How the Right-wing Already Won Israel's Culture War

New Culture Minister Miri Regev spent 25 years in the Israeli army before becoming a politician, so it's no surprise she was happy to go to war with the local artistic community.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev at the weekly cabinet meeting, June 21, 2015.
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev at the weekly cabinet meeting, June 21, 2015.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

A great war is being fought in Israel. This time, though, the battle is not between Israelis and Palestinians. For once, it’s about art and culture, with Israel’s artists pitted against the government over the latter’s threats to end state funding for so-called “anti-Zionist” art. In other words, art that doesn’t conform with the worldview of the Israeli right.

Battle lines have been drawn and heels dug into the ground: Israel’s artists are up in arms. They are signing petitions, protesting in the streets, some are even suggesting an artistic “strike.”

At the very heart of what has been dubbed a “culture war” by the media is new Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, former Israel Defense Forces spokesperson and a popular Likud firebrand. She’s a gleeful censor, currently on a quest to remake, reroute and reform Israel’s cultural establishments – indeed, Israeli culture itself.

Fears over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to appoint Regev as culture minister were there from the start. Regev, after all, is renowned for being a staunch anti-intellectual: loud, proud and ready to shout. In recent years, she has become one of Israel’s most controversial politicians, proudly proclaiming in a 2012 television interview, “I am happy to be a fascist!”

When she started her new job last month, she returned to her old job as military censor, promising she would not accept any sign of dissent. “If it is necessary to censor, I will censor,” she declared.

But these fears have escalated considerably in recent weeks as Regev has seemingly done all she can to antagonize Israel’s creative community – even going so far as to call Israel’s artists “tight-assed, hypocritical and ungrateful.”

Earlier this month, Regev threatened to pull state funding for the Elmina children’s theater in Jaffa, after Arab-Israeli actor Norman Issa (the theater’s cofounder) said he wouldn’t perform in a settlement. (Regev backtracked later, after Issa agreed to perform in the West Bank.) Also this month, the culture ministry made good on its threat to suspend funding for the Al-Midan Theater, Haifa, after the Arab center staged a play about Palestinian security prisoners. It’s inspired by the real-life letters of a Palestinian prisoner who was part of a terror cell that killed an Israeli solider in the 1980s and sentenced to life in jail.

“I decide which institutions get money,” she told representatives of cultural institutions, making clear she would not hesitate to cut funding for venues and cultural projects that harm the image of the IDF or “delegitimize” Israel. “We [Likud] got 30 Knesset seats; you [Israel’s predominantly leftist artistic community] got a total of 20.”

This, and similar statements, made the members of Israel’s cultural establishment react with a mixture of panic and anger. Actor-director Oded Kotler caused outrage after referring to Likud voters as “straw- and cud-munching cattle.” Kotler managed to anger both the left and right, but his words typified the sense of growing panic among the intelligentsia.

But the newly found courage of Israeli artists, who for years were content to accept funding from former culture minister Limor Livnat, despite the fact that her agenda was practically identical to Regev’s (albeit with a softer personal style), is misleading. It implies that this “culture war” is being waged between two sides on an equal footing.

But the truth is, Regev has already won the war.

Flag-waving star

In 2009, Regev crept into the Knesset – as the 27th and final candidate on Likud’s slate. Since then, she’s proved herself to be one of Israel’s most media-savvy politicians, a natural-born Likudnik whose every statement can turn into a news headline or Internet meme. Despite her fervent anti-intellectualism, Regev is far from stupid: She knows exactly how to play the media and her detractors, and convert their hatred into political gold.

Her ascent from the back of Likud into its higher echelons corresponds with Israel’s becoming more right-wing, more isolationist, more hostile to any sign of criticism or dissent. It is no coincidence that the public persona she chose excels at all these traits.

Despite the resistance of Israel’s artists, Regev is the face of a new Israel – one they’re not part of. She is a true reflection of where Israeli society and culture currently stand, while Kotler and Co. represent a tiny, widely hated elite that grows less and less relevant by the day.

Regev, born Miriam Siboni in the southern city of Kiryat Gat in 1965, doesn’t come from “their” world. She first rose to prominence during her tenure as IDF spokesperson in the 2000s. Back then, she was loved by journalists – nowadays among her biggest critics – who praised her for her open, respectful approach.

After entering the murky waters of Israeli politics, it took her a while to differentiate herself among Likud’s gaggle of fresh-faced, far-right bullies. But eventually she learned, and has since become the first woman of Likud, Israel’s foremost bully.

In 2012, she infamously called African asylum seekers a “cancer in the nation’s body,” inciting anti-immigrant riots in south Tel Aviv. And not even a Howard Dean-esque viral outburst that December, during which she waved a giant flag and screamed her lungs out, could topple her. In fact, it just made her a bigger star. “There are people like me, who don’t mince words, who don’t wear a mask, who say what many people feel here, in this country, in a real, authentic way,” she said in a televised interview earlier that year.

Regev’s outspoken hatred of everything refined or cerebral is so great, in fact, it’s hard not to see Netanyahu’s decision to make her culture minister as a cruel joke on Israel’s withering cultural elite. And that’s exactly how the news was regarded by many Israelis: a rather cruel joke, like appointing Donald Trump as ambassador to Mexico.

But Regev is no fool, and she’s not here to serve as anyone’s court jester. She has a clear agenda, enormous ambition and a deep-rooted hatred toward the field she is now minister of. Her current attempts to uproot leftism from Israeli culture has, in fact, very little to do with left and right in their proper sense, and more to do with the changing social dynamic of Israeli society.

Is she the most dangerous politician in Israel? No. But she chose her target well.

Matching the mood

It’s easy to paint Regev as an oppressive, far-right politician who’s hell-bent on censoring any view that’s not her own. She certainly fits the bill. But her growing popularity is also indicative of the current national mood.

As witnessed by recent election results, the cultural divide between Tel Aviv and the rest of Israel is deeper than ever. Netanyahu’s reelection owes a great deal to the hatred many in Israel’s outlying towns feel toward Labor and the old left-wing elites.

That hatred is also the source of Regev’s popularity. Israel’s artistic elite represents everything the vast majority of Israelis despise: Ashkenazim for the most part, Tel Aviv residents, educated, left-wing – “patronizing,” as Regev called esteemed actress Gila Almagor, who heckled her during a recent awards ceremony in Tel Aviv. For most Israelis, Regev’s actions are a justified purge of disconnected elitists who feel they have a monopoly on what constitutes art.

That’s why when it comes to the “culture war,” Regev has long since won. Media coverage might make the “war” look like a fair contest. In truth, though, the group of aging artists protesting against Regev represent a small fraction of Israeli society. They are the past. She is the future.

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