Israel’s culture minister is turning artists into enemies

Miri Regev’s attempts to pull funding from artists who ‘delegitimize’ Israel expose the lengths to which this government will go to try and silence its critics.

MK Miri Regev points on a map of the city of Rahat, during a Negev tour by the Israeli Knesset Internal Affairs Committee regarding the Prawer plan, in the Bedouin city of Rahat, November 24, 2013. (Photo:
MK Miri Regev points on a map of the city of Rahat, during a Negev tour by the Israeli Knesset Internal Affairs Committee regarding the Prawer plan, in the Bedouin city of Rahat, November 24, 2013. (Photo:

Last week Israel’s new Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev threatened to pull state funding from a children’s theater in Jaffa after its manager, Norman Issa, an actor with the Haifa Theater, refused to perform in a West Bank settlement. She claimed that as opposed to her, Issa is not an advocate for coexistence.

After it provoked some backlash, she went on the defensive and stated that because her Likud party won 30 Knesset seats, and the “Left” (read: Labor/Zionist Camp) won only 20 seats, that she was at liberty to do as she pleases with state funds for the arts.

“I decide the criteria, I can decide which institutions get money, that all the money go only to the periphery and Judea and Samaria..The government doesn’t have to support culture. I can decide where the money goes. The artists will not dictate to me…We got 30 Knesset seats, you got a total of 20 seats.”

This kind of talk shows that Regev has a total lack of understanding of what it means to be an elected official, and speaks volumes of the current leadership’s understanding of how a democratically-elected public servant is supposed to act.

But here is the real kicker:

Institutions that delegitimize the State of Israel will not receive funding. We had a crisis with FIFA and with Orange, who apologized, because they realized that Jewish power is consumer power. We can’t apologize for our existence as the State of Israel. I am for pluralism that allows for views to be expressed – but not for tarnishing or for boycotts against Israel….As minister of culture it’s my job to ensure a diversity of voices in Israeli society, [but] currently we are in the midst of a diplomatic campaign and we must do everything possible to stop giving ammunition to our enemies. (emphasis mine – M.Z.)

Regev’s comments raise serious doubts about her ability to tolerate dissent and freedom of expression, but her use of the word “delegitimize” gave me pause and is worth elaborating on. The word has been used over and over again by Prime Minister Netanyahu in recent years when discussing the boycott movement. Actually, he used it most recently in relation to the Palestinian effort to suspend Israel from FIFA.

It is worth noting that Regev — who previously referred to African asylum seekers as a “cancer” — chose to use this word during an internal Israeli discussion over state funding for cultural institutions. It is no coincidence. It is because she sees Israeli citizens whose artistic work or personal views challenge the status quo of Israel’s Jewish nationalist hegemony as “delegitimizers” — whether they are Palestinian or Jewish. That they pay taxes, follow the law and fulfill all their civic duties does not matter; if they are seen to be “delegitimizing” Israel, their work may be under threat of not being funded.

Last September, I wrote an op-ed in the The New York Times about how Israel was silencing dissent. In it I described how after so many years of Israeli repression of Palestinians, “the transition to targeting ‘one of your own’ isn’t so difficult. Now it is the few Jewish Israelis who speak the language of human rights who are branded as enemies.”

With the new government in place, this silencing of dissent has become even more explicit in the halls of government. The “enemies” Regev talks about are not only the surrounding Arab countries, not only Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, not only Palestinian citizens of Israel, not only non-Israeli Jews who support boycott efforts, and not only Jewish Israeli artists who support boycott efforts, not only those who oppose settlements — but even those whose art  somehow “delegitimizes” Israel, whatever that means.

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