Israel’s Right-wing Gatekeepers Aren’t All Bad

Like all politicians, Miri Regev and Moshe Kahlon have to be judged by the issue. So while I support the call for distributive justice in culture, I strongly oppose the ‘culture-loyalty law’

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Culture Minister Miri Regev and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, January 2017.
Culture Minister Miri Regev and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, January 2017.Credit: Rami Shllush
Ron Cahlili
Ron Cahlili

That’s it, the lock is hermetically sealed. The Netanyahu government’s two top gatekeepers, Culture Minister Miri Regev and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, are both Mizrahim, Jews with roots in the Middle East. And they have joined hands to apply the law that denies funding to cultural institutions that mark the Nakba or undermine the state’s values and symbols, or support terror.

Thus it seems the two are subverting the Haifa film festival and Acre’s Al Midan Theater festival. These two institutions dared to invoke pluralism and freedom of expression and tell a critical, alternative and even insufferably impertinent story that doesn’t conform with the views of the two ministers regarding culture and art’s role in a society with many voices.

Still, I support Regev. I also like Kahlon. The two of them, despite their ills, represent me much more than other Knesset members. Their story, you might say, is my story. I supported Regev when she shook up the cultural institutions and said the Mizrahi voice was being discriminated against. I supported Kahlon when he spoke emotionally about his parents as pioneers and the damage done by vocational education, and during his attempts to solve the problems of the high cost of living and surging housing prices.

And when Regev clashed head-on with the culture world’s power apparatus and exposed what even the lowest-level Mizrahi activists can repeat in their sleep, I smiled with pleasure.

Politeness was never my strong suit. When Kahlon stood strong against the Defense Ministry’s horror scenarios when it asked for more funding – even if he knuckled under in the end – and when he still opposed the culture-loyalty law, I said to myself, now there’s a man, that’s the person to follow.

I understood the affection, love and admiration that hundreds of thousands of Mizrahi voters feel toward Regev and Kahlon, especially toward Regev. I could identify with them. They too felt that something was moving or was about to move, that the old system in culture was changing and something new, in a world that had not moved for decades, was about to happen.

But then other voices began to be heard, and old things rose to the surface. Suddenly you remembered Kahlon’s support for school trips to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, his association with a certain tycoon that led to his deceptive abandonment of Israel’s scandalous natural-gas plan, and his hawkish views in general. Suddenly you heard Regev shouting in Arabic at MK Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian leader, the equivalent of “go to hell,” and calling her a traitor.

And when you hear refugees and asylum seekers repeatedly marked as “cancer,” despite any apology that follows, something in you explodes. You suddenly realize that not only are parties divided and subdivided until you can’t tell the left from the right, the hawk from the dove or the capitalist from the social democrat, our elected officials are divided and subdivided among themselves, sometimes one side of their brain contradicting the other.

The perfect MK, if there ever was one, died a long time ago. Welcome to the 21st century. This is the century of sophisticated politicians who work for their constituencies, in this case the Mizrahi community, yet excoriate the Arabs, foreigners, leftists – and the left-wing group the New Israel Fund, of course.

Friends will tell you that your partial support for Regev legitimizes her other actions. These people are so unsophisticated they can’t understand varied support based on the issue. And they’ll tell you she gives a bad name to the Mizrahi struggle and exploits it for electoral gain. It’s inconceivable for her to call for ethnic equality while actually creating ethnic inequality.

You have to choose. Regarding Kahlon, the less glamorous character, people will say you can’t support him, not even on some issues, just because he’s Mizrahi, which is a kind of racism in the guise of multiculturalism.

And I say welcome to the 21st century. I’m not prepared to treat myself the way voters treated themselves from the 1950s to the ‘80s – an utter tribal dichotomy. There are “our people” and “our friends,” and there are all the rest. There’s an angel and a devil, children of light versus children of darkness.

That’s just undeveloped democratic babble. People don’t think like that anymore. Not even Mizrahim. They too, unlike the white leftist establishment and its army of pollsters and political advisers, know very well what’s right and what’s not, what helps and what hurts.

They also consider every politician on an individual basis. The only difference between them and hegemonic Israel is that they have other needs and considerations. When they call for distributive justice, for example, the hegemony feels under assault, justifiably. No one likes to give up their privileges, neither the tangible nor the symbolic.

So yes, the culture-loyalty law is despicable; it’s anti-culture. And yes, it has to be fought tooth and nail because it goes against the essence of culture. It’s the harsh criticism that’s the springboard by which culture reaches the masses, the need to tell an alternative non-hegemonic story. An yes, sometimes it’s not right and perhaps it’s “dangerous.” Criticism isn’t incitement, not even the harshest criticism. Another story, even if it undermines the story of Israel’s Jews, doesn’t threaten the foundation of our existence.

And yet, the next time anyone asks if I support Miri Regev and Moshe Kahlon, I’ll reply, “Yes, but ....” I support the call for distributive justice in culture and a courageous shake-up of the culture institutions. But I strongly oppose the culture-loyalty law that’s the ugly brother of the Nakba law, which itself is no great beauty.

And I support Finance Minister Kahlon’s robust battle against the building contractors, for example, but I get extremely angry when he doesn’t, for example, dramatically reform public housing.

Will I vote for one of them in the next elections? Probably not. On the other hand, I won’t get up and shout “Regev go home” or “Kahlon go back to Givat Olga,” referring to the Hadera neighborhood where he’s from, even after the culture-loyalty law. Because two people like this, openly Mizrahi, committed to one extent or another to the Mizrahi struggle even if they badly damage it occasionally, won’t emerge in Israel so quickly.

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