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How Israel’s cynical culture minister plays politics with art

Israel’s Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev may not be well known beyond the borders of her own country, but at home she is a constant supplier of headlines, mainly for all the wrong reasons.
She came to international attention at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, walking on the famous red carpet wearing a ghastly dress emblazoned with a panorama of Jerusalem. It was a childish act of defiance against the international community, which regards East Jerusalem as occupied land, and an obvious attempt to pander to her domestic constituency. This typifies her behavior, scoring cheap political points at home regardless of the damage to her country’s interests abroad.
Though she belongs to the far-right wing of the ruling Likud party, Regev increasingly resembles more a political-cultural commissar from the good old Bolshevik Revolution. She tries to mobilize, even coerce, artistic and intellectual activity to the service of the political, economic and social goals of her government.
It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the current approach of utilizing government power in Israel to bend art and culture to the whims of the political system is close to the practices employed during the Soviet Union era. However, the mind-set is not that far adrift. It combines ultra-right ideology, an oversimplified version of Judaism, and sheer political opportunism, all expressed in xenophobic terms, along with hatred of the media and progressive elements in society.
Regev also cynically exploits the painful historical tensions between Sephardi Israeli Jews (those originating from the Middle East) and Ashkenazi Israelis (Jews who originated in Europe). It is something that touches a raw nerve among those who came from Arab countries and who were discriminated against, while their heritage was looked down on by the Jewish European founders of the state of Israel.
To be sure, the world of Israeli art and culture has not always been inclusive and was for many years controlled by the Ashkenazi elites. Nevertheless, that world has been undergoing a radical transformation. Israel today has a very successful art scene, in which fusion music is prospering and a vibrant film industry is enjoying great acclaim at home and abroad. And many of Middle Eastern descent are playing a most significant part in this success.

Miri Regev may be from the far-right, but her xenophobic behavior has chilling echoes of the cultural commissars of the old Soviet Union.

Yossi Mekelberg

A quick glance at Regev’s CV provides some insight into her mind-set. She was born to a family that emigrated to Israel from Morocco, grew up in a developing town and served for more than 20 years in the Israeli army. Among her roles in the army she was chief press and media censor, followed by a stint as the army spokesperson. Her years in these sensitive and influential positions gave her an understanding of the power of information and how to manipulate it. It is staggering how she has managed to turn a relatively small and low budget ministry such as Culture and Sport into a source of major controversies, which in return has consolidated and even expanded her political base.
Upon taking office more than two years ago she quickly realized that her ministry’s chief source of power is in financially supporting art and culture projects. By falsely portraying the arts as dominated by the left and Ashkenazi elites, whom she considers unpatriotic, she was able to portray herself as the champion of containing them on behalf of everybody else.
In her audacity Regev ignited controversy when she said this year that her office would not subsidize cultural activities and organizations “harmful to the basic values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Under her watch and with her encouragement her ministry established a funding policy that requires cultural institutions receiving state financial support to declare whether or not they offer performances in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Orchestras, theater groups and dance companies are intimidated and cajoled to perform in the West Bank by receiving a funding bonus for appearing there and, even worse, suffering a 33 percent cut to their funding if they do not. This is a blunt assault on the democratic tenets of the country and the right of artists not to perform in occupied territories.
Her verbal outbursts against Israeli movies that examine with a critical eye the occupation of Palestinian land and the oppression of its people are notorious. The wrath of the minister was directed, for example, at a documentary titled Megiddo, which tells the story of militant Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons. On another occasion Regev lambasted the public funding of the movie Foxtrot, which was selected for both the Venice and Toronto film festivals, for portraying Israeli soldiers in a bad light.
Regev is assaulting the very foundation of a free society in which artistic freedom is sacrosanct. Art should not be beyond criticism, but at the same time must be protected against incitement and arbitrary funding cuts. Unfortunately, she belongs to those who cannot differentiate between light entertainment, as important as it is, and art, which at its best is bound to be reflective and critical. A healthy democratic and pluralist society should cherish a successful art scene that is not afraid to address the less pleasant aspects of human and social existence. Not a notion, I am afraid, that would resonate with Miri Regev and her supporters.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.