Miri Regev’s cultural war heats up

With the culture minister’s loyalty bill and the Im Tirtzu ‘mole’ campaign, will Israeli artistry be censored?

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Culture Minister Miri Regev at Habima Theater in Tel Aviv, January 27, 2016 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Culture Minister Miri Regev at Habima Theater in Tel Aviv, January 27, 2016 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A cultural war is gathering force. It began when Culture Minister Miri Regev entered office last spring, following the March 2015 elections. Within weeks of taking over the ministry, she threatened to cut government funding for Israeli artists and institutions that aren’t loyal to the state.

Now Regev is talking about further amending the 2011 so-called Nakba law, which allows the government to stop funding organizations that present Israel’s establishment as a “Catastrophe,” according to the Palestinian narrative.

Within hours of her Wednesday amendment announcement in the Knesset, right-wing organization Im Tirtzu published its latest campaign, “outing” certain Israeli artists who belong to left-wing political organizations, including actress Gila Almagor, writers Amos Oz and David Grossman, and singer Chava Alberstein, among others. Leaders across the spectrum denounced the campaign; Likud MK Benny Begin called it fascist.

It’s not exactly news that these artists belong to left-wing organizations.

But the activity is all related, said Itamar Gurevitch, who directs the Cultural Institutions Forum, the government body that represents the country’s more than 100 cultural institutions, working with the culture, finance and justice ministries.

“The nation is lowering its standards on racism,” said Gurevitch. “The minute the government doesn’t respond to this and lets it happen, and then some ministers put oil on the fire, this makes it more extremist and allows Im Tirtzu to do what it did.”

The campaign launched by the right-wing organization Im Tirtzu on January 27, 2016, singling out Israeli artists associated with the left-wing. (Screen capture: Im Tirtzu)
The campaign launched by the right-wing organization Im Tirtzu on January 27, 2016, singling out Israeli artists associated with the left-wing. (Screen capture: Im Tirtzu)

Gurevitch commented that Regev has good intentions and wants to do good work, but doesn’t yet have a deep understanding of Israel’s cultural atmosphere or of the long-standing relationships between the ministry and the country’s cultural institutions.

“Miri Regev went into an office that she doesn’t know,” said Gurevitch. “She doesn’t have any experience, neither does her staff. And the right thing to do would be to get to know the ministry and make changes later. But to my dismay, she’s trying to make changes at the speed of light, and it’s not working.”

Regev, who served as the IDF spokesperson before being elected to the Knesset in 2008, has made a habit of admitting her own lack of cultural knowledge. In a Yisrael Hayom interview, she admitted that she has never read Chekhov, almost never went to plays as a child, and never read Hayim Nahman Bialik.

“It’s very problematic,” said Gurevitch.

His sense, he said, is that it’s all politics for Regev.

“The public thinks there’re going to be all kinds of changes, so they yell ‘Oy gevalt,'” he said. “She just wants to change the authority, and the feeling is she’s working for her guys in the Likud. She wants to bring more power to her ministry.

“When she sits in the Knesset and says these things, it creates suspicion about what will be,” he added.

Regev isn’t afraid to make her opinions — and plans — public.

Last June, she announced she was reevaluating the ministry’s support for the Jerusalem Cinematheque’s summer film festival after discovering that Beyond the Fear, a documentary about the wife of Yigal Amir, the assassin of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, was going to be screened.

The screening got pushed to the week prior to the festival.

She got booed during parts of her speech at the festival’s opening ceremony, when she said she wanted to “redefine and update the priorities of the cultural world in Israel.”

It was an instant replay of what happened when she spoke at the opening of the Israel Festival a month earlier, and was drowned out by the crowd’s jeers.

She also drew reactions from angry actors last summer when she discussed withdrawing funding from a Jaffa port theater run by Arab actor Norman Issa, because he refused to take part in a Haifa Theater production in the Jordan Valley, considered part of the West Bank.

This past December, she opened fire on the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, when the arthouse theater promoted the 48mm Festival, which is also known as The Third International Film Festival on Nakba and Return.

That was another instance of Regev’s threats to use the Nakba bill.

Regev’s calls for artists’ loyalty to the state is only a symbol of a wider battle, said Professor Yedidia Stern, from Bar-Ilan University’s law faculty.

“The Nakba bill is an old law,” said Stern, “it’s four years old.”

The law was never fully implemented, pointed out Stern, although back then, only the finance minister had the authority to implement it. Now there’s talk of other ministers with controls over budgets in theater, education and sport being able to implement budgetary control based on content, creating a wider and more serious influence.

“I see it as one aspect of a wider cultural war, with the new, up-and-coming hegemony in Israel testing the waters, trying to say we are here to try to implement policy, not just to give money, but to push ideology,” commented Stern. “There’s a certain set of values and they will not give money to whoever opposes their values.”

Professor Yedidia Stern last year (Uri Lenz/Flash 90)
Professor Yedidia Stern (Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Stern believes that all of Regev’s rhetoric does represent a paradigm change in Israeli society, as the state gets involved in pushing ideology.

“It’s in the classrooms through [Jewish Home party leader and Education Minister Naftali] Bennett, and in arts and culture through Regev,” he said. “All the liberal symbols of the Likud, like Begin, [ex-MK, now President Reuven] Rivlin and [Dan] Meridor were kicked out, so basically Netanyahu is supporting this change.”

That sense is emphasized by actions like the Im Tirtzu campaign, said Gurevitch, when veteran Israeli artists are accused of being “moles” for supporting left-wing groups that receive some of their funding from foreign governments.

In the campaign, artists were listed according to their political activities and actions, such as belonging to Breaking the Silence, the organization of former Israel Defense Forces soldiers who talk about the realities of serving in the West Bank.

“This stuff, like Breaking the Silence, has been around for years, and all of a sudden we can’t live with it? Gurevitch continued. “I would expect that Miri Regev will come out against Im Tirtzu, and if she does, that would offer a calming effect on all to this.”

Regev, did, in fact, criticize the Im Tirtzu campaign Thursday in a statement, commenting that “one should avoid statements that may lead to incitement and violence.”

But she’s also part of the problem, added Stern.

He recalled Regev’s statements at Tel Aviv’s Habima Theater on Wednesday night, on the opening night of the show “Evita,” when she stated that her loyalty bill was not censorship and not against freedom of speech.

“I think she’s wrong,” he said. “It’s censorship when theaters can’t survive without state support. You’re telling a theater to shut up, or shut its doors.”

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