Artists in the Israel of Netanyahu: The 1970s Soviet Intelligentsia of Today

The messianic ideology on behalf of which Minister Miri Regev acts to oppress contemporary Israeli culture and art and to replace it with Jewish-settler culture, is now at the height of its power.

Dmitry Shumsky
Dmitry Shumsky
Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev.
Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev.Credit: Tess Scheflan
Dmitry Shumsky
Dmitry Shumsky

It’s tempting to compare Miri Regev to Yekaterina Furtseva, the legendary Soviet culture minister in the days of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, notorious for wielding an ideological truncheon in the cultural world of the late Soviet era.

Regev found herself in the Israeli culture ministry after years of service in the IDF Spokesperson Unit, Israel’s elite propaganda institution. Furtseva came to her influential post in the world of Soviet culture and art after years in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, famous for turning out the ideological cadres of the Communist regime.

Regev made her way to national leadership from the periphery, and has appointed herself the representative of the ordinary people in the struggle against the “elites.” Furtseva, daughter of menial laborers, climbed the ladder of power to an unprecedented level for a Soviet woman, and looked down with condescension and self-satisfaction upon “the bespectacled intelligentsia” that are far removed from the people.

In Regev’s view, culture is meant to provide “bread and circuses” for the nation and not to upset it, heaven forbid, amid the never-ending war against Israel’s enemies who are constantly rising up to destroy us. Furtseva thought that art should speak to the people in plain and accessible language so as not to befog its patriotic consciousness and not to obscure the most important thing – the all-out war against the enemies of the Soviet state from within and without.

Also, like Regev, Furtseva thought that artists should toe the line with the state’s ideology not just in the content of their work, but in how they go about their lives: Regev went after actor Norman Issa not due to any particular theater repertoire, but because he refused to heed her messianic-nationalistic ideology and perform in the occupied territories. Furtseva made life miserable for cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich not because of his art, but because he gave shelter in his summer home to anti-Soviet writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

But when it comes to sociopolitical conditions, the Furtseva era in Soviet culture and the Regev era in Israeli culture are more different than alike. In the 1960s and early 70s, the Communist ideology in the Soviet Union, in whose name Furtseva oppressed certain artists and encouraged certain others, was entering its death throes. In contrast, the messianic ideology on behalf of which Regev acts to oppress contemporary Israeli culture and art and to replace it with Jewish-settler culture, is now at the height of its power. Many openly and proudly tout it, such as Habayit Hayehudi voters and the ideological Likud voters, and many others – who consider themselves secular – identify with it less openly, perhaps with some embarrassment. These are the “pragmatic” Likud voters, as well as a significant chunk of Zionist Union and Yesh Atid voters, not to mention those of Kulanu.

The challenge facing artists and writers in the Israel of Netanyahu, Bennett and Regev is harder than that which the anti-Soviet intelligentsia faced in the Soviet Union of Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Furtseva. Granted, unlike the Soviet state, in Israel-the-occupier artists who don’t toe the line with the state’s ideology are not deprived of their personal liberty. And yet, unlike the Soviet Communist ideology, which steadily lost some of its value in the eyes of the people, the distorted version of Zionist ideology that unabashedly portrays an exploitative Israel as a just Israel, is winning more and more hearts in this country.

And this is precisely why those who have a deep aversion to Israel-the-occupier’s ideology and propaganda mustn’t fall into despair and collectively slander whole swaths of the Israeli citizenry. No, right-wing voters are not “beasts,” as theater director Oded Kotler asserted; rather, what is beastly is the ideology that lends justification and approval to the oppression and enslavement of another people – and this is something that the artists and creators of culture in Israel must state loud and clear.

If the humanists and liberals among Israeli cultural artists would cease escaping from “the political” into unfortunate derogatory remarks that are destined to be followed by base groveling before “the people,” and instead declare clearly and consistently that culture and the oppression of national rights do not go together – as their counterparts among the opponents of the Soviet regime did not hesitate to declare that culture and the oppression of individual rights cannot coexist – they would be making a real contribution to liberating Israel from devolving into bestiality. And who knows, perhaps they could even help hasten the end of the occupation, just as the determined stance of the anti-Soviet dissidents eventually contributed its small but important part to bringing down the Soviet regime.

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