Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev has added another successful act of provocation to her public resume and managed yet again to dominate Israel's media agenda. As she put it, the “Jerusalem of Gold” gown that she wore May 17 on the red carpet at the opening of the 70th Festival de Cannes was intended “to make Jerusalem a topic of discussion.”
For anyone who missed the uproar on social networks and in the traditional media, Regev wrapped herself in an ugly and cumbersome gown with an especially wide hem printed with huge images from Jerusalem, prominently the Temple Mount. She explained that she did so “for the glory of our eternal capital.” As it turned out, this tasteless display in the French resort town, before the eyes of the world, was the result of half a year of brainstorming by Regev's staff on how to use Cannes' international film festival to mark the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War.
In interviews with Israeli media, the culture minister described her choice of gown as nothing less than a diplomatic achievement. “People are responding to Israel,” Regev said in an interview with Channel 20. “They are talking about Israel and Jerusalem. I didn't come here to show off another pretty evening gown. I came to relay a clear message. I believe I had the privilege, on the 50th year of Jerusalem's reunification, to celebrate Jerusalem and to 'make Jerusalem my highest joy,' even here at the Cannes Festival.”
The truth is that what the culture minister actually managed to do was highlight to the whole world Israel's aggressive and heavy-handed attitude toward the Palestinians. International responses to her gown ranged from apathy to contempt.
“I went through all the French newspapers, and those anti-Semites completely ignored the dress worn by our minister of culture last night at the opening of the Cannes film festival,” wrote Dov Alfon, Haaretz's Paris correspondent, on his Facebook page. “To their credit, I should note that there were several other evening gowns there.”
The “United Jerusalem” evening gown is yet another stage in the evolution of the right's populist provocations, a process that counts Regev as one of its leading figures. The right no longer confines itself to anti-democratic legislation, divisive declarations at official events and racist messages intended to score political points, such as Regev calling refugees from Africa “a cancer” and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warning on election day of Arabs “coming out in droves to the polls.” It has now adopted embarrassing behavior by senior political figures at events attracting international attention.
Regev really isn't the only one to act this way. For example, Israel's political leadership from Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid to Education Minister Naftali Bennett and the prime minister engaged in another provocation that began with a May 18 report on Army Radio that the national anthem would not be played at the graduation ceremony of the Faculty of the Humanities at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. According to the report, the university wanted to avoid offending participants who are not Jewish, or in other words, Arab students, who cannot identify with the line “The Jewish soul stirs.”
This is in fact not the first time that the humanities faculty has chosen not to play the anthem. In addition, graduation is not an official state event, which would require it. In other words, the whole story really is “fake news,” designed to create a tempest in a teapot. Nevertheless, politicians from the center to the right preferred to ignore the facts so they could score a few more points with their respective constituents.
At the head of the pack bemoaning the decision was none other than the prime minister. Conjuring a stony expression, Netanyahu called the decision “shameful,” adding that it was the “height of subservience and the opposite of the national pride. We are proud of our country, our flag, our national anthem — and it only strengthens my [belief] in the passage of the Nationality Bill that we are leading in order to safeguard through law our national symbols that are so precious to us.”
Similarly, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of HaBayit HaYehudi posted on Twitter, “Shame on the Hebrew University!” Bennett's office announced that following the report, he, the chairman of HaBayit HaYehudi, had contacted the president of the university, Menachem Ben Sasson, to protest the decision. A statement released after the conversation said, “Bennett made it clear that Hatikvah must be played at every official ceremony taking place at the university. Furthermore, he added that during unofficial ceremonies, the decision to sing Hatikvah may not be influenced by the consideration that it might offend people, since a symbol of the State of Israel in no way constitutes an insult.”
Lapid joined the nationalist fracas in a scathing post on Facebook accompanied by a photo of the Israeli flag. “The Hebrew University's decision not to play Hatikvah at its graduation ceremony, so as 'not to offend Arab students,' is shameful, cowardly and immoral,” Lapid wrote. “It is interesting to note that these students' feelings weren't hurt when they studied at an academic institution subsidized by the free and Zionist State of Israel.”
The university's explanation did nothing to mitigate the passions expressed by the politicians, who were simply unwilling to forego the opportunity to play the nationalist sentiment card. “The decision whether to play the anthem at the end of academic ceremonies at institutes of higher learning is open to the discretion of each institution,” the administration said in a response. “The Council for Higher Education has not made any rules about it. Our national anthem is not an insult. It is a source of pride.”
Israeli democracy had no reason to be proud this week. What is most disturbing is the harm done to national symbols in order to serve narrow political interests. These politicians are disrespecting the flag, the anthem and the capital, Jerusalem. They are causing them to be a source of disgust to the rest of the world, and even more so, they are allowing question marks to hover above things that should be self-evident. If one thing is certain, it is that there is no need to wave these symbols about all the time.
The world today, including US President Donald Trump, is no longer tolerant of the occupation and Israeli nationalism. Regev and the others would do well to take a look at the May 20 edition of The Economist, which devotes its cover to “Why Israel Needs a Palestinian State.” According to this prominent journal, exchanging land for peace means preserving Israel as a democracy.