Rare is the day that passes in Israel without a Miri Regev headline. Or two.
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The 50-year-old came hurtling into politics at full speed – a swirl of hawkish positions, Facebook updates and blue high-heeled shoes – less than eight years ago. And it’s been go-go-go ever since.
One might easily, on any given morning, wake up to Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sports lecturing the radio talk show hosts on why Arab members of parliament praying at the Temple Mount need to be thrown into jail. Or, maybe, you might catch her on Twitter, sharing 140 characters worth of her morning musing on the U.S.-Iran deal.
Grabbing coffee – TV on in the background – one might then catch a few sound bites from a quickly convened press conference over at her Tel Aviv office. There, she might be talking about what she thinks of the national judo team competing at the grand slam competition in Abu Dhabi without Israeli flag patches on their judogis (not much). Or, maybe she will be railing against the “Ashkenazi” music she claims Army Radio plays.
Glance at the front pages of the local newspapers. They will probably offer up more news both from, and about, Regev. There could be an update on the saga of the Al-Midan Arab theater in Haifa, and her fight to freeze their public funding.
Or maybe there will be a new twist in the scandal involving Regev’s top political advisor, who is accused of making secret lists of cushy ministry jobs to be handed out to her cronies.
Driving in to work, stuck in traffic, radio switched back on, one will inevitably hear from Regev again: lecturing a whole new crew of radio talk show hosts on, say, why the Justice Ministry must force the state to cease providing legal counsel for terrorists. And then the familiar radio beeps signaling the top of the hour will sound, and interrupt her. And it will be only 9 A.M.
From her thoughts on the Islamic party in Israel (dislike) to LGBT rights (like) to the national chess team’s decision to forfeit the European championships in Sweden (it’s complicated) – Regev certainly has a lot to say – and about a lot of subjects, too.
Sometimes, relays the minister, when she arrives back home in Rosh Ha’ayin at night, she might see her husband, Dror, in the TV room, and ask: “What are you doing?” and he will say: “Just watching soccer on TV.”
“That’s that. He can only focus on one thing at a time,” she says. “But I am different.”
“Women can bounce many balls in the air at the same time. Especially me. I am versatile. And when I want to say something, I will not be shut up. What? I should keep quiet?” she asks in her signature rhetorical style.
“People have become accustomed to politicians who are afraid of saying what they think, who are afraid of criticism. But what to do that Miri Regev is a woman, from the periphery, and from the military? Miri Regev is a combination you don’t find too often ” she continues, speaking of herself in the third person, another stylistic favorite.
“You certainly don’t expect Miri Regev to stay quiet about anything having to do with security, do you? Or the periphery? Or women? I don’t think so.”
“People just don’t know how to take me,” she explains. “But those who think I need to stick to sports and culture and not speak my mind about the Temple Mount, or whatever I choose to speak my mind about – those are narrow-minded people. They are limited.”
What is culture?
Even when Regev sticks to the vicinity of the ministries she is responsible for, she is controversial.
“Read Chekhov? Not me,” she infamously stated in a September interview with newspaper Yisrael Hayom, wearing her disdain for what she terms “Ashkenazi” culture as a badge of pride. Does she like classical music or opera? “Barely,” it turns out. “Excuse me, how many people actually listen to opera here?” she threw in, and then, for good measure: “Someone who has never been in a theater or cinema and who never read Haim Nahman Bialik [Israel’s national poet] can also be cultured.”
This might well be a debate worth having, but there are those who wonder whether it is completely necessary for a senior minister to insult Israel’s most beloved cultural icons in order to make the point.
“Who does [first lady of the theater, and Israel Prize winning actress] Gila Almagor think she is?” Regev screeches. “Who is [Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner] Chaim Topol? Who does he think he is?” she follows up.
Meanwhile, to those who accuse her of abusing her position to silence voices she disagrees with (or maybe just confusing her current job with another one she once held, back during her career days in the military – that of chief censor), Regev clarifies: “I support freedom of speech,” she says. “But the Culture Ministry does not have to channel state funding to groups and organizations that delegitimize the state and support boycotts.”
The Al-Midan theater staged a play written and inspired by the life of a convicted Palestinian terrorist, she stresses. And, meanwhile, over at the Arab-Jewish Al-Mina children’s theater in Jaffa – another institution Regev threatened to freeze funding for – one of the founders refused to perform at a settlement in the West Bank. To her mind – but not, it would soon transpire, to that of the attorney general – public support of a cultural institution can and should be contingent on nationalistic considerations.
Again, this is possibly fodder for another interesting debate – but in what tones? “Garbage” is what Regev – caught unaware on an audio recording – called Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein soon after he announced he would prevent her from freezing the Al-Midan theater funding. “Pieces of shit!” she continued, this time in reference to the Attorney General’s staff. She later apologized for the language – but vowed to soldier on with the fight.
Author David Grossman has accused Regev of fanning Israel’s tensions into a veritable culture war and voiced concern that she intends to turn Israel into a “militant, fundamentalist sect.” Actor Itay Tiran called her “populist,” “manipulative,” and “lacking in culture.” Columnist Nahum Barnea described her as a “walking graffiti wall” and warned that she was two minutes away from becoming a national joke.
Others in the arts community have gone further still – too far: Actor Gavri Banai called her a “behema,” a beast. Theater director and actor Oded Kotler, in remarks much criticized from all sides, dismissed the entire body of Likud voters who supported her as a “herd of beasts.”
But, not only does it seem that Regev is not overly concerned about the attacks on her – she sometimes makes the impression of reveling in them. It is all coming, she repeats patiently, over and again, from the people she collectively terms the “Haughty Left-Wing Ashkenazi Elite.” Sometimes it’s just the “Ashkenazim,” or sometimes just the “elite,” and usually some form of combination thereof. And it’s all nothing if not proof, if such proof was even needed, that she is doing her job as Culture Minister exactly right.
And that job, as she sees it, besides protecting the legitimacy of the state, or her version of it, is fixing historical social wrongs in this country, one transfer of funding from the proverbial Opera-House-in-Tel-Aviv to unknown Ethiopian-dance-troupe-from-the-Negev at a time.
“The cake has to be more equitably divided,” says the woman who fashions herself as something of a Robin Hood for the disenfranchised. “What can I say? It’s sometimes a zero-sum game, and there are people here accustomed to getting the whole cake.”
“Social justice. That is what she is about,” says her pony-tailed 26-year-old loyal spokeswoman, Maayan Adam. “Everything she does, from the moment she opens her eyes in the morning until late at night when her head sinks into her pillow – everything is about fairness. She is from the people and for the people.”
“For years, artists from the periphery of our society – both geographically and in terms of power – were just not heard,” says Regev. “Why shouldn’t we have more Mizrahi music on the radio? Why are those that decide what counts for ‘culture,’ all coming from the Ashkenazi elite in Tel Aviv? This society is made up of immigrants from west and east – and it’s about time that was expressed in our culture.”
‘I was a bookworm’
“Just one more selfie! Do us the honor!” the crowds yell out to her, surrounding her, brandishing cell phones, putting arms around her small waist and generally, out here in the periphery, returning the love. It’s a rainy evening in the northern city of Migdal Ha’emek, and the minister has arrived to cut the ribbon at a small ceremony celebrating the re-opening of a renovated local library. “Despite all the brouhaha about Chekhov, the truth is I was a bookworm,” she says in her speech. “Ask anyone at the Yad Yitzhak elementary school library in Kiryat Gat: If you wanted to find little Miri Siboni, you would find her curled up at the library.”
“That was my escape. My way into other worlds. Better ones, that were more fair and more beautiful. And ones filled with princesses.” Her voice dances along with her smile. Her lipstick is bright. Her eyes are alive.
She lights up the room. For real. She claps and sings along gamely to a slightly off-key musical rendition of the Peace Song, performed by two local 12-year-old musical prodigies, one the son of Ukrainian immigrants, the other the daughter of Iraqi ones. She praises the local council members (“The best!”). She lauds the long-time local librarian (“Give it up for Mimi!”) She marvels at the new flooring and the excellent paint job and the brand new computer room, too.
“We are going to see a lot of changes in the periphery in 2016,” she promises. “This is not just talk. What Miri says – Miri does!” she assures them. “You good people work hard all day. What, you don’t deserve some culture nearby at night too? What, is that just for people in the center of the country?”
She laughs easily, her nose crinkling up when she does. Her smile is embracing. “My daughter served under you in the army,” one woman tells her, “you probably don’t remember her.” “But of course I do! What is your Shira doing today?” Regev wants to know, sincerely. “Let’s take a photo for her! Yallah, yallah, everyone get into the frame. One. Two. Three!”
Later, after the library opening, a few stale pretzels on the go and another opening – this one of an animation festival in the nearby cultural center – (“I just want to say something about your mayor Eli Barda! He is too marvelous! You are really lucky here in Migdal Ha’emek!”) – she huddles with her chief of staff, Eitan Cohen (he of the cronies and the job lists), and slips into the back seat of her black government-issued Skoda.
As Meir Dahan, her driver, heads off into the night – she is now going south, to drop in on the wedding of the son of a party supporter in Modi’in – Regev puts on her glasses and scrolls quickly through dozens of text and WhatsApp messages that have come in during the last hour –simultaneously questioning her spokeswoman, Adam, who is craning around from the front seat to face her – on the “likes” her latest Facebook post has garnered (“I don’t know why it’s not gaining traction! What, people don’t even care about the Temple Mount anymore?”) Regev has a list of missed calls that would take a normal person two days to respond to. She returns two of them.
The first goes unanswered. Like so many typical 16-year-olds, Regev’s daughter seems to be screening her calls. “Where is Michali?” the minister asks on her next call, jumping right into it without as much as a “How was your day?” for her husband, Dror. “Did she see I left shnitzelim for her?”
And then, finally, giving a quick glance to a slightly chipped nail (trendy black polish), putting aside a pile of papers, and fastening her seatbelt, she turns her attention to the interview at hand.
“I clearly have the ability and the leadership qualities to go far,” she states matter-of-factly. “The question is going to be, what do I want?”
Born in May 1965, the bookworm turned brigadier general turned rising star of the Likud party, grew up in the southern development town of Kiryat Gat. Her parents, Felix and Marcelle Siboni, lived in a neighborhood nicknamed the “train neighborhood” – because, explains Regev, the cramped living spaces felt more like train carriages than homes. That was where, says the minister, new immigrants from North Africa – like her parents, who had come from Morocco with the Youth Aliyah project – were housed.
Her father, for whom, she says, “reading and writing was a real struggle,” had a small business involving distribution rights for soft drinks, and also built greenhouses for nearby kibbutzim. Her mother stayed at home. Regev has three younger siblings. Wealthy, they were not:
“We would go around with old shoes and exchange clothes with our friends so we had some variety in our closets,” Regev recounts. “On Fridays, everyone would scrub the floors. Some of my strongest childhood memories are of all the water we would pour to clean the entryways on Fridays. That, and the smells of fish on the grill.”
On the other side of the road in Kiryat Gat, continues Regev, were villas set in an orange grove. “I always said, I, Miri, am going to cross that road and pick those oranges someday – but I would never forget where I came from.”
Journalist Ronit Vardi, who is close to Regev and wrote a profile of her for Liberal magazine, says that, in fact, relatively speaking for Kiryat Gat, the Sibonis were doing all right. “Regev comes from humble beginnings, but the whole family quickly began moving upwards,” writes Vardi. Popular and pretty, little Miri volunteered at Magen David Adom, played piano, and at 17 was voted “Sabra of the year,” by Maariv l’Noar, a popular teen magazine – with her photo adorning the front cover.
A product of youth movements – first the scouts, and later, when she became more religious for a few years in high school, Bnei Akiva – Regev began her long military career inauspiciously, in the Gadna forces, where she trained pre-army disadvantaged youth. “I never intended to stay on,” says the woman who ended up with a 25-year army career. “I was considering studying nursing.”
But every time Regev thought it was time to leave, something kept her in the green fatigues: First, officer’s training course; then being chosen as a Gadna platoon commander. And then – in what would be the first of her many amazing leapfrog moves – when she became the spokeswoman for General Yitzhak Mordechai. He had just been made commander of the Southern Command, and had taken note of the young soldier when she yelled at him one day.
“I was organizing an event for youngsters about to go into the army from Beit She’an, where there are a lot of Kurds. And I wanted a role model – a Kurdish person like Mordechai – to come talk to them and show them there was a future for them,” Regev recounts. She pulled strings, used connections, and got the general’s promise that he would be there. Then, last minute, he cancelled: “I made a big ‘balagan’” – a commotion” – she says proudly. The head of the Gadna reprimanded her, she notes, equally proud. But, Mordechai ended up coming to talk to the Kurdish kids after all.
“He knew he needed a spokesperson who was pushy and had courage. He remembered me and knew I was the one,” she says.
Regev’s rise in the IDF from that moment on was nothing if not meteoric. Promoted to lieutenant colonel and then to colonel, she was moved from one spokesperson’s job to another, finally landing as the deputy IDF spokesperson, where she threw herself into the role.
Not everyone appreciated her initiatives and big personality: Ruth Yaron, for example, the actual IDF spokeswoman at the time – another tough Mizrahi woman, but less colorful and charismatic than Regev – tried reining in her deputy, but gave up. She then reportedly went to the IDF chief of staff to complain. The chief of staff took it up with the defense minister, and it was decided – in a rather unprecedented move – to relieve Regev of her position, just four months in. The fact that the problems of a newly minted colonel in the spokesman’s office even reached the defense minister was in and of itself almost unprecedented.
But, thanks to Regev’s growing team of supporters and those-who-owed-her-favors within the army, as well as to some army politics that didn’t even directly relate to her, she was spared humiliation and moved into the Prime Minister’s Office. There she worked for a time for then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, planning national public relations in the event of an Iraqi attack, before moving on to do another short stint as the IDF’s chief press and media censor. She was good, and she eventually she made it back to the IDF spokesman’s office, this time as its head. She served there under new Chief of Staff Dan Halutz – to whom she was close enough at the time to call “Haluzi,” and “Dandush” – and was promoted to the rank of brigadier general.
Regev’s public profile really took off at this point, as both Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005 and the 2006 Lebanon War took place under her watch – throwing her into the media limelight. During the disengagement, Regev was arguably the most prominent voice coming from the military, after Halutz himself. Again, not all of the attention she got was positive, and not all her bosses appreciated her tactics. In the middle of the Lebanon War, for example, Regev posed for a studio photo shoot to go with a Yedioth Ahronoth magazine profile on her – raising eyebrows about her priorities.
Later, testifying before the Winograd Commission, which looked into the failings of the Second Lebanon War, Regev would severely criticize Halutz’s conduct and decision-making during the 2006 conflict. Later yet, Halutz would write a book about that war – in which Regev is not even mentioned. The two are no longer on speaking terms.
“She is a street cat, with very sharpened political instincts. Whatever position she was ever in, in the military – her head was already in the next job, and, behind the scenes, she was working her way up,” said one critic, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is still in the military and unauthorized to speak on the subject.
In Liberal, Vardi describes Regev more generously, as having a “survival instinct.” “She was able to get along in the chauvinistic environment. She could giggle at dirty jokes. Rebuff sexual advances without making too big a deal about them. She used her female wiles and was warm and loving and funny – but as calculated and manipulative as the best of them.”
“She was a star,” says Vardi.
‘Pushy and creative’
Reflecting on her military career, and the difficulties she had, or did not have, in the ultimate boy’s club, Regev dismisses any talk of her kissing up to superiors or using any feminine charms. She attributes her success, first and foremost, she says, to professionalism. “That is the AB and C of success. Nothing will help. You can be nice, have connections, be an attractive woman ... whatever – but if you are not good at what you do, you will not be there,” she says.
And there are other qualities she believes she possesses that helped her too. She counts them out on her fingers: Courage to speak her mind, the ability to make decisions, and loyalty. Yes, she insists, she is fundamentally – and despite the documented tensions and problems with some of her former military bosses – a very loyal person. “The army is a hierarchical organization – and the only way to survive there is to get behind your boss’s decisions – even if you have argued against them behind closed doors. You leave the room, guns blazing, and get in line.”
Another Regev tip for success – military or otherwise – is: Be pushy. “I am pushy and creative and I get things done.” In a way, she reflects, this involved adopting what she calls a “typical man’s pushy way of behaving. I became very straightforward, and actually shunned my feminine intuition and softness,” she says.
For Regev, this is as close to an apology as one is going to get for what some see as her crude manner of speaking and behaving. “My speech was curt and I got used to pulling down my hat so no one could look me in the eye,” she says, and adds: “my public persona may seem more aggressive than what I really am.”
“There is a basic assumption in the army that no matter how many strides women have taken, they still don’t understand security,” she says. “We are never ‘one of them,’ because we didn’t stir black coffee in the hills during the battles together. I needed to be tougher than tough to counter this.”
It was during her long career in the army that Regev married and started a family with her childhood sweetheart, Dror. An engineer with Israel Aerospace Industries, Dror also comes from Kiryat Gat – they met on the school bus – but from the other side of the tracks, and from a well- established Ashkenazi family. His grandfather was one of the founders of the Israel Electric Corporation. The couple have three children: Roee, 24, who just started at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva; Yael, 21, who is an officer in the Golani Brigade; and 16-year-old Michal, who people describe as a “copy-paste,” of her mom.
The best advice Regev has for career women who also want to have a successful family life is: Choose your partner wisely. “I don’t think my husband knew what he was getting into or the price he would pay, career-wise,” she admits. “He thought: Miri is independent, yes. But he didn’t know the extent of it.”
She consults him when making career decisions, but, Regev quickly admits, it’s just a formality. “It was always clear that Dror would not, conscious-wise, tell me not to do something I wanted.” If she had been forced to give up any of the career that she is so passionate about, she would have been frustrated. “To wake up and go do something you don’t like, that’s a prison,” she says.
As the Regev children grew up, it was Dror who was there for them more often than not: making sandwiches for school, going to the parent-teacher meetings, clapping at their school performances, and putting them to bed. “We can’t both go out at 6 A.M. and can’t both come back at midnight. We didn’t make children so as to leave them all day and let a stranger raise them, did we?” Regev says.
Determined to be heard
When top brass in the Israeli military are ready to retire, they are offered the services of a professional coach – someone they can throw out ideas to, and who can guide and mentor them as they take their first steps back into the civilian world. One of the best-respected of these coaches is Sara Arbel, a woman with 20 years of experience in the field, who works out of her little apartment in the upscale Mashtela project on the northern edge of Tel Aviv.
Regev came and sat on Arbel’s couch in late 2007, just as she was folding up her army uniform and deciding what to do next. Arbel, the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors – and very much from the Ashkenazi elite Regev typically rails against – was impressed.
“She is one of the most authentic people I have ever met,” says Arbel. “Sometimes I think she is so authentic, she is almost a little nave. But she is the real thing.” Arbel, it soon turns out, cannot compliment Regev enough: “She works 24/7,” “Her energy is phenomenal,” “She cares,” “She is strong minded,” “She has strong intuition,” “She has integrity. Chutzpah. Self-drive.”
In her experience, Arbel says, she finds that a disproportionate number of those considered “successful” professionally, come from backgrounds similar to that of Regev’s. People, she says, who have “life toolboxes,” and “know life from the bottom up.”
“Miri comes from a struggling family, and grew up in a place that was not even a dot on the map at the time. Her parents were without any academic education. Like most of the leading career people I have encountered, Miri needed to prove and challenge herself – and she needed to build a new identity different from where she came from. She was determined to be heard – not overlooked, the way her parents were.”
When Arbel once suggested that, to make herself more palatable to the mainstream, Regev consider toning down her language, the minister replied: “The people I represent understand me.” Arbel buys it: “She is not trying to be super intelligent, or super cultural,” explains Arbel. “She is speaking to her people straightforward, on their level.”
During the first few sessions between Arbel and Regev, various potential career paths were bandied about. But it was clear, from the get-go, where Regev was headed.
She had no interest in going on to further studies: She had earned both an undergraduate degree in informal education and a master’s degree in business administration during her years in the military. And, with a good army pension in hand, Regev didn’t feel pressed to take a corporate money-making job. “Believe me, with my connections and my work ethic, I could have made a lot of money. I don’t know a lot of people like me,” she says, adding, “but I am not a pig. I don’t have big eyes.”
“Those of us who grew up in the army and reached top level jobs were part of discussions of great importance. After dealing with making Israel secure for that long, and understanding there are enemies everywhere – you really can’t do anything else in life. You have to continue being part of the decision-makers. That is why so many people from the army go into politics.”
But, Regev adds, the fact that the army makes many people want to join politics, does not necessarily mean they should, or can. “The military does not provide a good education for politics,” she claims, adding that the difficulties begin with the fact that in the army you get appointed to positions, while in politics, you have to get elected, “which is a totally different beast.
“In the army, you are professional, you pass exams, you move up. It’s goal-oriented and you need to tick off the goals as you move up the ladder. You don’t have to lobby or sell yourself,” Regev says. “The army is very straightforward.
“And then suddenly, in politics, you can’t show up and give orders. No one works for you. You end up being your own secretary and your own spokeswoman. You can’t hand out missions anymore, especially not when you are just starting out. You need to be charismatic and connect to people and talk about all sorts of broad, and sometimes boring, things day and night.
“This is stuff you can’t fake. Your abilities are tested. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it.”
No newbie anymore
Regev officially joined the Likud party – which, she says, she had quietly supported for years – less than a year after her IDF farewell party. She traveled up and down the country with her political advisor, Cohen, slapping backs, dropping in on weddings and bar mitzvahs and asking for her party faithful’s votes in the primaries. In the 2009 elections, having secured the 27th place on the Likud list – she found herself squeaking in under the wire to take her party’s last seat in the Knesset.
In March 2015, when elections were called again, Regev was no number 27 newbie anymore.
After sitting on several prestigious committees in the Knesset – including finance, foreign affairs and security – getting to know the political ropes and perfecting the art of kisses and backslaps (not to mention introducing the phrase “with God’s Help,” into her repertoire and adding a few Kotel visits to her itinerary) – Regev was at the very top.
Regev categorically rejects the notion that she panders to the Likud Central Committee, just like she rejects suggestions that she is more about PR and less about substance. Upon hearing the criticism, she wants to know who of those interviewed for this story said what negative thing about her. One of her assistants will later raise the matter with at least one of them.
Of course the interests of the Likud stalwarts concern her, she adds. “But to suggest I care only for the Likud Central Committee? No,” she insists. “If I bring culture to the periphery, it’s for everyone,” she says. “Arabs will enjoy the fruits of my fights too, and so will the ultra-Orthodox and so, even, will the lefties.”
“Don’t forget that she procured an additional 300 million shekels for her ministry’s budget this year – that is for everyone,” points out Adam, from the front seat of the car. “She is a Ninja,” continues the assistant. “She knows how to get what she needs.”
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who reportedly felt Regev might be more loyal to Gideon Sa’ar, his rival within the party, than to him – suggested that there was no direct correlation between the party list rankings and appointments to ministerial jobs, Regev promised to start an “intifada” if she was not brought into his government. To no one’s surprise, Netanyahu fell into line.
It is no secret that Regev would have preferred a different ministry than the one she was handed. The Housing and Construction Ministry, for example, which would have allowed her to “build up the land of Israel,” and green-light more housing projects in West Bank settlements, in particular.
She would not have said no to the Defense Ministry or the Ministry for Strategic Affairs or Public Security, either. She was reportedly not even in the running – but she would, she believes, have been able to handle any of those. For what she cares about most, if one hasn’t already realized, what really makes her tick and what she insists she will continue to raise her voice on – whatever ministry she is technically in charge of – is protecting the land of Israel.
‘This is our country’
“I am all for peace. But I always say – those who rise up to kill you – turn and kill them first,” Regev says, citing the oft quoted lines from the Talmud. In a recent Facebook post she celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision to go ahead with house demolitions of terrorists’ family homes – despite an impassioned appeal by one particular family – with a winking smiley emoji.
Her love of humankind has nothing to do with whether that person is an Israeli or a Palestinian, a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew, she says – and then gets to her “But.”
“I want Palestinians to have as good a life as I do,” she says, starting strong. And then: “I want Palestinian children to learn how to love and not hate. I want Palestinian women to have jobs and not need to hide behind this hijab or another.”
But in any case, she adds, now hitting her stride: “my heart may be with anyone in need, but when I speak about policy, I have to be crystal clear: This is our one and only land. I want to live in peace with the Palestinians – but let them first understand that this is our country. The boundaries have to be set and clear. If there are none – you get one big mess.”
Her recommendation is that, if the Palestinians want peace, they begin by looking inward. First step, per Regev, is for them to “.stop reading their children in Gaza bedtime stories filled with snake-like Jews with big noses,” she says. And when they stop with their incitement, they should, she suggests, “take a look at us and see how we live. And if they want to live like us, they better throw out their extremists,”
“If you don’t help yourself, no one will,” she intones, shaking her head.
So, as outspoken as Regev may be on behalf of the disenfranchised – that stance does not extend itself either to Israeli Arab citizens or the Palestinians living in the occupied territories. In those cases, her political stands trump her proclaimed sense of social justice. Another disenfranchised group, that of the asylum-seekers in Israel – whom she pointedly calls ‘infiltrators’ – don’t get much empathy either. Once, participating in an anti-immigration protest in 2012, she infamously called the Sudanese in Israel a “cancer in our society.”
Regev might regret that phrasing today, or at least the way the words were reported and then thrown back at her as proof she is a racist – but she stands by the sentiments behind them.
“I know I sometimes sound harsh, but when you are speaking about policy, you have to be very clear. Most of those people are infiltrators who arrived here for economic reasons. And many are from Muslim countries,” she claims. “With all my sorrow about the situation and even though my heart goes out to those little Muslim kids coming through our borders – they will soon enough turn into adult Muslim men. And at the end of the day we have to protect this country, demographically and security wise.”
A racist, she is not, she insists – and then, as further proof, tells how she “cried like a little girl,” when Barack Obama won the U.S. presidency. “Why? Because it was moving to see someone from a society where blacks have gone through so much reach such a position. This has nothing to do with whether I think he is good for Israel or not [she does not]. But it moved me. I too am from a minority that had to fight for equality.”
So, not a racist, and most definitely not a hater of Arabs, she stresses. “You have no idea how many Arab friends I have,” she says, without irony. She has increased funding for many of their cultural centers and will continue to do so, she pledges. “I have no problem with Arabs,” she states. What she does have a problem with though, she adds, is “lack of loyalty.”
Regev’s car has arrived at a gas station near Modi’in, where the Likud supporter’s wedding is taking place. Two other cars—filled with different staffers who have been accompanying her meetings and appearances throughout the day – pull up behind her. It’s time to regroup: Discuss what’s been going on in the news in the last hour, check in on the Facebook “likes” to her posts, take note of the missed calls and messages, switch cars around, fill up on gas and, if one is a mere staffer, but not if one is Regev herself, peel off toward home.
But, before all that, Regev sits quietly for a few more minutes. She wants to finish her last point, about loyalty. “The minute you live in this country, eat in this country and study in this country – you cannot act against the country,” she says. Would that be accepted in the U.S.? They have Muslims there too – but they get up to sing the American national anthem just like everyone else.”
If there was a big blue and white flag available, one could imagine her getting out of the car right then and there – damn the rain – and waving it. “Am I not right?” she asks no one in particular.
Moral of the story
There is a fairytale Regev likes to tell, especially when she is visiting schools and talking to teenagers. It’s about a frog. She is not sure where the story originally comes from, but she likes it. She tells it again now, as she gathers her belongings and her strength and heads into the wedding –to slap backs and kiss cheeks and pose for selfies with a whole new crowd of cell phone-wielding supporters all over again.
So, all these frogs in the story are living at the bottom of a well with slippery sides, and they have no idea what’s happening up in the big world. One cheeky frog keeps trying to climb the side of the well, but the others make fun of her: “Why are you bothering? You can’t get there. Stick where you belong!” they tell her, per Regev’s rendition, as she makes sounds somewhat resembling frog voices.
At the end of the story, which can go on a bit, the frogs look up one fine day to see the determined little frog looking down at them from the rim of the well above. Disbelieving, they yell up: “How did you get there?!”
And what does she do? She cups her little webbed frog feet to her little frog ears and signals back in that universal frog way: “I can’t hear you!”
The frog was deaf.
And that is the moral of the story, and the end of the interview, too. It’s 10:30 P.M. and Regev still has a few hours ahead of her. “Everyone might try and convince me that this or that is not possible, that I shouldn’t try and I am not worthy,” says Regev. “I might get attacked. I do. My motivations are slammed. But I just don’t hear them.
“I am busy climbing.”