The Left's Obscene Contest Over Israeli Culture

In the contest of who is the most vulgar, the left-wing icon Noa or the right-wing culture minister Miri Regev, Noa wins hands-down.

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
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Israeli singer Noa (aka Achinoam Nini), in 2007.
Achinoam Nini, in 2007.Credit: David Bachar
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

Miri Regev is a master of provocation who makes other pretenders to the crown – including the artist who did her business on the Israeli flag and was questioned by police because of it, and including myself, someone considered to delight in provocation – look like amateurs. I therefore envy Regev her creativity, which reached new heights with her “cultural loyalty” bill that seeks to condition support for artists on their agreement to not demean the state or its symbols.

One might grasp that I do not belong to the camp of knee-jerk opponents to the actions of the minister of culture. I see her threats as a sort of quasi-artistic performance designed to shock the bourgeoisie, as is the wont of avant-garde works. That response could prod us toward a situation where “it really is time to teach all these left-wing artists a lesson,” or, it could do quite the opposite: lead to the replacement of government in the next elections, and the appointment of another personality instead of right-wing Regev. Somebody properly left wing. For instance, the singer Noa (locally known as Achinoam Nini).

But the likelihood of that happening looks remote, first of all, because the system that placed financing for culture in the hands of the state was invented by the left, way back when, and the right is simply continuing the tradition. Secondly, in practice, the state of culture in Israel doesn’t look shabby in the least. In other words, there is a chasm between the culture minister’s declarative dimension and the day-to-day dimension of her work. Insiders are unmoved. But people on the prowl for reasons to fret over fascism are delivered rich fodder by Regev.

Experience teaches that some people fell into the traps the minister set for them and made fools of themselves, such as Oded Kotler and his “beasts speech”, or Gila Almagor’s heckling from the audience when Regev spoke onstage. These are two nave artists who felt everything collapsing around them, but nothing actually did collapse, to their sorrow; nothing substantial has changed.

The problem is that, driven by this historic fear that their democratic world will implode, people today are prepared to go to lengths that I feel are obscene. For instance, Noa announced her resignation from EMI, the Israel Artists Association, over its decision to award a lifetime achievements award to the hard-right musician Ariel Zilber.

Noa is an international artist representing what’s known as the New Age music genre. She appeared at the Vatican before the pope, John Paul II, and her song “Come O Bride” ("Bo’I Kal’a," written by Lea Goldberg) is a hit at chuppahs of many beautiful Israelis. It was therefore shocking to hear her spiritual style suddenly evaporate and morph into vulgarity when she voiced her political agenda.

In her anger at EMI’s decision to grant the award to Zilber, her decidedly Miri Regevvy-self came to the fore when Noa mentioned, twice, the disgusting act of kissing someone else's buttocks, in the sense of flattery. Readers would agree with me that this isn’t nice talk for a person who rubs shoulders with popes.

Having descended to crassness, I would add: Hey, lady, before you accuse others of such acts, what about yourself? Performing your song before the pope constituted a kind of ass-kissing power. Appearing at the White House before Bill Clinton also showed ass-kissing power. So was tapping the authority of Dalia Rabin, Yitzhak Rabin’s daughter, to deny Ariel Zilber the prize he had been awarded.

Everybody kisses everybody else’s posteriors and without somehow kissing someone in power in some way – there would have been no Michelangelo and no Mozart. One should note that even German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who left Nazi Germany and wrote mockingly of the poets who kissed Hitler’s behind, later found himself kissing that of communist dictator Stalin.

Let us conclude that in the contest of who is the most vulgar and uncultured, the left-wing icon Noa or the right-wing minister of culture, Miri Regev, Noa wins hands-down. Because, at least Regev does not purport to be a great humanist who accepts everybody as they are. With her, what you see is what you get.

Let’s imagine for a second what would happen to an artist like Ariel Zilber, or me, myself, considered a traitor to the left, if the government is replaced and the Culture Ministry is given to some Noa, or somebody like her. She would summon him to her office, arrange her features in a spiritual expression, speak of tolerance and pluralism, and the moment we turn to leave the office, would plant a serious kick on our rear.

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