Israel's Very Own McCarthy

The U.S. senator that America rejected in 1954 has been resurrected in the only democracy in the Middle East

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Culture Minister Miri Regev speaking before a Knesset meeting, October 21, 2018.
Culture Minister Miri Regev speaking before a Knesset meeting, October 21, 2018. Credit: Ohad Zuigenberg
Uzi Baram
Uzi Baram

Our culture minister isn’t trying to pretend that she’s concerned about culture. Sometimes it seems as if the right is shooting in the dark. But a more careful examination of the facts shows that the right has a well-defined plan. It has decided to fight three fronts by dismantling and reconstructing them in order to make them absolutely loyal.

The first front is the media. As part of the right’s efforts to get it to heel, an attempt was made to close Channel 1 because it wasn’t acting like “one of ours,” to shut down Channel 10 in order to silence Raviv Drucker and Lior Shlein, along with other actions, some of which are being investigated by the police.

>>Regev’s loyalty law | Editorial 

The second arena is the judicial system. The goal is to intimidate the judges, to present their rulings as lacking credibility and legitimacy, and to replace the existing legal system with a “new elite” the handiwork of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin.

The third front is the culture front. Here the target is primarily theater and film, since it’s hard to believe that Regev wants to fashion music and dance in her image as well.

The so-called loyalty-in-culture bill sponsored by Regev that was approved Sunday by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation would enable the minister to deny funding to cultural institutions that, in her opinion, undermine the state and its symbols. While the campaign the government is waging against the media and the legal system is slower and of a more evolutionary character, the loyalty-in-culture bill allows the culture minister to impose immediate sanctions if he or she believes a performance degrades the flag or the state.

The culture minister refuses to be a “mere” ATM, as she put it, transferring budgets to cultural institutions. Most of her predecessors were generally careful to avoid intervening in creative content and were proud ATMs. If she understood her job properly, she would be working to obtain more money for the ATM so as to develop additional cultural avenues.

But the argument with Regev is not only about the significance of her role. The debate is fundamental: Is it possible, in a democratic regime, to subordinate culture to government principles the way the communists and fascists did? The answer is absolutely not. Culture and loyalty are not concepts that can be linked, just as it is impossible to pass a law that speaks of “justified crime.” There can be no link between loyalty and culture, because culture by nature often produces content that is defiant and difficult to digest.

The bill might encourage creators to self-censor and change the message they want to convey. If the Beit Lessin Theater stages the play “Oslo,” which portrays the negotiations that preceded the accords, then the culture minister could claim that these were talks conducted with a terrorist organization, and that the play indirectly encourages ties with such organizations and therefore does not meet the criterion of loyalty in culture. Under such a law, no play of the type written by playwright Hanoch Levin would stand a chance.

American cinema produced many films that “degraded” the American flag during the Vietnam War and the heyday of the civil rights movement. America understood the price democracy demands. Israel, after passing the loyalty-in-culture law, will not be the same country. Joseph McCarthy, the U.S. senator that America rejected in 1954, has been resurrected in the only democracy in the Middle East.

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