Miri Regev, Israel’s minister of culture and sport, is a master politician. She has turned her insignificant office — a ministry with a small budget, limited portfolio and little prestige — into a megaphone, and in the process she has become one of the most visible and controversial cabinet ministers.
What has Ms. Regev done exactly? She’s simply demanded an influence on the arena she is supposedly in charge of.
The Ministry of Culture and Sports has mainly one mission: to grant money to cultural institutions. Israel is a country where the state supports the arts, and that support is distributed in accordance with certain guidelines and procedures. The role of the minister in this process, Ms. Regev has been frustrated to discover, is more ceremonial than substantial. She can shake hands, attend galas and make speeches, but she has little control over how funds are distributed.
Ms. Regev rightly feels that this makes little sense. A politician is elected to make policies. But without the power to allocate resources, she cannot make policy. Even worse: For more than three years she has had the exasperating job of presiding over policies with which she does not agree, and of handing funds to institutions whose agenda she opposes.
Her most recent outburst of frustration came a few weeks ago. The Israel Festival, a multiday event that includes dance, theater and music, is supported with culture ministry funding. This year’s festival includes a show that has frontal nudity. The minister believes that such art, which she has called harmful to Israel’s values, should not receive public support.
On May 30, she sent a letter to the festival declaring her intention to withhold funds for the show. The response came fast and clear: The attorney general’s office clarified that Ms. Regev has no legal authority to make such a threat.
This should have come as no surprise. The attorney general and his team have repeatedly informed Ms. Regev that her attempts to impose conditions on arts funding are illegal. And yet she continues to try. On June 4, Ms. Regev even engaged in a shouting match with the deputy attorney general over the issue.
This wasn’t out of character. There is never a dull moment with Ms. Regev. She decided to defund a theater that put on a play about a Palestinian who killed an Israeli soldier — and the attorney general reversed her decision on the grounds that it limited free expression. But she was more successful in telling theater companies that they will take a financial hit if they refuse to perform in the West Bank settlements. She has bragged that she “never read Chekhov.” In one interview, she called the cultural establishment “ungrateful.”
Many Israelis — myself included — have been puzzled by some of Ms. Regev’s pronouncements. The recent call to withdraw funds from a show that includes nudity was one such occasion. What’s next, some of us asked, censoring Michelangelo’s David?
But disagreeing with the minister’s tastes (or lack thereof) misses the point. Her battle is about power, not art. She wants to weaken a cultural establishment controlled by the left, and redistribute the Israeli government’s funds in line with Israel’s current political trends. She does not want to support theaters that slander Israel or glorify its enemies. She does not want to support events that her constituency — a majority of Israelis, though not necessarily theatergoing, film-festival-attending, book-reading Israelis — find distasteful.
The minister is regularly booed when she attends plays or operas. These boos are well deserved. Ms. Regev shows no affinity for understated, nuanced, civil discourse. She has been also called “Trump in high heels” and the “Sarah Palin of Israel.” Much like these American politicians, Ms. Regev is blunt, occasionally foul-mouthed and thrives on controversy. In short, she is often an embarrassment — especially for those, like me, who think she has a point.
The point is obvious: There is a difference between “freedom of expression,” which Israel must preserve, and “freedom of funding,” as Ms. Regev calls it.
Israel shouldn’t be obliged to sponsor cultural events that undermine its values and symbols. It certainly shouldn’t be obliged to hand money to a cultural establishment whose scorn for the “marching herd of beasts” — as a luminary of Israeli theater once described the right wing — is rarely hidden. Yet when Ms. Regev attempts to alter the way her ministry hands out funds — or when she asks for guidance as to how the law ought to be changed to make her more effective — she is blocked by a reluctant legal establishment that makes it almost impossible for her to promote her priorities. She is understandably frustrated.
More control of government funding for the arts is necessary. But Ms. Regev is the wrong person to promote this change — and so is her right-wing governing coalition, which prioritizes controversy over efficiency, bluntness over measured discussion, triumphalism over humility. It is a coalition that shows too little tact or restraint.
So yes, Ms. Regev’s call for a change in the way Israel funds the arts is valid. But her style so far has proved that she lacks the necessary delicacy. Sometimes, the right message is not enough. There is also a need for the right messenger.
Shmuel Rosner is the political editor at The Jewish Journal, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and a contributing opinion writer.