everything possible to be a good Arab. He was born a Christian (not a Muslim, like all the terrorists; Israelis love Christian Arabs); studied at the Beit Zvi School for the Performing Arts; married Gidona, a Jew; cooked a dumpling and added pomegranates for the refreshment on “Master Chef VIP;” acted on stage in Hebrew; played Amjad, a good Arab, of course, on the TV series “Arab Labor,” which was written by another good Arab, Sayed Kashua, whom Israelis so love to love.

          If only we had a few more such Normans and Sayeds, then we certainly would already have had peace. That is how we like them, the Arabs, when they make us laugh in Hebrew. Hummus, chips, salad and comedy series on Channel 2.

          There were once good Arabs, and they are no more. Israel finished off the genre. If there is an Israeli patriot, then Issa is the man. If there was an Arab who could serve as a model for living in coexistence, then he is the character. Trying to preserve his honor and identity, balancing on a thin line. In interviews he told me how he loves the land and also its residents; what more could we ask for?…

          Reply to Comment