Minister Miri Regev - Netanyahu's Knight of Cultural Chauvinism

Culture Minister Regev highlights how desperately Israel needs leaders who understand that a liberal democracy is not just majority rule but also the defense of minority rights and the freedom of thought and speech.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
Miri Regev poses with a fish vendor during a campaign stop at a market in Netanya. February 25, 2015.
Miri Regev poses with a fish vendor during a campaign stop at a market in Netanya. February 25, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Israel's new culture minister, Miri Regev, has managed to impress us all within a very short time of assuming her post. She started by telling Israelis that under her rule, there would be no art that undermines the country's image, and that if necessary she would censor such works.

She has since followed up by threatening to cut funding for the Elmina Theater in Jaffa, and then explained to representatives of Israeli culture that: “We [Likud] got 30 seats and you got a total of 20... I decide the criteria; I can decide which institutions get money, and that all the money goes only to the periphery and to Judea and Samaria The artists will not dictate to me.”

As a result, Israeli artists have now started to voice their protest. Author David Grossman said Monday that Regev, from the first moment she assumed office, failed to offered an inclusive and pluralist perspective, instead fanning Israel’s cultural tensions into a cultural war. He said that fears she intends to turn Israel into “militant, fundamentalist sect”.

Unfortunately this protest has also deteriorated into rhetoric that violates the very values Israeli liberals are supposed to defend. Theater director and actor Oded Kotler has called Likud voters “a heard of beasts”, a formulation that Netanyahu has condemned, and in this case I have to support thehis judgment. While I keep attacking the Likud’s position and its leaders - including Netanyahu - I do not think that the type of language Kotler invoked is appropriate for a civilized political discourse, even if the political right uses such language quite often.

But let us return to Regev’s cultural politics: In the past, she was both military censor and spokeswoman of the Israel Defense Forces. I have been told by eyewitnesses who asked not to be named how, in the latter function, she lectured journalists about what they are allowed and forbidden to say, and she seems to think that because she is a minister she can now dictate the content of art. As a result, Israeli artists have now started to dissent.

There are certainly precedent for this: Ms. Regev’s predecessor Limor Livnat was no less furious at the fact that most leading artists in Israel are liberals, and she expressed her frustration by creating the Prize for Zionist Creation – an invention that gives off the dangerous smell of totalitarianism.

But we should by no means single out ministers Regev and Livnat. A few months ago, their boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – while serving as acting minister of education, among other posts – fired two of the judges of the Israel Prize committee for literature, because he thought they were leftists who would give the prize to like-minded friends. This time Netanyahu shot himself right in the foot: The rest of the literature committee resigned, and the most prominent candidates for the prize, including David Grossman, withdrew their candidacy, thinking any win would be tainted by political meddling. While Netanyahu realized how badly he had stumbled and tried to backtrack, this was too little too late, and the 2015 literature prize has remained stained by Netanyahu’s interference.

Minister Regev did us all a great favor by spelling things out: For her, democracy means that the rulers decide everything – including what art is funded and what art should be censored – and in this she reflects Mr. Netanyahu’s views: Ideally, he would like to determine everything in the country, including what authors are to be awarded the Israel Prize. The only form of freedom Netanyahu recognizes is economic freedom, and this, after all, he’s willing to grant “even” to Palestinians, so presumably he’ll be willing to grant economic freedom to Israel’s leftists as well.

If all this smacks of McCarthyism, it has in fact been endorsed by one of Netanyahu’s closest followers. Ofir Akunis, now minister without portfolio in Netanyahu’s fourth government, initiated a law in 2011 that would limit foreign donations to leftist NGOs. When asked on local television whether this wasn’t McCarthyism, he said “Senator McCarthy was right in every word!”

As seems to be the rule in the Likud, Akunis later tried to backtrack and say that he was against McCarthyism, and that he had just meant that there had indeed been Soviet spies in the United States in the 1950s – a statement that didn’t sound too convincing for those who had seen him on TV.

The good news is that the U.S. survived McCarthy and regained its senses, and that Israel will survive Netanyahu. The bad news is that in Israel the chief McCarthyist is Netanyahu himself, and he is set to become the country’s longest-serving prime minister. He started his career 20 years ago by whipping up hatred against Israel’s left, and his impact on the Likud in particular and Israel’s political culture has been disastrous ever since.

It’s not surprising that President Reuven Rivlin – a Likudnik, but also a staunch liberal democrat and defender of equality of individual rights – does not get along well with Netanyahu, and that the latter did everything in his power to prevent Rivlin’s election to the presidency. Their core values and political styles are worlds apart. Where Netanyahu divides and sows hatred, Rivlin reaches out, and creates bridges.

It should not be surprising that Rivlin is popular in all political and ethnic groups in Israel, including among the ultra-Orthodox, Arabs and the left. Israel is in desperate need of leaders like Rivlin, who understand that liberal democracy is not just majority rule, as Netanyahu, Regev and Bennett seem to think, but also the defense of minority rights and the freedom of thought and speech.



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