Israel has forgotten what democracy means

If Culture Minister Miri Regev wants to cut funding to Arab theaters, she’d better increase it first — because that’s the only way they’ll notice.

By Oudeh Basharat | Haaretz | Jun. 21, 2015 |

It’s sad. I returned from the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network conference, which took place in Brussels last week. At the conference I said to a friend that, as opposed to many of the participants, at least I can return to my homeland. The friend jokingly remarked, “For now!” I didn’t laugh.

The Syrians I met at the conference have nowhere to return to. They are staying in Europe, far from the hell in their own country, and alienation is evident in every word they say and every facial expression they make. Something inside them has cracked. “Never bargain your brother’s eyes for another’s eyes. Even if these eyes are replaced by two jewels, never bargain them,” wrote Egyptian poet Amal Donqol. The sense of homeland cannot be bought.

My sense of anxiety increased when a human-rights representative from the European Union took issue with the respective claims of the totalitarian regimes fighting the organizations. His vehement statements only reinforced my feeling that, in effect, he was arguing with our own government ministers. It’s sad to see these principles becoming so eroded in Israel that there’s a need to passionately explain them once again, as if we had just learned about them.

In the same way you would teach a dictator, we have to show our ministers that it’s exactly when there is a disagreement that you must guarantee freedom of expression to the minority. To explain to the ministers that the country is not yet listed in their name at the Land Registry Office. To tell Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev that she’s permitted to control the purse strings, as she demands, but only subject to law and justice. After all, in addition to democracy, through which the public elects its representatives, there’s also something called “the deep state” — the institutions that examine the legality of decisions and guarantee proper order during their implementation. And if his ministry’s Repertoire Committee approves the Arab play “A Parallel Time” as suitable for schools, Education Minister Naftali Bennett is obligated to strongly defend that decision, even if he thinks differently.

As for Regev, my advice to her is that before freezing part of the budget devoted to Arab culture in Israel, she should first increase it — otherwise the Arabs won’t notice anything. At the moment, if you add 35,000 shekels (about $9,130) to the Arab culture budget, we’ll reach 3 percent of Israel’s overall culture budget. A disgrace.

Meanwhile, after the cutback in the budget that you’d need a magnifying glass to see, the great and good of Arab society rose up and threatened to seek alternative sources of funding, including from Qatar. But we can seek “alternative” sources even without the minister’s cuts. After all, by law a theater has the right to receive money from various sources, in addition to government funding. And if due to government abuse we turn to Qatar, of all places, maybe we should first check whether civil rights are flourishing there — especially at a time when the country is preparing for the 2022 World Cup. A disgrace.

In order to complete this mosaic, it’s important to mention here the role of the opposition leader. Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) is behaving like a defense attorney who asks the judge to impose a harsh punishment on his client. The opposition is supposed to present an alternative to the coalition, but in Israel it offers a makeup kit to make the government look better. And just when the house is burning, Herzog decides to waste four precious days in an attempt to defend Israel’s good name in distant England. Herzog would be better served renovating the house itself — the rotten pipes, the peeling walls, the neglected garden. Then the good name will blossom by itself.

Finally, a last-minute update from the future: A theater director calls and reports bitterly that he has yet to receive his salary. And why? Well, the Qataris froze the transfer of funds and the audience failed to give Regev a standing ovation when she entered the auditorium. You deserve it, I said. Such Israeli chutzpah is unforgivable.