Note to Minister Regev: No Israeli Film Has Delegitimized the State

With her ‘delegitimization’ obsession, the minister has to realize her paranoia is shaking the foundations of local culture.

Lior Mizrachi

What does Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev mean when she talks of delegitimization? At the climax of every speech she makes, out comes the same mouthful of a concept combined with the phrase “the State of Israel.” It’s a kind of ideological stroke, which is supposed to put a bang into the patriotic feelings that defend our divine little plot of land.

“We will support anyone who does not delegitimize the State of Israel,” she said, speaking two weeks ago at the Cinema South International Festival in Sderot, adding, “Anyone attempting to delegitimize Israel will do this without our support.” In an interview with Channel 2 TV last week, the minister said, “Whoever blackens the State of Israel will delegitimize it. I won’t be there.” 

I will now address the use the minister makes of this concept. I will ignore the other things she has said, such as, “We recently won 30 seats; you won a total of 20,” at a meeting with 25 representatives of cultural institutions, according to reports.

These things are not inconsequential, but when we reach the point when the culture minister is using the term ‘delegitimization,’ we are entering a scary and threatening scenario, bordering on fiction.

There hasn’t been a single feature or documentary Israeli film that has “delegitimized the State of Israel” (and I really don’t understand what it means for a film to delegitimize the State of Israel).

And if there were no such film, is the minister and Likud MK – who repeatedly states that her ministry will not fund any film that will delegitimize the state – not expressing first and foremost a feeling of paranoia about something that still hasn’t happened, but could happen?

Confusing the concept

If she’s afraid that a film will delegitimize Israel, that means she believes it is possible.

I, on the other hand, am absolutely certain that most Israeli artists don’t believe in this possibility and, furthermore, don’t even know what it means.

As I see it, the minister thinks she knows what she means when she threatens not to support films that will delegitimize the State of Israel. But she confuses this concept with another one – critique.

The minister believes every film that critiques what is done here delegitimizes the State of Israel. That’s sad, because it means the minister thinks that delegitimizing Israel is much easier than I had thought possible. You need only criticize the state and its legitimacy crumbles.

There is not a single country whose films and other creative works do not criticize what’s done inside it. And, unless it was during their darkest periods, none of these countries feared that such critique was delegitimizing it.

According to the minister and the way she uses the term delegitimization, our country suffers from chronic weakness. All you need do is criticize it, and its legitimacy is already undermined. The minister doesn’t understand how her terrified threats attest to the weakness she feels.

Criticism actually attests to strength: to the ability to look reality straight in the eye without fearing that, by looking at it, this reality will crumble around us. But the minister, it seems, is terrified of criticism, and there is nothing more convenient then describing the criticism as false.

The usual suspects

It’s always easy to highlight “Jenin, Jenin” [a critical documentary examining an alleged massacre in the West Bank by the Israel Defense Forces in 2002] whenever a film is needed as an example of something “we as a country should not be funding,” as she was quoted as saying in a meeting with representatives of art institutions and artists guilds recently.

If she needs another example from the field of documentary films – it’s hard to imagine she could find a better example among feature films – she can cite “5 Broken Cameras” [the title relates to the number of cameras broken when a Palestinian activist films Friday gatherings in Bil’in] or “The Gatekeepers” [interviews with six former Shin Bet security service chiefs].

Just two years ago, Regev’s predecessor as culture and sports minister, Limor Livnat, declared she was happy that these two Oscar-nominated films didn’t win the best documentary prize at the Academy Awards.

Livnat also added she had never seen them, but was opposed to them (I particularly love it when people attack films without even watching them – little wonder they don’t understand what criticism is).

I have no intention of reviving memories of Minister Livnat. Still, it’s hard to forget the things she wrote in response to a protest letter sent to her by the filmmakers’ organizations following her interview, in which she also said these filmmakers were full of “self-hate.” In her response, she defined the two as “anti-Israeli films that libel Israel throughout the world.”

Livnat expressed the wonderful paradox that only by virtue of Israel being such a robust democracy can it permit itself to self-censor.

I won’t go into detail here about the role of art and the role of criticism. Whoever doesn’t get it probably never will.

But, I will say that Israeli cinema – and now I am referring to Israeli feature films – has often put before Israeli society a mirror offering a critical reflection – like Ephraim Kishon’s “Sallah Shabati” (1964). It can be forlorn but also present an alternative of possible hope – like Uri Barbash’s “Me’ahorei Hasoragim” (“Beyond the Walls,” 1984). Or it can be aggressive and wild like Assi Dayan’s “Life According to Agfa” (1992), which, despite the apocalyptic evening it portrayed, ended with the rise of a new morning over the roofs of Tel Aviv.

There’s rarely been an Israeli film worth its salt that didn’t include some measure of criticism directed toward Israeli reality.

When Regev declares opposition to films that criticize what goes on here, she means, I presume, films that deal with the conflict and the IDF.

Grappling with issues

It’s hard to imagine any movies dealing with the socioeconomic distress that characterizes Israeli society being the ones that bother her. With this thinking, she can pigeonhole any film that describes reality as more complicated than one that sees things in black and white, or into those who are right and those who are not.

She can pigeonhole any film that describes the practical and ethical difficulty that soldiers in the eye of the storm experience over the years – whether the film expresses a fierce political stance or maneuvers within this reality or evades it. And no film that grapples with these issues – from “Beaufort” and “Waltz with Bashir” to “Lebanon,” “Bethlehem” and “Rock the Casbah” – didn’t operate in the range of the ideological and intellectual ambivalence that characterizes what happens here in its historical context. Basically, she can pigeonhole any film that doesn’t present what happens in our country as the minister would want it to be presented to both us and the world.

Variations, divisions

Regev’s use of the term “delegitimization” describes a two-dimensional world. However, the quality and power of Israeli cinema, which has developed so impressively in recent years, stems precisely from the refusal to describe reality as such, from a desire and acquired ability to describe the Israeli experience in all its variations, bifurcations and divisions that characterize it.

There is no filmmaker or artist – and it doesn’t matter which political pole he represents, as long as he is an intelligent, serious and decent artist – who won’t agree that this is the role of art. In the use Regev makes of the term delegitimization, it doesn’t matter what she means. She is undermining the foundations of Israeli culture, and the cinema within it. Thus, she is undermining the foundations of the state as a place that is strong enough to confront itself. Therefore, if there is a shred of meaning to this term, then by the very fact of her returning again and again to it and expressing fear of it, the minister is the one who is guilty of it.