The Joke's on Those Who Ridicule Culture Minister Miri Regev

The attack on Regev, to the effect that her appointment as culture minister heralds the end of culture, is a product of panic and foolishness.

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
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Illustration by Eran Wolkowski
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

Irrespective of the personality and specific capabilities of Miri Regev, the new minister of culture and sports, the very position of “culture minister” has become absurd and anachronistic, making clowns of those holding the office.

This is true not only in Israel and not only with right-wing governments. Evidence of this was also seen a few months ago in France, which is generally acknowledged to be a cultured country. The French culture minister, Fleur Pellerin, was asked at the end of a meal with Patrick Modiano, recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, which of his books she liked best. Instead of answering, she attacked the journalist who asked the question, remarking that she had more important things to do than read books.

So, the root of the problem can be found in the words of that French minister: A “culture minister” is an oxymoron. Either you’re a minister – in other words, you deal with paperwork and administrative matters, and distribute or promise to distribute budgets – or you’re a person of culture: that is, a creature who hovers about in celestial worlds and devotes himself to the useless things culture has to offer. Like writing poetry or reading novels.

It’s true that Andre Malraux, for example, the legendary French culture minister, was also a prolific author. If Israel had such exemplary figures, we could come with complaints to the new minister, to the effect that she doesn’t meet the lofty cultural standards of her predecessors. But alas – most of the names on the list of previous ministers of culture and sports in Israel are a nondescript gray, and nobody even remembers what they contributed to culture: Matan Vilnai, Raleb Majadele, Ofir Pines-Paz. The two colorful women on the list – Shulamit Aloni and Limor Livnat – are remembered mainly because they excelled at making provocative statements, and in that sense Miri Regev can already be an honorary member of their club.

In other words, the automatic attack on Regev, as though the fact that she is the new culture minister heralds the end of culture, is overblown, a product of panic and foolishness. Indeed, this attack reveals mainly the shame of the assailants – including Gavri Banai, who was a member of the legendary Gashash Hahiver comedy trio, who called her an “animal.” Very smart. And yet, thanks to his remark, this forgotten entertainer momentarily burst onto center stage, in a role no less amusing than the ones he played at the peak of his career: that of guardian of the seal of culture.

Another pathetic response, which was meant to be clever, came from opposition leader Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union, in his Knesset speech during last week’s swearing-in of the government. He made a play on words using the name of the new minister, thereby violating one of the tenets of good taste: There is nothing more uncultured than a pun using a person’s name or surname in order to mock him. That was the practice of anti-Semitic German journalists in their day, playing around with Jewish names to mock those who bore them.

But when MK Shelly Yacimovich posted a photo on Facebook last Wednesday showing Miri Regev holding a book, accompanied by a clever remark – which was apparently appreciated by the herd of self-satisfied people who consider themselves infinitely cultured and clever – I understood that the culture of Tel Aviv this summer will be dominated by Miri Regev jokes. And the bon ton in the salons of the bourgeoisie and the bohemian cafes will be to sit and mourn the cultural decline of the country because of her.

All the jokes about former Foreign Minister David Levy, which were previously told about Yosef Almogi (does anyone remember that long-time MK?), and were told even earlier about Paula Ben-Gurion, will be recycled now to jokes about Miri Regev. I’ve already heard an intimation of that behind the scenes at one of the TV studios. A reporter who considers himself clever gave me inside information, which he said he’d heard with his own ears from a friend who’d heard how Miri Regev said “turbine” instead of “tribune.” Ha, ha, ha.

All those mocking reactions, and those still to come, unfortunately reflect a total lack of understanding of culture. Because I regret to inform you: In terms of culture, Miri Regev is a more up-to-date and sophisticated figure than Banai, Herzog or Yacimovich. She is the one who realized that in order to succeed she had to brand herself as a down-to-earth and spontaneous woman, and to convince people that that’s really what she is.

Of course playing this role involved a risk, because by doing so she doomed herself to being ostracized by the old elites and the Tel Aviv bourgeoisie and the self-declared liberal intelligentsia. But wonder of wonders: She overcame this hurdle, and Yacimovich and Herzog can only envy her, because with all their advantages over her, stemming from the fact that they came from just those elites, they’ve been defeated.

That’s the difference between a good actor and a bad one, on the stage as in politics. A good actor is one who succeeds in convincing the audience that the part he is playing is a true reflection of himself. Because the audience likes it when an effort is made to please it and the actors want to win its affection. And that’s what Miri Regev has done and is doing. On the other hand, Herzog, Yacimovich and Co. are so convinced that they are perfect, that they present themselves as they are without even bothering to act. And that’s how it looks: a nondescript gray.

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