Israeli Culture Minister Backs Festival Ban of Play About Palestinians

'They're forcing me to fund plays that provide a platform for terrorists with blood on their hands,' Miri Regev says

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Einat Weitzman and Hassan Murad in 'Shame.' Very sad laughter.
'Prisoners of the Occupation' creator Einat WeitzmanCredit: David Bachar

Culture Minister Miri Regev announced her support on Monday for the exclusion from the Acre Fringe Theater Festival of a play about Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

The decision by the festival’s steering committee led several people involved in the popular event, which takes place each year during the fall Sukkot holiday, to resign. On Sunday, the festival’s artistic director, Avi Gibson Bar-El, announced his departure, as did Yussuf Abu-Warda, a member of the festival’s artistic committee. On Monday, they were joined by director Martin Mogilner, another member of the artistic committee, and Yoav Bartel, one of the three directors of the festival’s street theater events.

In addition, eight artists whose plays were approved for performance at this year’s festival announced on Sunday their withdrawal to protest the exclusion of Einat Weitzman’s “Prisoners of the Occupation.”

But several politicians have supported the steering committee’s decision, including Acre Mayor Shimon Lankri. In an interview with Army Radio on Monday, Regev praised Lankri as a “voice of sanity” who reflected the views of his electorate and said the festival shouldn’t give voice to the Palestinian narrative.

She also criticized Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and his staff for sabotaging her efforts to halt state funding for events she considers anti-Israel.

“Lankri is the mayor of Acre, not of Ramallah,” Regev said in the interview. “It’s inconceivable that Einat Weitzman, with all due respect, should glorify terrorists through her play ‘Prisoners of the Occupation.’

“[Weitzman] travels to the Muqata in Ramallah and provides a platform for those prisoners,” Regev continued, referring to the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters in a West Bank city. “They aren’t the wretched of the earth, they’re murderers, they’re terrorists. ... So to glorify them? I say to Shimon Lankri, ‘Don’t be deterred, don’t be frightened, not of jurists or of those resigning or of any artistic director.’”

Regev then criticized Mendelblit’s ruling that the state cannot deny funding to an artistic event due to its content. “It’s simply delusional!” she said. “They’re forcing me to fund plays that provide a platform for terrorists with blood on their hands. It’s theater of the absurd! It’s inconceivable that anyone in this country should force me to be an ATM.”

Regev was particularly blistering toward Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber, who has been Mendelblit’s point person on the issue and has told Regev to stop threatening funding cuts she has no authority to carry out.

“There’s a bureaucrat, however senior she may be, who’s sitting there and telling a minister in a democracy, ‘You mustn’t speak in public,’” Regev said. “Why? ‘Because you’re saying things that exceed your authority.’ It’s delusional! I tell her, ‘You’re worried about freedom of expression and you’re trying to gag me?’

“I said I’m a cabinet minister and I’ll say whatever I want, from every platform, and you — the whole gang sitting here — should give me the tools to implement the government’s policies,” Regev continued. “You can’t be putting a stick in [the wheel] all the time. You have to help me carry out the legal policies, because there’s a Nakba Law, and it’s inconceivable that you shouldn’t enforce it.”

The law in question allows the government to deny funding to organizations that commemorate the Nakba (“catastrophe”), when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled during Israel’s 1947-49 War of Independence.

“The jurists’ job is to stand like a bulwark and ensure that the country’s laws are enforced, not for Miri Regev but for the Israeli public,” Regev continued. “It’s inconceivable that there should be performances that offend public sensibilities and they tell me ‘It’s art.’ No problem, it’s art and it’s culture, but why do I have to fund it?”

Zilber, she added, “isn’t here to serve her personal agenda.”

In response, Mendelblit’s office reiterated that the minister has no right to cut funding for any event because of its content, and therefore, when she asks institutions to alter the content of certain events, she is exceeding her authority. Moreover, such statements “create a chilling effect, and she should therefore avoid them,” it said.

However, it added, this in no way prevents her from expressing her opinion on any issue “in a manner that doesn’t imply an order or interference in the content of artistic works.”