Israel Culture Minister Booed as Censorship Debate Escalates

TEL AVIV – The battle between Israel’s artists and its outspoken new culture minister continued to escalate this weekend, as a small group of protesters gathered outside a Tel Aviv theater with tape across their mouths to protest her repeated vows to censor voices that defame the Jewish State.

Culture Minister Miri Regev, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party who has been unabashed in her disdain for artistic projects that criticize the Israeli occupation, was at Tel Aviv’s Einav Theater on Friday to present an award. She was booed by the protesters as she entered the theater, and heckled by several audience members as she took the stage.

The event occurred one day after Regev, in a televised interview on Israel’s popular Channel 2 network, referred to artists as “tight-ass, hypocritical and ungrateful” people — comments she later backpedaled from a bit by clarifying that she only meant two specific left-wing creatives.

Nevertheless, her unfiltered remarks were the latest shots fired in a war between Netanyahu’s conservative government and the artistic community in Israel, where filmmakers and producers rely heavily on public funds to produce nearly every project. Regev has repeatedly said she will not hesitate to cut public funding for projects that she feels defame or threaten the State of Israel, and earlier this week she blocked funds for Haifa’s Al-Midan Arab Theater, which is currently staging a controversial production about the life of an Arab terrorist. She threatened to do the same for a joint Arab-Jewish theater after its director, the actor Norman Issa, refused to perform in the occupied West Bank. Issa later relented, and his funding was not cut.

Last week, Regev set off ripples among Israel’s filmmakers by declaring publicly: “The government doesn’t have to support culture. I can decide where the money goes. The artists will not dictate to me.” The same week, the Jerusalem Film Festival agreed to pull from its lineup a controversial documentary on Yigal Amir, the Jewish extremist who murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, opting instead to screen it outside of the festival. The decision came as hundreds of artists held emergency meetings and circulated a petition against what they declared was a troubling new culture of censorship for anyone seeking public funds.

Regev’s staff did not return requests for comment. But filmmaker Guy Davidi, whose “5 Broken Cameras” received an Oscar nod in 2013, said Regev’s declarations were nothing new for the State of Israel.

“I fear that most of Israeli society is welcoming heavy restrictions over the freedom of speech, even to the point of dropping the democratic ideas that the state was founded upon,” he told Variety. “The main difference will be that the few artists who still offer meaningful criticism of the country’s politics will have less food in their fridge.”

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