An Open Letter to Miri Regev

When you silence the Arab voice, you are essentially providing the moral basis for silencing the Mizrahi, Ethiopian, Russian or ultra-Orthodox voices as well. It boomerangs.

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Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev.
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky/POOL
Ron Cahlili
Ron Cahlili

To Culture and Sports Minister, Ms. Miri Regev,

Dear Miri. We don’t know each other personally; we have never met, although we’ve spoken on the phone a few times. The first time was a bit before the Haaretz Culture Conference last year, in which I also participated. You thought it would be nice to finally meet, but it didn’t work out. The second time was after I publicly backed your criticism of film fund executives and the heads of other Israeli cultural institutions who serve for limitless terms, and the last time was when I invited you to speak at the premiere of the most recent documentary series I did for Channel 8, (“Achlu li, Shatu li: The Next Generation”). But that didn’t work out in the end, either.

Once, after I was appointed, apparently with your approval, to be a member of the theater committee in the Culture Ministry – on a voluntary basis, by the way – and after I began to doubt my ability to change anything against the solid majority of representatives of the old elites, you said your hands were tied and that the only solution you could think of was to double the number of members on the committee, to create a majority for the critical side. That has yet to happen.

True, I’ve taken a beating for my support of some of your positions, primarily from the political camp I identify with. They said I was a collaborator and an opportunist, who in my blindness was effectively backing the occupation, hatred of the “other” and in particular Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s endless regime. But when you stood before the white cultural junta as a traditional woman of Mizrahi origin, a right-winger from Kiryat Gat, and quoted from the report by the Heart In the East Coalition about the outrageous inequality between the hegemonic culture and “other” voices, and between the center of the country and the periphery, with all that these two poles represent (narrative, culture, geography and status), I couldn’t help but cheer you on, sometimes with tears of excitement in my eyes.

I felt that you were raising a toast to Maimonides, Rabbi Shalom Shabazi and Rabbi David Buzaglo; to Saadia Marciano, Charlie Biton and Kochavi Shemesh; to Sami Michael, Samir Naqqash and Sami Shalom Chetrit; Jo Amar, Raymond Abeksis and Zohara Alfasia; Vicki Shiran, Ella Shohat and Tikva Levi, and to all those who claimed intense ethnic oppression and who for years were portrayed as “professional Mizrahim” – serial crybabies repeatedly resuscitating the ethnic demon, which as we know died long ago; after all, we’ve merged and assimilated into one human fabric with one heart and one song.

What didn’t I tell myself to justify my support? I said there is no difference in almost any area between left and right; that the time had come for more nuanced politics, a less dichotomous or childish politics that divides the world into good guys and bad guys. I even declared that I’m a Mizrahi, first and foremost, before being a leftist or a feminist, for example, not just because that’s the position of the invisible minority, but because in my view this divisiveness is one of Israel’s most vexing problems in 2017.

But when I read this week about the humiliating hearing your ministry held for the heads of the Al-Midan Arabic theater and of the freezing of support for it (the theater has gotten no money from the ministry since April 2016), as well as your demand from film foundations to give you the names of the officials who approved funding for the documentary series “Megiddo,” which tells the story of Palestinians in Israeli prisons for security offenses, I was shocked, or more accurately, frightened.

Suddenly I realized that I was first and foremost a documentary maker who believes in my right to stand up to the current and criticize it. Yes, Miri, the personal is political. Just as I will fight to my last breath to expose the inherent racism of the hegemony toward other groups, because I see this as Israel’s cardinal problem, so I will fight for the right of every excluded group that wants to make its voice heard, even if it doesn’t appeal to me.

In other words, you cannot – in principle and morally – fight the battle of one oppressed tribe, in this case the Mizrahi tribe, and trample on another oppressed tribe. It doesn’t work that way. Justice is justice is justice. Even the claim that you are first and foremost a Jew, or first and foremost a right-winger, and that you are concerned first and foremost about “the poor of your city,” doesn’t hold up in this case. It’s difficult, and maybe even impossible, to delimit justice or restrict it to one group. Once you do that, you are essentially neutering it.

We’re not even talking about the effectiveness of these aggravating moves. Suppose I accept your argument that the state doesn’t have to finance those who oppose it, and that freedom of expression isn’t freedom of funding. Does the silencing and cultural or political oppression of the Arabs of 1948 achieve its goals, or perhaps it’s a double-edged sword? I think the second option is more realistic. A state or an institution can control lands, a narrative, civil rights and even a language, but it can never control people’s hearts, including those of the Palestinians, just as the establishment never succeeded in controlling or choking off the Mizrahi voice, despite its efforts.

So you can leave in a huff when they read the poems of Mahmoud Darwish; I totally respect your opinion, even if I disagree with it. And you can choke off Al-Midan or the creators of “Megiddo.” But this voice – as we both know – will not be silenced; it will rise and flourish in other, anti-establishment ways, and in the end turn your hopes into your failure.

The role of the culture minister – and in my opinion you’re the most exciting culture minister we’ve had here in the past 70 years, and maybe the most courageous – is not to choke off the voices of the “others,” but to let them express themselves as they see fit, even if some of what they say displeases you. Because when you silence the Arab voice, you are essentially providing the moral basis for silencing the Mizrahi, Ethiopian, Russian or ultra-Orthodox voices as well. It boomerangs.

In light of all of the above, Miri, I am pleading with you to reconsider your moves against the meaningful Arab voice, and to allow every Israeli citizen to say what he wants, how he wants. And yes, with establishment support; we are strong enough to take criticism and to acknowledge a complex reality. Because today it’s them, and tomorrow it’s us.

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