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February 5, 2016 by

Warning: Miri Regev May be Harmful to Israeli Culture

8580408850_7f9741e5c1_oMiri Regev made page one of The New York Times. She’s the right-wing face of what The Times headlined as “Culture Wars Shift in Israel to Art Realm”  (Jan. 30, 2016). Make the front page of The Times and you’re well on your way to being the Israeli that we American Jews rush to love or hate.

But back in November, the Other Israel Film Festival at the JCC Manhattan beat The Times to the punch at its panel “Israel’s Freedom of Speech.” Four outspoken Ha’aretz editors and reporters along with filmmaker Mor Lushi spoke critically of Regev’s chilling effect as Netanyahu’s Minister of Sport and Culture. This divisive defender of Israel approaches culture with the same zeal she brought to her brief stint as chief press and media censor for the Israeli army, followed by IDF spokesperson during Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005 and the 2006 Lebanon War.

Minister of Sport and Culture since last May, Regev only joined the Likud Party in 2008, at the age of 43. She was elected to Knesset the next year, last on the Likud list of 27 candidates winning seats.

Disturbing examples of Regev’s wielding her budget for patriotic purity: She attempted to freeze funding for Haifa’s al-Midan Arab-language theater for producing a play about a Palestinian terrorist. She threatened to block state funding for the prestigious Jerusalem Film Festival unless it removed the documentary “Beyond the Fear,” on the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Interventions cut Regev off in both cases. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein overruled Regev’s freeze on al-Midan funding, though she pushed her own freedom of speech, caught on an audio recording calling the attorney general “garbage” and his staff “pieces of shit.” The Jerusalem Film Festival screened “Beyond the Fear” privately while keeping it in festival competition.

Although married to an Ashkenazi from an influential Israeli family, as the child of Moroccan parents, Regev relishes playing the anti-Ashkenazi, anti-intellectual card, famously saying, “Read Chekov? Not me.” And “Someone who has never been in theater or cinema and who never read Haim Nahman Bialik (Israel’s national poet) can also be cultured.”

The Times quotes Regev as saying that her proposed “Loyalty in Culture”  amendment to a budget bill will “for the first time make support for a cultural institution dependent on its loyalty to the state of Israel.” Critics have called this fascism and McCarthyism.

The film festival panelists didn’t hold back on the devastating effects of self-censorship in a small country where artists depend on government support.

An artistic voice of protest, Israel’s film industry has been producing ever more sophisticated films examining what’s wrong with the country as rights for women, rights for Israeli Arabs and for the Palestinians on the other side of the security wall head downhill.

Haredi extremists push women to the back of public buses at the same time that Israel’s official 2015 Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film was “Gett” (Hebrew for “divorce”). It’s the searing drama of a woman’s years-long struggle to get a religious divorce from her husband in a country with no civil marriage or divorce. None – not even for atheists.

Amazingly, the Israeli government helped fund these films through the Ministry of Culture and Sport (pre-Regev). Just see the credits for the 2015 Other Israel Film Festival opener, “Censored Voices.” Director Lushi was outspoken on the relentless censorship and the censoring of the censorship she managed to overcome (thanks to a good lawyer) before the uncensored film finally opened last year at Sundance.

But we’re viewing the critical creative achievements of the pre-Regev days.

And Israel is not alone. The most obvious censorship came with the withdrawal from the Other Israel Film Festival of “Degradé,” by Gaza directors Tarzan and Arab Nasser. The film was to screen with “Women in Sink,” the documentary of camaraderie among Jewish and Arab women in an Arab beauty salon in Haifa. “Degradé” is the story of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon when gang warfare erupts in front of the salon between Hamas and a local group. The filmmakers were pressured out of screening the feature at a Jewish event.

Does art thrive on repression?

We’d like to think that art as free expression can thrive in the self-proclaimed democracy that is Israel.