Israel's Culture Wars Take Center Stage at Film Awards After Minister Walks Out to Protest Palestinian Poem

Miri Regev accused film industry of elitism, vowing to reform country's film funds; Israeli Arab actors refuse to take stage to receive Best Film award from minister.

Culture Minister Miri Regev at the Ophir Awards ceremony in Ashdod, September 22, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

Political and cultural tensions took center stage in Israel's main film awards Thursday, after participants exchanged verbal blows with Israel's Culture Minister Miri Regev in the latest chapter of the checkered relationship between the minister and Israeli cultural figures.

Regev announced Friday that she would be convening a professional panel to examine the non-profit foundations and funds in the country that support Israel's film industry.

The announcement followed an uproar the night before in Ashdod at the Ophir Awards ceremony, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars, where Regev walked out after a poem by Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish was read.

In the course of Thursday's ceremony, Jewish performer Yossi Tzaberi and Tamer Nafar, the Arab star of the Israeli film "Junction 48," appeared on stage in a presentation that included a short excerpt from Darwish's poem "Write it down, I am an Arab," also known as "ID card."

Jewish performer Yossi Zabari and Tamer Nafar, the Arab star of the Israeli film "Junction 48," raise their fist in a sign of protest during Ophir Awards. September 22, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

In response, Regev left the auditorium, returning several minutes later to take the stage to present the best film award. In her remarks, she said that she had been contacted by individuals in the industry who complained that they had been discriminated against by the film funds. Her remarks prompted an uproar and the departure of some members of the audience.

There were catcalls from the audience including "That's a crude lie. You're making political capital at our expense." Others began clapping in an effort to get her to stop speaking and actor Roy Assaf came on stage before being removed. Regev insisted on continuing, vowing that "Israeli cinema will not be a closed club" and saying that she would "ensure a fair opportunity for everyone, even to the invisible people in the industry."

Actor Roy Assaf shouts at Culture Minister Miri Regev at the Ophir Awards ceremony in Ashdod, September 22, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

When Regev ultimately presented the award for best film to "Sand Storm," about Arab Bedouin women in the south, two Arab actresses form the film, Ruba Blal-Asfour and Lamis Ammar, refused to take the stage. From the audience, Blal-Asfour yelled that she would not stand alongside Regev.

In Darwish's poem, written in 1964, when he was living in Israel, the exhortation “Write it down, I am an Arab” is addressed to an imagined Israeli bureaucrat dealing with Israel's Arab population. It is also an exhortation from the poet to himself to write the experience of his community. The poem ends: "I do not hate people; And I do not steal from anyone; But if I starve, I will eat my oppressor’s flesh; Beware, beware of my starving; And my rage."

Cultural capital

Miri Regev at 2016 Ophir Awards ceremony
Ilan Assayag

Regev convened a news conference later Thursday complaining that the ceremony had "crossed several red lines," noting specifically the use of the Darwish poem. She also labeled the hostile audience reaction to her remarks about the lack of access that she said some aspiring members of the industry have to foundation funding as "verbal hooliganism."

In addition to the catcalls during her speech, actor Roy Assaf, who initially left after Regev spoke, invaded the stage before being removed.

Regev announced at her Tel Aviv news conference that she has directed members of her ministry's staff to set up the committee "to oversee and examine what is happening at the film funds and at the Israel Academy of Film and Television," which sponsors the Ophir Awards. She asked that the panel submit a position paper within three months.

She said she wished to "put things in order" prior to consideration of her ministry's funding for the Israeli film sector for 2018, with respect to representation and transparency at the funds, including possibly setting up an entity to which appeals can be made by scriptwriters "who did not receive satisfactory response from the funds."