The speech by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev at the Haaretz Culture Conference this week was the best show I’ve seen in recent years. The tension, the drama, the excitement, the amazement, the shock – and of course the political significance of the speech – were so powerful that even Ariel Bronz, the performance artist who inserted a flag in his rear end on the conference stage, can take lessons from her.
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Regev, an experienced politician, insulted the audience, accused it of betrayal and of destroying culture, mocked the editors of Haaretz, and, referring to a critique by the newspaper’s former editor, Hanoch Marmari, charged that they espoused values such as equality and the fight against exclusion of Mizrahim and Arabs (yes, Arabs) – while abandoning those values themselves. She concluded with a headline-grabbing declaration that she would cancel the Book Law (designed to prevent cut-rate discounts on newly published books).
The pleasure from her presentation was complete. I understood the meaning of being swept away by a speech. Because with the mishmash of belligerence, half-truths, empty declarations and megalomania, she gave the most interesting performance around.
I sat in the hall at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and watched how the history of Israeli populism is being written. Because from the moment the politician who used to be the army’s spokeswoman took over the Culture and Sports Ministry – a relatively small ministry that she uses as quite a big ministry of propaganda – she decided not to enjoy dance or theater performances, but to fight against the artists in order to win the trust of the masses. She bewitched the audience with negative charisma, and sometimes even in the face of an absurd disaster, we can realize something. Inside the centrifuge where we live, she may yet be the prime minister.
Let it be said at once that Regev is correct in saying that Mizrahim have been excluded from the Israeli mainstream and the Israeli discourse; and although the 1977 electoral “upheaval” marked the end of the exclusion and diverted the stream in a different direction, the exclusion continues to this very day. Some of it is taking place for capitalistic reasons. Miri “ATM” Regev, with her own hands, enriched the wealthy and took from the poor, with her Knesset votes and her activity in the Knesset committees to help those with special interests. For example, by supporting tycoon Yitzhak Tshuva in the first stages of formulating the “natural gas deal.” Her hypocrisy cries out to the heavens.
Regev, the Mizrahi woman, says that she is opposed to exclusion, but she isn’t calling for multiculturalism in any familiar sense of the word – on the contrary, she is calling for unification and obedience, and is very skillfully dividing the population, while attempting to present the “rulers,” the “elites,” as haters of “Israel.”
Regev’s politics of hatred is extremely interesting – and sad –with gloomy implications for the public atmosphere in this country. Regev is not Evita Peron, and she will go very far in the Third Kingdom of Israel; she is not “the wife of” anyone. She stands on her own merits. Her hollowness and her hatred stand on their own merits too.
Regev’s performance before the audience was amazing. It’s possible that those attending Donald Trump’s performances at rallies sense the same power of unbridled chutzpah, which requires a very thick skin. If only those sitting in all the theaters in Israel could experience the same excitement – involvement, fury and horror.
Now of course all that’s left is the problem that the culture budget isn’t even 1 percent of the state budget. But anyone who heard Regev opening her speech in creaky Israeli-accented English (“cut da bullshit!”) will remember it as the most blatant expression of the Israeli culture of power. What is it like? Like a health minister beginning her speech before a conference of dermatologists with the words: “Medicine shmedicine, as a famous Chinese sage once said, wet skin should be dried, and dry skin should be moistened.”