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The minister of culture who knows nothing about democracy

Long before she walked out on a performance honoring Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev was using hateful, divide-and-conquer rhetoric against the country’s minority groups. 

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)

Miri Regev, Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport, caused an uproar at last week’s Ophir Awards, the annual red carpet ceremony for the Israeli film industry. First she ostentatiously walked out of the auditorium to protest the performance of a cover version of Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish’s most famous poem, “Identity Card.” Then she returned, only to give a speech in which she claimed Darwish’s poem includes a line about eating the flesh of the Jewish nation. To top it off she accused the Israeli film industry of being an elitist institution that excluded Mizrahi actors.

In fact Darwish’s poem does not mention Jews; furthermore, Mizrahi actors are among the country’s most prominent and successful, both in Israel and internationally. One of those Mizrahi actors, Roi Assaf, tried to storm the stage in protest during Regev’s speech, while calling upon fellow audience members to leave in protest, shouting angrily, “Anyone who stays seated is a zero, a loser!” Regev, meanwhile, raised her voice to be heard above the booing from the audience to insist that she would not leave until she had finished her speech.

But her speech was remarkably discordant and false, even by Regev’s standards. This year’s Ophir winners are collectively a panoply of diversity and liberalism. They include Sand Storm, a drama about Bedouin women with a script that is entirely in Arabic and directed by a woman — Elite Zexer. It won for best film and will be Israel’s entry for best foreign film at the Oscars. Ruba Blal Asfour, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, won best supporting actress for her role in Sand Storm. Tamer Nafar, the acclaimed Palestinian rap artist from the group DAM, won an award for the musical score of Udi Aloni’s Junction 48, about an aspiring rap musician (played by Nafar himself) in the drug-ridden inner city of Lod/Lydda. Morris Cohen, a Mizrahi Jew, won best actor for his role in Avinu (Our Father) as a nightclub bouncer who is seduced by the money of organized crime.

Regev walked out of a performance given jointly by Tamer Nafar and Yossi Tsabari, a Jewish Yemenite-Israeli who is a spoken word artist. In an angry post-ceremony press conference, she said her objection was to the anti-Jewish sentiments in Darwish’s poem, which she falsely claimed included a line about eating Jewish flesh. She also falsely claimed that Nafar and Tsabari’s use of the black power salute (one gloved fist held aloft) was actually the Nazi salute.

But I think her real objection was to Yossi Tsabari, the gay spoken word artist who identifies as an Arab Jew and has been outspoken in his opposition to Regev’s policies. The rap song that Nafar and Tsabari performed at the Ophirs is ironically titled “Ana Mish Politi” (Arabic for “I Am Not Political”); Nafar opens with several lines spoken in Hebrew and a bit of Arabic, but then Tsabari joins him and adds an excerpt from his own cover of Darwish’s poem, which he recorded last July in Hebrew and uploaded to social media. It is addressed directly to Regev and takes her to task for threatening to cut funding for cultural institutions that present a Palestinian narrative.

Below is the video of Nafar and Tsabari at the Ophirs performing “Ana Mish Politi.” Nafar opens alone on the stage, rapping ironic lines in Hebrew and Arabic about Israeli Jews who think eating hummus and Middle Eastern salads in Arab restaurants amounts to co-existence. The next lines, difficult to translate because they are a play on words, are about how Jews stop believing in co-existence when Arabs become politicized. Then Tsabari walks in as we hear Darwish’s disembodied voice intone the famous opening line to Identity Card, his best-known poem: “Sajel! Ana Arabi.” (Write it down! I am an Arab).  Darwish composed the poem in 1964, when he still lived in Israel, an internally-displaced Palestinian living in the newly-established state, during the period in which Palestinian citizens lived under martial law that severely curtailed their freedom of movement and political expression (martial law was officially lifted in 1966).

Below is the video of Tsabari’s spoken word poem addressed to Miri Regev, in which he riffs off Darwish’s poem. He released it on social media in July of this year, with the title “Farewell Poem.” My translation follows the video. Note: Tsabari speaks Hebrew with the Arabic aspirated ‘het’ and a glottal ‘ayin.’

Farewell Song

Write it down! [“tirshom”: addressing a man]

I am an Arab

My identity card number is 50 thousand

I have eight children

And the ninth will be born after the summer!

Does that make you angry?

 

Write it down! [“tirshemi”: addressing a woman]

Tirshemiri! [portmanteau of “write it down, Miri”]

 

I, too, am an Arab

But in contrast

To Darwish Mahmoud

I am an Arab min al yahoud [in Arabic: “from the Jews”]

My parents were born in Yemen

And immigrated to this place not long ago

My skin is black

And my accent sounds like one from this region.

 

Tirshemiri!

 

I, too, am an Arab.

A broken Arab,

Cursed,

Confused

And I’ve tried on several identities

But then I decided what I wanted to be;

An Arab Jew with Messianic aspirations,

A patriot

Who next to the beds of laboring women

Does not make a noisy celebration.

 

Tirshemiri!

 

You [addressing a woman / Regev] are an Arab too.

As Arab as you can possibly be.

But you ran away from that as though from a burning fire.

Because Mizrahi Jew is easy to say

But Arab Jew is a recipe for catastrophe

You speak in lofty terms about equality and liberty

And religious freedom and education and culture

But you trample with an arbitrary foot

Over every opportunity for compromise

And possibility for dialogue.

 

Tirshemiri!

 

We are Arabs.

And even though we live between Egypt and Lebanon

We continue to believe without any logic

That we are in Europe, and not in the Middle East.

Arabs who don’t sing in quarter tones

Arabs who didn’t learn the jargon,

We speak French and Italian as though it were nothing

But we read Emile Habibi in translation,

So here’s a little more Darwish to wrap things up:

 

“Write down on the top of the first page:

I do not hate people

Nor am I an invader

But if I become hungry

The conqueror’s flesh will be my food”

* * *

There is a lot to parse both in Tsabari’s spoken word poem and in the incident that occurred at the Ophir Awards. First, it should be noted that Miri Regev is not exactly an Arab — Jewish or otherwise. Her family is from Morocco, and not all Jews from North Africa or the Middle East identify as Arabs. Some do; some don’t. And just as Tsabari has the right to self identify as an Arab Jew, so does Regev have the right to self-identify as a Mizrahi Jew. The point is not to impose one’s identity on the other.

I write these words while freely acknowledging that Miri Regev is a rather unsympathetic person. As a career army spokesperson, she was infamous among journalists for being a serial liar. When she retired from the army and entered politics under the auspices of the Likud party in 2008, she went on to distinguish herself by embracing pretty much every ugly, far-right populist cause she could find. She has played an active role in inciting violent, racist hatred against African asylum seekers, in fanning the flames of Mizrahi resentment against the Ashkenazi elites, in inciting against Palestinian citizens of Israel, and so on. Her power depends on her ability to feed into people’s grievances, on divide and conquer.

Rapper Tamer Nafar performs during a cultural event in the unrecognized village of Dahmash on March 14, 2015. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Rapper Tamer Nafar performs during a cultural event in the unrecognized village of Dahmash on March 14, 2015. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

So when a Yemenite-Israeli who identifies as an Arab Jew stands up with a Palestinian citizen of Israel to proclaim solidarity via a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, the poet laureate of the Palestinian people, and when Mizrahi actors in the audience boo and walk out during her speech, Miri Regev’s power is threatened. Here are Mizrahi citizens of Israel telling her that they identify as Arab Jews, or that they identify with the Palestinian struggle. Or that Israeli society is not simplistically divided into downtrodden Mizrahim denied advancement by an Ashkenazi elite, and that she cannot count on Mizrahi voters identifying with the right-wing parties. Perhaps the most salient fact of all: the man who appointed Regev to her position is Benjamin Netanyahu — an Ashkenazi prime minister.

We also see that even as Israeli society has become increasingly populist, repressive, reactionary, and right wing, it can still support a Palestinian citizen standing on a stage at the Ophir Awards and rapping a subversive political message. Indeed, in recent years there has been a rising political assertiveness amongst young Palestinian citizens of Israel.

On the other hand, had Tamer Nafar been born an Israeli Jew he would have been a superstar by now. He is brilliant and amazingly talented, but he’s now 37 years old, 20 years into his career, and still not a mainstream artist in Israel — nor will he ever be. His music is not played on popular radio stations — and not because he raps in Arabic, but because of what he says in Arabic (and in Hebrew). So a subversive message is fine for a select audience; but that message won’t penetrate the mainstream discourse and it certainly will not bring change.

Quite a few analysts have pointed out that criticism of Miri Regev is often couched in snobby and racist terms. That’s true. But that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be criticized. It just means that we need to stick to the correct terms to criticize her with, and to the legitimate reasons. So I don’t really care that she’s never seen the film Pulp Fiction and hasn’t read a single poem by Mahmoud Darwish. But I do care that she falsely claimed Darwish expressed genocidal sentiments toward Jews, that she lied when she conflated the black power raised fist with a Nazi salute, that she called Sudanese asylum seekers a “cancer” in Israel, and that she wants to deprive Israeli artists of state funds if they deviate from her political views. I care very much that she clearly does not understand the most basic democratic values, like freedom of expression. On the one hand she insists on her right to speak; but on the other hand she wants to deprive people who disagree with her politics of their own right to speak.

It is also true that Miri Regev has become a bit of a lightning rod for the center left, traditionally made up of Ashkenazim. This works for her, because she can claim to her base supporters that she is a victim of Ashkenazi anti-Mizrahi sentiment. But resentment of Miri Regev and all she represents — i.e., a prime minister who is positioned to stay in power for many years to come as he presides over a motley governing coalition of right-wing populists and quasi-fascists — is also a big distraction from the lalalala-I-can’t-hear-you increasingly intractable issue of the ongoing closure of Gaza and the nearly 50 year-old occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Otherwise known as the one-state scenario that everyone is afraid to name.

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    COMMENTS

    1. RBC

      Daniel, you say, “Subsidizing art kills art.” So Mozart, Michaelangelo, don’t make the grade as artists.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Eliza

      Given the death of the 2SS and the acceptance that an independent sovereign Palestinian State will not come into being, presumably the greatest fear of Zionists is that Israeli Jews who are not of European descent, will base their identity on being Arab (rather than obsessing about religion of their birth) just as the Palestinians are also Arabs.

      As Yossi Tsabari says:

      ‘Because Mizrahi Jew is easy to say
      But Arab Jew is a recipe for catastrophe’.

      What is the place of the non-Arabic Jew, with their second passports and their name changes and their exceptionism within the future Palestine/Israel. Or who is going to end up being the ‘other’ in the future?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Tommy Goldberg

      “Darwish’s poem, which [Regev] falsely claimed included a line about eating Jewish flesh”

      As much as I detest Regev’s politics and her terrible job as minister, this is splitting hairs a bit too thinly. The line in the translated poem reads, “the usurper’s flesh will be my food.” Is anyone suggesting that this is about a non-Jewish usurper?

      Reply to Comment

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