How Israel’s Miri Regev Declared War on the Art World

The Minister of Culture and Sport demands loyalty.

Israeli culture minister Miri Regev has been accused of trying to censor government critics. Photo DAN BALILTY/AFP/Getty Images.

By all accounts, Miri Regev, Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport, is a spectacularly ambitious politician. A former brigadier-general in the Israeli Defense Forces, she has been called antidemocratic, a racist and even a freha (Hebrew for ‘bimbo’). Here’s another accusation hurled at her by Israel’s incensed artistic community: As its culture wars threaten to boil over, Regev has come to be expressly compared with American presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Like Trump, the Likud politician consistently engages in a brazen, counter-factual brand of right-wing populism. The former public relations officer and ex-Israeli Army spokesperson supplies the media with a steady stream of invective, delivered by way of her overactive Twitter and Facebook feeds. She also has perfected the art of mudslinging. Appointed in 2015 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she rode in on a wave of take it or leave it nationalism that has effectively demonized a whole spectrum of political opinion.

In place of Trump’s serial harassment of women and repeated denunciations of Muslims and minorities, the Israeli Culture Minister has labeled Sudanese asylum seekers “a cancer in our body,” termed Arab Israeli lawmakers “betrayers” and “terrorists,” and called artists “tight-assed, hypocritical and ungrateful.” A recent research trip to Israel—courtesy of Artis, an independent nonprofit committed to broadening international awareness of that nation’s arts scene through grants and visits to museums and artist studios—provided a surfeit of evidence that Regev’s military-style offensive on the local arts scene is yielding dangerous results.

Israeli artists shout slogans as they take part in a protest against Minister of Sports and Culture Miri Regev (unseen) upon her arrival to a theatre awards ceremony in Tel Aviv, on June 19, 2015. Courtesy of GIL COHEN MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images.

Israeli artists shout slogans as they take part in a protest against Minister of Sports and Culture Miri Regev in Tel Aviv in 2015. Courtesy of GIL COHEN MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images.

Shortly after taking office in May of 2015, Regev made her position vis a vis Israel’s arts community crystal clear: “If it is necessary to censor,” she declared unequivocally about the potential requirements of her new ministerial post, “I will censor.” As an ex-chief censor of the Israeli army, Regev has plenty of experience to fall back on to augment her considerable political charm. Her homey demeanor—think a Mizrahi Paula Deen crossed with an unbuttoned Dick Cheney—belies a gift for instrumentalizing politics and an iron will to power.

Translated fully into the context of American politics, her populism also resembles the well-coiffed wingnuttery of Sarah Palin, another conservative politician who has expertly played on the fears of vulnerable voters—should Trump win the election in November, that is, and appoint the ex-governor head of both the Smithsonian and the NEA.

Despite the sound and fury—or perhaps precisely because of it—Regev oversees a small ministry with a minuscule budget relative to Israel’s overall spending: $119 million in 2016, or what amounts to less than one-tenth of a percent of total state expenditures. Yet that spending, after it is distributed to numerous cultural institutions and art schools, often carries with it a disproportionate amount of economic and symbolic weight.

While larger institutions like the Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Museum do sufficient fundraising to offset potential shortfalls in municipal and state revenues, smaller outfits like the Museum of Art, Ein Harod, one of Israel’s first art institutions, and the Arab Israeli Umm El-Fahem Gallery, often rely on government funding to keep their doors open.

So it was in January 2015 that alarms sounded throughout the Israeli arts scene when Regev defunded Haifa’s Al-Midan Theater, a liberal drama troupe, for staging a play she judged was secretly “trying to undermine the state.” Soon thereafter, Regev moved to create a legal basis for future arts cuts by drafting what she calls “a loyalty in culture bill.” If passed, that legislation—which is presently stuck in the Israeli Knesset—would constitute a legal mechanism with which to defund artists who purportedly act “against the principles of the state,” incite violence, desecrate the Israeli flag, or commemorate the nakba—the mass displacement of Palestinians that accompanied the founding of Israel.

Tel Aviv Museum of Art Photo: Shaula Haitner Pikiwiki Israel

Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Courtesy of Shaula Haitner Pikiwiki Israel.

One opposition parliamentarian in the Knesset pointed out to the newly appointed minister “that the Jews have always been a people unafraid of voicing criticism,” according to Ynetnews; then he ironically asked her whether “institutions that name themselves after Miri Regev [would] get a budget increase?” Like much of what Regev says, her response was unintentionally profound: “Not a bad idea.”

Incendiary quips aside, evidence exists that Regev’s loyalty bill has done important damage to the fragile fabric of a local arts scene already assailed by an international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) aimed at impeding Israel’s global cultural and academic exchange. As Chen Tamir, curator at Tel Aviv’s Center for Contemporary Art, put it over a recent dinner I attended with foreign and local arts producers, the pro-Palestinian BDS movement and Miri Regev’s virulent nationalism currently constitute “the rock and the hard place” between which Israeli artists and curators are stuck.

At least one major institution, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, has already found itself in the crossfire. As reported in February by Shany Littman at Haaretz, its director and chief curator Suzanne Landau recently “called off an exhibit by Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei and Israeli photographer Miki Kratsman because of political pressures.” Kratsman’s contribution to the show, which was scheduled to open in November 2016, consisted of a Harvard University-funded series of 3,000 portraits of Palestinians he met on his travels to the Occupied Territories. Many of the photographer’s portrait subjects have since been killed in clashes with Israeli Defense Forces. When Littman reached Landau for comment, the curator cited “scheduling problems.”

“The normal thing is that they can’t show my work,” Kratsman told me over a coffee at café near Chelouche, his Tel Aviv gallery. “The abnormal thing is that they show it. Whatever happens, I expect them to be honest, so that everyone knows, including the museum director, that what we are talking about here is censorship.”

To paraphrase the George Orwell of Animal Farm, there is censorship and there’s self-censorship, with the latter being more sinister chiefly because it is largely unbidden and, in effect, voluntary. The effects of these and other assaults on freedom of speech in Israel—they include book bans, accusations of “treason” against various arts institutions, and at least one case of a lawsuit being brought against an artist for desecrating an Israeli flag—is that they are both gradual and cumulative.

Miri Regev certainly knows censorship is a shortcut to power. Like Donald Trump, she’s willing to do and say anything to get it, including perpetrate the lie that people are better off protected from inconvenient truths when it suits those at the top. Opportunistic, ruthless, and as unprincipled as a certain former reality-show star, hers is not a local concern but a major front on the global war on culture.

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