What Israel's New Culture Minister Bodes for Artists

With the appointment of Culture Minister Miri Regev, the real danger among Israel’s artists is self-censorship.

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Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev.
Newly appointed Culture Minister Miri Regev. Credit: Tess Scheflan

The question isn’t what the new culture minister will do, but what the artists – the filmmakers, painters and playwrights – will do with the money from the funds that she finances and the budgets she allocates. The question is: Will they be able to separate their political views from their art? The question is: What will artists whose worldview clashes with the source of their support be prepared to give up? What will they do if asked to choose between politics and art? Will they opt for family-friendly comedies that will have no trouble getting funding and stay away from political films that could get them blacklisted?

In 1933, Klaus Mann, author of “Mephisto,” wrote: “For a person with any degree of intellectual integrity it must surely be terrible to live in that country. He must obey the whims of power and does not get any respite. It is not enough to declare once and for all: I am a collaborator. He must adapt himself to all of the moves and the twists and the turns and the masks that power cares to wear, to serve its purpose. And it is already too late… he has already sold his soul to the devil.”

Israel of 2015 is not Germany of 1933, and Miri Regev is not the devil. Whoever receives funding from her won’t be selling his soul, but will be hinting that he’s willing to discuss the conditions. The discussion about the right to free artistic expression won’t be conducted between politicians and artists; each artist will engage in it privately. How far do I need to go to satisfy them, he’ll wonder. What else do I need to censor?

“If I need to censor something I will,” proclaimed the new culture minister, beating them to the punch. She won’t have much work to do. The censoring will happen before the first shot is filmed or the first line is written. That’s how it works in journalism at least. No directive from the publisher is required. The journalists already know who to interview and how.

Miri Regev also announced that she would be “everyone’s culture minister.” Actually, she’ll be the culture minister for everyone who voted for her, because that’s how things work here. The winner takes all and does whatever he likes with the money. Arye Dery will take some for the Mizrahi Haredim and Yaakov Litzman for the Ashkenazi Haredim and Naftali Bennett for the settlers. This money will be called “coalition funds” or “money for the periphery” or any other name they happen to come up with, just as long as it ends up in the right pockets.

I can’t complain. Those are the rules of the game. We lost, and the rules say that the losers also pay for what they don’t like. If the secular liberals would have been victorious, I’d expect the government to promote secular liberal culture, so I can’t say a word if Regev uses my taxpayer money to fund films that curse leftists, exhibitions that deride asylum seekers and plays that mock Arabs. She doesn’t owe me anything. But no one should be counting on “public support.” There is no such thing anymore. There is no more “public.” There are lots of different “publics.” Each one has its own sponsor to look to, and they can leave the rest of us alone.

It’s nothing personal. The private Miri Regev is a nice person to be around. The public Miri Regev is someone to stay away from.

A democracy doesn’t need a minister to run its culture. A culture needs independent artists to sustain it. The politicians can talk about artistic freedom until they’re blue in the face, but who really believes them? When the state is providing the funds, it can rightly demand that the work that is produced adheres to its rules. If the government is ultra-nationalist, super-ethnic and arch-religious, and so is the public that elected it, then the artists who work for it should be too.

Regev is no Senator McCarthy. But it wouldn’t take much to organize a McCarthy-style committee. It wouldn’t have to be called the Committee on Un-Israeli Activities. The “Fund to Promote Zionist Art” would work just as well.

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