Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev scored a key victory Wednesday in her crusade against what she and her right-wing backers see as the country’s left-wing cultural establishment. At her insistence, the Finance Ministry said it would consider cutting funding to the Jaffa Theatre, a Jewish-Arab theater Regev claims has overstepped the boundaries of freedom of expression.
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This would mark the first time the Finance Ministry has ever used its power – granted under the relatively new and controversial so-called Nakba Law (the Palestinian term to describe the formation of the State of Israel) – to deny funding to institutions that engage in activities defined as harmful and disrespectful to the state and its symbols.
Among the activities the law prohibits are incitement to terror and support for armed struggle against the state. Regev, a rising star in the ruling Likud party, claims that several performances held at the theater, as well as a recent private event it hosted, fit this description.
The Finance Ministry’s legal adviser, Asi Messing, said representatives of the Jaffa Theatre would be summoned to a hearing in connection with two specific events held on their premises: a performance in June based on the recital of letters written by Palestinian political prisoners; and last week’s show honoring Israeli-Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, who has been under house arrest in northern Israel for nearly two years.
Messing said the Finance Ministry had concluded that several other events held at the Jaffa Theatre were not in violation of the law as Regev insisted.
The final decision on whether to cut funding lies in the hands of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.
Since assuming her ministerial position in spring 2015, Regev has been locked in an almost unending battle with Israel’s cultural elites.
Tensions reached a new peak earlier this week when, in an unprecedented move, Regev lodged a complaint against the Jaffa Theatre with the Israel Police, demanding a probe of its activities. And in a Facebook post she charged that the theater “has turned from a platform for culture into a platform for terror.”
In its defense, the Jaffa Theatre argues that nothing illegal took place on its premises.
It is not the only institution she has gone after. Regev has threatened to cut funding to both the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv cinematheques – Israel’s two most important art-house theaters – for screening what she sees as anti-occupation films and hosting similarly themed film festivals. Here as well, she cited the Nakba Law as grounds for sanctions.
However, in its decision Wednesday, the Finance Ministry ruled that these film events did not violate that law.
Regev has completely cut funding to the Arabic-language Al-Midan Theater in Haifa for hosting a play that she maintained glorifies terrorism. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ruled she had no authority to deny the theater funding and, with its future hanging in the balance, the High Court of Justice has been called on to intervene.
Not long after taking office in 2015, Regev instituted a new policy that punishes Israeli artists who refuse to perform in West Bank settlements, knowing that many do not travel there as a matter of principle. Under this policy, the constitutionality of which has been challenged by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, cultural institutions that boycott the settlements stand to lose 33 percent of their public funding, while those that perform in the settlements stand to receive a 10 percent bonus.
The Israeli film industry has enjoyed great success abroad in recent years. But Regev, concerned that it tends to depict the country in an unflattering light, recently set up a committee to examine what criteria the publicly funded film foundations use in approving projects. (She has also been fiercely critical of Samuel Maoz’s new film, “Foxtrot,” which has won rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival this week.)
Hoping to expand her budgetary clout, Regev tried to pass a law that would have transferred the authority to cut funding to cultural institutions from the finance to the culture ministry. But much to her chagrin, Mendelblit foiled the plan a few weeks ago.
From the outset, it was clear Regev was on a collision course with Israel’s arts community. An aspiring right-wing politician known for her blustery style – she was once famously described as “Donald Trump in heels” – Regev grew up in a working-class Mizrahi family (referring to Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin – Regev’s father is Moroccan and her mother Spanish).
Israel’s cultural landscape, however, is dominated by the Ashkenazi left. Ever since she took office, Regev has been determined to demonstrate to Israeli filmmakers, playwrights, authors and artists who exactly runs the show, threatening those who don’t fall in line with budget cuts and censorship.
“It’s all about gaining popularity in her party,” says Itamar Gourvitch, director of the Cultural Institutions Forum, an organization that represents more than 100 such institutions around the country. “She knows that by carrying on like this, she’ll score points within her political base.
“This is not about culture at all, because she doesn’t care about culture,” adds Gourvitch. “She doesn’t attend dance, theater or musical performances because these things simply don’t interest her.”
Gourvitch acknowledges that even before Regev came on the scene, attempts were being made to stifle Israeli artists and performers. “But it was never so dramatic,” he notes. “And never before did anyone dare try to harm them because they don’t submit to a certain agenda.”
A spokesman for Regev said in response that the minister attends many premieres and openings of plays, exhibits and cultural festivals, with special focus on the country’s geographical periphery.
“Of course she can’t attend everything, which is why we have professionals whose job it is to present the minister with their impressions and feedback from the field,” he said. “All those who say she is disconnected from Israel’s cultural scene are simply trying to make her look bad.”
On a more fundamental level, he added, Regev distinguishes between the right to freedom of expression and the right to state funding. “She does not believe the government needs to fund creative works that shame and undermine the State of Israel, its values and its soldiers,” the spokesman said.
Unlike their counterparts in the United States, Israel’s cultural institutions rely to a significant extent on state funding. According to Gourvitch, state funding accounts on average for anywhere between 15 and 30 percent of the total budgets of the institutions.
Since Regev assumed her position, the Culture Ministry’s budget has grown markedly, even though many of the country’s most prominent cultural institutions – largely based in Tel Aviv – have seen their particular budgets cut.
Regev has used her extra funds to promote institutions and events in outlying parts of the country, with a special focus on Mizrahi culture.
Ilan Ben-Ami, a sociologist from the Open University who has studied state funding of cultural institutions in Israel, says Regev is the first politician to assume the position of culture minister with a true agenda.
“Most of her predecessors were pretty indifferent to the arts,” he said. “What she has done is really unprecedented – both in terms of cutting budgets to cultural institutions and in terms of directing funding to the periphery and to Mizrahi culture.”
It’s not all bad, he says. “In my opinion, it’s important that the government has a cultural agenda – I just think she’s gone too far.”