Controversy surrounding Israel's new culture and sport minister, Miri Regev – among other things, because she has threatened to cut funding for a Jaffa children’s theater – has spawned sharp protest among the country's arts community.
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One of those voices is prominent author David Grossman. “I am thinking how typical and unfortunate it is that we’ve been dragged into this discourse just after the minister took office," Grossman said.
“We could have imagined another debut entirely,” added the award-winning author, whose books have been translated into more than 30 languages. “We could have described [her] taking over with talk of the broad range of culture in the country; of fruitful interaction between religious and secular people, and between East and West; and of the relevance of Israeli culture to the lives of so many people.
"Instead we received a provocative, restrictive declaration about the fact that the minister sees her position as preventing the delegitimization of the State of Israel. This [shows] a lack of understanding of what the position of culture minister needs to be.”
Regev’s threat to cut off funding for the Elmina children’s theater in Jaffa came after its Arab founder, Norman Issa, refused to perform in a Jordan Valley settlement in a production by the Haifa Theater.
“There are so many things to say, and yet Miri Regev has demarcated a field of discourse that is no wider than the opened blades of the censor’s scissors," Grossman said,
"I am certain that this is now where we need to be: We, the artists, need to continue to create, to document our complex Israeli reality, to criticize it and also show what is beautiful in it. It is understood that we who are under this attack need to stand up and declare these things clearly.”
Asked whether there is a way to resolve the dispute with Regev, Grossman said he didn’t think she would change her positions: “It seems to me, that from the first moment, Minister Regev entered into a collision course. Ultimately she represents the worldview of a lot of people, which sees Jewishness and Israeliness at its center and very much wants to remain only there. And there are those like me for whom Jewishness and Israeliness are a central part of their lives but who also want to encounter the world. The danger in the view that Regev represents is in restricting our contact with reality and with our complex situation.
“The danger," he continued, "is that if such a process continues and if our isolation in the world increases – Israel will become nothing more than a militant, fundamentalist and inward-looking sect on the margins of history,” The [culture] minister’s highest interest needs to be contact with reality, and [to allow] criticism to be as deep and wide and varied as possible.”
“Sometimes we need to also include what makes us hurt. The principle of absolute freedom to express one’s opinion is such a strong element in the life of society, and we are in a constant process of its erosion and even abhorring it. We are pursuing a narrow, literal ‘justice’ that is more than anything self-righteousness. In such a place, as [Israeli poet] Yehuda Amichai said, no flowers or culture will grow.”
'Herd of beasts'
Gross’ comments came a day after Israeli artists and performers gathered in Jaffa for an emergency meeting to discuss Regev’s recent decisions and statements, including her threat to cut funding to the Elmina theater.
One speaker – actor and director Oded Kotler – sparked a furor by comparing people who voted Likud (Regev's party) to “a herd of beasts.”
Kotler called on Regev to imagine “our world silenced, without books, without music, without poetry – a world where no one bothers the nation in its celebration of 30 [Knesset ]seats, which are followed by a herd of beasts chewing straw and munching on cud,” Kotler said in his speech.
His comments initially were met with some applause but later drew criticism from both left- and right-wing politicians.
In response, Minister Regev said that calling the Likud’s voters "'beasts’ exposes the ugly and arrogant face of the speaker, Oded Kotler, as well as of those who applauded him. This statement expresses cultural darkness, in my view."
For his part, Knesset opposition chairman Isaac Herzog, head of Zionist Union, criticized Kotler’s remarks and the ensuing support it received in a Facebook post.
“Even artists and intellectuals must know that a difficult and justified argument requires us to remain human beings, and to respect those who think differently from us,” he wrote.
Also on Sunday, more than 3,000 artists signed a petition, entitled “the blacklist,” rejecting the authorities’ recent decisions targeting cultural institutions.
“We protest against the anti-democratic measures taken by government ministries toward creators whose art or views aren’t in line with the views of these ministries,” said the petition, which was signed by actors Gila Almagor and Itay Tiran, architect Amnon Rechter, and writers Tsruya Lahav and Shoham Smith, among others.
“We hereby declare that we will continue to look toward reality, express our views and follow our conscience even if we must pay a price for it. Despite the direct threat to our livelihood, we will not censor or sanitize our creations ...
“We are the voices you are trying to silence,” the petition concluded. “We hope with all our might that Israel won’t become a state where artists who express their views are blacklisted. If that happens, here is your list.”