I remember as a child in the early 1950s reading a joke which went as follows: an Ashkenazi woman invites her Iraqi date to a classical music concert. After the concert she asks him whether he enjoyed the music. He answers in the affirmative.
“Which piece did you like best?” she asks.
“The first one,” he answers.
The woman invites him to listen again to a recording of the piece.
“No,” he says, “I meant the piece before that,” referring to the tuning of the instruments, which preceded the concert.
Looking back at this “joke” I feel embarrassed at this piece of Ashkenazi cultural haughtiness, which is, unfortunately, still prevalent in many artistic circles in Israel. It is also an undisputed fact that there is in Israel a pro-Western, secular culture bias in the distribution of public funding for the arts, which at least in part results from discriminatory criteria for the granting of such funding.
Another undisputed fact is that artists – both in Israel and in other democracies – are more inclined to be left-wingers than right-wingers, possibly because in order to create they need freedom, freedom of experience and freedom of expression, and such freedom is associated with the political Left more than it is with the political Right.
Given all these facts, the intention of Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev to bring about a change in this sphere is certainly understandable and justifiable.
That is not the problem. The problem is that Regev’s modus operandi resembles a vicious vendetta against the old Ashkenazi elites, and all those who hold a liberal ideology or oppose Israel’s continued occupation of the territories occupied in 1967 (whether from a Zionist perspective or an Israeli Arab perspective), more than a serious plan to encourage and glorify non-Western and non-secular expressions of culture and art.
Admittedly, there are some extenuating circumstances to Regev’s conduct, including the extremely hostile welcome she received from the cultural and artistic establishment, and some highly objectionable anti-right-wing and anti-religious statements made by several leading artists and actors in the course of the last election campaign.
Last week Regev appeared before the Haaretz cultural conference. She opened by stating that she had been advised that to start off with a quote would make a civilized impression, and that she had decided to quote a Chinese philosopher: “cut de bullshit.”
Bravo! Regev knew in advance that she would not be welcomed with roses, but was this the best she could do to confront the hostile audience? And what was she referring to when she used the term “bullshit”? Certainly, if she had any measure of sophistication in her, she could have turned the audience, or at least part of it, in her favor.
For example, she could have praised the artistic achievements of Israeli artists – a growing number of whom are Mizrahim – and then spoken of her plans to assist those cultural and artistic sectors that she feels have been neglected over the years and ought to be strengthened, expressing the hope that the established artists would join the effort.
Rather than announce that she plans to abolish the law for the protection of literature and authors (popularly known as the “book law”) because it forbids the sale of new books at a discount for the first year after their publication, she could have spoken of plans to support creative artists – both when they are struggling to make a name for themselves at the beginning of their career and after their retirement, when many of them are condemned to poverty and degradation.
In fact, I suspect Regev hasn’t really given serious thought to what should be done to strengthen non-Western, non-Ashkenazi, non-secular cultural activities, especially in the periphery.
I am not even sure whether she has defined what sort of activities she is talking about.
For example, there are two orchestras in Israel that perform classical Andalusian music (a style of music common today especially in North Africa and among Sephardi Jews, originating in Muslim Spain of the Middle Ages). Both orchestras, which are in dire financial straits, include Ashkenazi musicians (mostly from the former Soviet Union), and many of their concerts have no direct connection to Andalusian music (the next concert in Jerusalem of the Jerusalem Andalusian Orchestra is an “oriental” jazz concert, and besides the orchestra itself and the renown Mizrahi singer Margol will include the choir of the Black Hebrews from Dimona). The bitter truth is that there is a very small audience for real Andalusian music.
Does Regev have these orchestras in mind? There is an Arab music orchestra in Nazareth, which performs with a Jewish haredi singer called Ziv Yehezkel, who sings in Arabic and is reported to be a great hit among the Israeli Arab population.
Would this orchestra qualify for a subsidy from Regev? Regev recently announced that she is renewing the Mizrahi song festival, which was abolished in 1985. The status of “Mediterranean singing” (the politically correct term for “Mizrahi singing”) has long turned into part of the mainstream, with the popularity of the Mediterranean singers rising sky high (even if some of them are still not broadcast on Galei Zahal), and most of the winners of the various song contests in recent years have been singers of this genre.
This sector of popular culture certainly is not in need of public funding or encouragement. On the contrary, some of its stars ought to start paying the millions of shekels of income tax money they owe the Treasury.
And what about theaters in the periphery, which Regev speaks so much about (by “periphery” she is referring especially to Mizrahim)? Certainly more money ought to go in this direction.
However, let us not forget that in order to survive these theater groups must be good enough to be able to draw audiences in central Israel as well. Towns with a few tens of thousands of inhabitants, many of them not theatergoers for economic, cultural and religious reasons, cannot justify the existence of a local theater group, no matter how much public money is poured into it. Besides, since there was no real theatrical tradition in the Jewish communities in the Muslim countries, without assistance from the Israeli (Western) mainstream theater (which Regev appears to despise) these theaters can hardly hope to reach a standard that is above amateurish.
And what about dance groups? For 40 years from the early 1950s, Israel’s best-known dance troupe was the Inbal Dance Theater, which specialized in Yemenite dance. Despite all the investment in this troupe, once its founder was gone there was no one to continue the work, though formally the group still functions in Tel Aviv within the framework of a multidisciplinary ethnic center. In other words, it is not just a question of money and official backing – there needs to be something real to support.
The saying goes that “dogs that bark do not bite,” so hopefully Regev’s term in the ministry will end with a lot of talk and little action. Hopefully the Knesset will refuse to cancel the book law. Hopefully Kulanu will stick to its promise not to support another of Regev’s initiatives to deny public funding to theaters that prove disloyal to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state by advocating leftwing positions regarding the future of the occupied territories and refusing to appear in Ariel.
But above all, could our minister of culture please stop fueling divisions, conflict and hatred within Israeli society, act to promote all forms of culture without prejudice, and cut the bullshit? The writer is a political scientist and a retired Knesset employee.