Opinion |

In Battle Over Netanyahu Speech, Israel’s Culture Minister Sullies Iconic Independence Day Ceremony

The pride and joy felt by many Israelis this year will be tinged by a sense of insult and shame

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Culture Minister Miri Regev, March 11, 2018.
Culture Minister Miri Regev, March 11, 2018.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

One can say many things about Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, but stupid she ain’t. A dim-witted politician could never attain the level of critical influence that she wields over the life of the Israeli nation. Her disciples claim she is a loyal Likudnik in her political life and a convention-breaking cabinet member in her government activities. Her detractors believe Regev spreads hate and disseminates poison, as she proved once again in her outrageous handling of the annual torchlighting ceremony that launches Independence Day.

This archaic event is one of the last vestiges of old-fashioned, apolitical devotion to the state. Even when the address of the Knesset speaker, who by tradition is the master of ceremonies for the event, is boring and long-winded; even when the VIP audience in the stands seems pompous and ridiculous; even when the military drill that is the main feature of the ceremony at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl seems to have been taken from faded old newsreels, the ceremony continued to move many Israelis, skeptics and cynics included. 

The abrupt changeover marked by the ceremony, from the grief of Memorial Day to the festivities celebrating Israel’s birthday, remains painful and harsh despite its artificiality. It creates a rare, uplifting moment that makes one forget, if only for a brief moment, the divisions and the hate and the politicians who market them.

But the torchlighting ceremony for Israel’s 70th Independence Day won’t reflect the miracle of the country’s establishment and its prosperity today. The usual pride in the lives and achievements of the notable Israelis honored with lighting the torches will be pushed to the sidelines as well.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony for the signing of a housing agreement in Sderot on April 9, 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony for the signing of a housing agreement in Sderot on April 9, 2018.Credit: \ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

For a large segment of the population, Regev’s ridiculous proxy campaign for Benjamin Netanyahu to delivery a speech at the ceremony has already stained it. Whether the prime minister ends up lighting a torch and/or giving a short benediction and/or delivering a full and extended speech, the ceremony no longer matters, and neither does independence. The focus will be on the controversy  and on Bibi. Just Bibi.

The participation of the prime minister would have sparked controversy even in normal times, despite the lone precedent recently uncovered in television film archives of a short appearance by Netanyahu himself at the ceremony for Israel’s 50th anniversary jubilee.
The prime minister is the elected leader of all Israelis, but he or she also heads a partisan coalition that represents this or that side of the political divide; his or her participation detracts, almost by definition, from the sense of collective identification.

The disruption is a hundred times more jarring when the prime minister is Netanyahu, a suspect in a series of criminal investigations whose behavior and incitement have sparked widespread enmity and division.

The disgrace is compounded by Regev’s brutish campaign, which included the public humiliation of Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and the bizarre invitation to Honduran President Juan Hernandez to light a torch, which was supposed to facilitate Netanyahu’s participation but was ultimately turned down by the Honduran leader.

Political analysts, who can elevate any abomination to a brilliant political ploy, must be admiring Regev’s intense courtship of Likud’s Bibi-adoring base. Perhaps she genuinely adheres to the cult of Netanyahu’s problematic personality as well.

But whether Regev is a master strategist or simply the instrument of others, her battle on behalf of Netanyahu’s speech is far from innocent. It is part of the overall campaign, conceived and led by the prime minister, to fuse Israeli patriotism with right wing ideology and personal allegiance to the leader and to reject and possibly eject from that equation bleeding-heart leftists, along with supporters of the Supreme Court, the rule of law and Israel’s Declaration of Independence, those who detest Netanyahu and are appalled by his attempt to enlist the torchlighting ceremony in the service of ego, as well as his legal and political interests.

Thanks to the minister — and possibly to her delight — their pride and joy will be tinged this Independence Day by rage, insult, pain and even shame, at a country with Netanyahu as its leader and Regev representing its culture.