Israeli minister seeks budgetary power to control historical narrative

Miri Regev approves of excavations that tell Jewish stories, but not of institutions offering Palestinian perspectives

Lawyer Yossi Havilio and Barbur Gallery’s supporters, holding swans (barbur in Hebrew), at the court ruling on the gallery’s eviction Eyal Sher

Lawyer Yossi Havilio and Barbur Gallery’s supporters, holding swans (barbur in Hebrew), at the court ruling on the gallery’s eviction Eyal Sher

Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev, will introduce a “loyalty in culture” bill in the next parliamentary session, which opens this month, her spokesman has confirmed to The Art Newspaper. The proposed legislation, if passed, would give her ministry various powers to prevent or cut funding for cultural organisations that criticise Israel or stage events discussing Palestinian history and rights.

The introduction of the bill follows months of accelerated lobbying by the culture minister to silence or remove subsidies from organisations that she deems unpatriotic. Regev has instead promoted initiatives that focus exclusively on Israel’s Jewish history.

Since 2011, the finance ministry has had sole legal authority to slash government money for institutions that “dishonour” state symbols, question Israel’s existence as a “Jewish and democratic” state or observe Israeli Independence Day by commemorating the experiences of Palestinians during the establishment of Israel. The finance ministry has not yet enforced this obscurely worded legislation and this has enraged the culture minister.

“The finance minister does not deal with lawbreakers,” the spokesman says. “Regev wrote almost 100 letters [to him] about different events [that used language] against the army and the country and he didn’t do anything.”

In June, Regev posted a letter on her Facebook page that she had written to Israel’s attorney general, imploring him to “promote a law that will allow us to defund once and for all cultural institutions that use public spaces” to host events that undermine “our existence, symbols and values”. She singled out the Barbur Gallery in Jerusalem as an example of a venue that subverts the state.

The gallery, which Regev has never visited, mostly stages exhibitions, but occasionally organises events that Regev opposes. In April, she failed to prevent the gallery from hosting an Israeli Independence Day discussion between Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones in the ongoing conflict.

Regev also asked Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barakat, to intervene in June when Barbur planned to host the launch of a Hebrew-language book on the ways in which Palestinian losses after the establishment of Israel are discussed in Hebrew-speaking society. The Jerusalem civil court ruled against the city’s petition to prevent it.

On 30 August, however, Jerusalem’s regional court ruled that the city has the authority to evict the art gallery to reclaim the municipal property. Judge Amir Dahan acknowledged that the “motive to pursue the petition is the city’s discomfort with expressions on municipal property”. The gallery is considering an appeal to the High Court. Meanwhile, the gallery’s lawyer, Yossi Havilio, a mayoral candidate, could overturn the ruling if he is elected this month.

Mayor Barakat responded to the ruling on Facebook: “We will not allow squatters on city properties… to hurt Israeli soldiers and the state of Israel.”

The gallery operated for 11 years with federal and municipal support, and without interference, until Regev became minister in 2015, says its director, Masha Zusman. “We had official approvals and assurances and nobody objected. But the whole story is political [now]—there is a competition between Barakat and Regev over who can be more right wing.”

Approved narrative

In August, Regev and Barakat helped to inaugurate a Jewish Yemenite heritage centre in Silwan, a poor and crowded Palestinian neighbourhood in east Jerusalem. Residents have complained for years that Israeli authorities support digs and tourism for Jewish heritage without consulting with or involving them, and that excavations and building damage their properties and ignore their land rights and history. As police pushed protesting locals away, Regev said at the opening that archaeologists would not find Palestinian heritage underground.

The Israeli archaeologist Raphael Greenberg, who has dug in Silwan, called her words “inaccurate” and “at odds with Jerusalem’s 5,000-year history”.

Yemenite Jews, who lived in Silwan from the 1880s until 1938, are included in the 1922 Silwan Census, which lists a population of 1,699 Muslim, 153 Jewish and 49 Christian residents. The archaeologist Yonathan Mizrachi, whose organisation Emek Shaveh encourages archaeologists to work with local communities and to present multiple histories, explained that there are dozens of ancient layers at the site, representing different periods.

But Regev, Barakat, other arms of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and state-supported settlers “impose a singular, exclusive, nationalist narrative” that marginalises the Palestinian presence and history and leads to evictions, confiscations and conflict, says Betty Herschman, the international director of Ir Amim, an organisation seeking an equitable and agreed-upon political resolution on the status of Jerusalem.

Despite the ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court last year that a heritage site under Israeli rule has to be more inclusive of different histories and religions, Regev continues to commit her ministry to expanding excavations and tourism in east Jerusalem with the goal of revealing and promoting artefacts or events related to Jewish history. “As the minister says, every place we dig in Jerusalem we find Jewish antiquities. Palestinians don’t find any coins. Jerusalem [belongs to] the Jewish people,” her spokesman says.

Regev, who opposes a Palestinian state, recently told Israel’s 103FM Radio that in Israel, everyone can have individual rights, but only Jewish people should have “national rights”. Divisions and tensions are not about rights, but have been created and fuelled by the Israeli left, she said, “in order to overthrow the government”. She admitted that she is seen as a “bulldozer” but considers this to be a compliment.