Undoubtedly, the worst thing that happened to Israeli theater in the past year was that Miri Regev became our culture and sports minister. Of all the areas under her jurisdiction the new minister chose to focus on theater, in statements made even before assuming her new role, and even more so in her words and deeds since then. This may be due to Israeli theater’s large public impact – in 2013 all the theater groups in Israel, large and small, establishment and assorted fringe groups, staged 1,169 productions, which “ran” 18,906 times before 5,169,707 spectators. The minister’s attention may also stem from the fact that plays, by dint of their use of language, can be associated with political content, which politicians can relate to according to their worldview.
- For the culture minister, whoever undermines her undermines the state
- Now playing in Israel: film censorship
- Theater funding and the boomerang effect
Even before assuming office, Regev promised that if censorship were necessary she would employ it, thus placing herself a priori as the person overseeing freedom of expression, as the one deciding who can say what and to whom. She subsequently stated that she wouldn’t lend a hand to tarnishing the image of the state or the IDF on stages that are supported by public funds, as if this is the way things now stand. Following that she adopted, on Facebook and in deeds carried out by her subordinates, a policy of intimidation and administrative retribution by cutting off budgets or threatening to do so (in the case of Norman Issa and his Al-Mina Theater and in the case of the Al-Midan Theater).
As time passed, anyone familiar with this issue came to realize that the minister didn’t bother studying, and may have no intent of doing so, the procedures and ways her ministry is run with regard to supporting theaters. It was clear that she intended to pursue a contrarian stance vis-a vis anyone associated with theater, while inciting the public against such people. Veteran theater producers and actors who came under attack responded sharply, and the public discourse heated up accordingly.
It was patently obvious that the minister had no intention of calming things down and that she was keen on inflaming the debate. This was done while spreading slogans such as “freedom to finance,” namely touting the state’s right to support only the opinions of those who were elected to govern, as opposed to “freedom of expression,” with which she was willing to accept - provided its own way - but not to protect or foster; other slogans were “support for the periphery,” without elaborating how and by which principles this would be done, or support for “Arab art,” which seemed ironic in light of her treatment of Al-Mina and Al-Midan.
Regev’s 2016 agenda
She repeatedly stated her determination in 2016 to spearhead an initiative to change the manner in which public funding of theaters is allocated. A statement by the attorney general, according to which public support of a cultural institution should not be contingent on content that is to the minister’s liking, did not cause her to change her attitude. On the contrary – she informed cultural institutions that she intends to act on the basis of the economics arrangement bill and anti-boycott laws, which give the minister of finance (not the culture minister!) the authority to withdraw funding according to strict criteria based on content. These are loosely defined and actually allow the enactment of censorship through sweeping administrative-budgetary measures. This is the norm in totalitarian states and is completely contrary to the essence of democracy – some would even say to the essence of Judaism – that Israel purports to uphold.
Under these circumstances it would appear that there is no point in trying to reach an understanding with her, or in wasting energy by relying on existing procedures (she’ll change them), or in searching for declarative judicial support (such as by the High Court of Justice - she’ll act to bypass it). What is required of people in the theater business in the coming year is a basic change of mindset: They must start operating as if public support is not guaranteed. They must get used to relying only on their audience; to rely – in a limited fashion – on municipal support where this exists. A state that offers support only for cultural activity that toes the line, with content approved by the rulers as they see fit, is not worthy of having its support accepted or taken into account.
For many years, due to insufficient public support, Israeli theater built up its audience, paying for this by increased commercialization of its repertoire, and sometimes compromising on the level of performance. The state supports only 20-30 percent of the budgets of its two largest theaters (Habima and Cameri). More than 5 million tickets sold in 2013 are the electorate of Israeli theater. These are its 30 Knesset seats, to counter Regev’s gloating over the purported size of her mandate.
Things aren’t simple, particularly for smaller theaters, where state support covers a larger portion of the budget. In practice nothing needs to change. Theater directors, actors and actresses and all other associated professionals should just continue doing what they’ve been doing so far: Stage the shows they want to or can. The last thing they should do is try to appease the minister and her henchmen. Theater people have to understand that public support for theater from this government and this minister is not to be relied on. I can’t guarantee that this will produce better theater. I dare say it won’t be worse. However, less energy will be wasted on trivia that is unrelated to producing theater.
The minister’s approach is that those elected have the right to set the rules. This approach forgets that someone who was elected once may not be elected again. Theater was and is produced here, both very good and very bad, but there has always been a lot of it. Ministers and governments come and go. In the long run Israeli theater has impacted reality more than culture ministers have. One should never forget that.