Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich spoke a lot of nonsense during his celebratory interview with the free daily Israel Hayom last week. The part that ignited the strongest reactions was his equation of funding yeshiva students to "funding" students (students of art and gender studies, no less).
The remarks led many people, including an economist from the right-wing Kohelet Policy Forum, to explain why this is a foolish comparison that doesn’t hold water, pointing to several facts showing that he was spouting nonsense.
It’s not surprising that Smotrich talks nonsense, right? We're talking about someone who, just a few years ago, mocked the numbers indicating that a third of Israeli children live in poverty by saying he had five children, “and I don’t think that two of them are poor.” This argument, beyond being idiotic (and it is), attests to the speaker’s lack of sensitivity. He's someone who doesn’t mind being seen as an idiot if it lets him spit in the face of the poor and dismiss factual data.
Smotrich actually did say one correct thing in his recent interview. "A normal country invests in the arts, in humanities, in arts," he said. "If everything is viewed through an economic prism, then let's fund only those faculties that are conducive to the economy's productivity.
"I am not dismissive of the humanities or Bezalel [Academy of Arts and Design], but what's the contribution to the economy in having students throw paint on the wall and call it art?" he continued. "Those who want to pursue gender studies should pay for it, why should we fund it? Because that is what a normal country does."
It’s too bad that the many people who reacted to Smotrich ignored the beginning and end of these statements, and rushed to defend the students of Bezalel. The defenders explained how creative the students actually are and, why it’s worthwhile to invest in them, because they also study practical subjects and bring respect and prestige to the country.
Smotrich, perhaps inadvertently, spoke the truth. In a normal country, the humanities — art, literature, philosophy, the various branches of history, linguistics, and more — are fields that the country invests in. Not everything is judged in purely utilitarian terms — something our elected officials would probably be aware of if they studied a little more humanities subjects themselves.
But instead, during the past few decades they have been doing everything in their power to eliminate the humanities, and unfortunately, they’ve been quite successful. A country needs ideas and intellectual innovation. It has to help promising students in every field – including Talmudic prodigies – to make the most of what they excel at.
It has to promote inquisitiveness, in-depth research, critical thinking, asking questions — studies as an end in themselves, not as a means to a degree and a good job. It’s true that there's no immediate result, but in the final analysis, this is how humanity reached its greatest achievements.
It’s too bad that Smotrich doesn’t believe in that. Well, he believes in it when it comes to Torah study, because he’s religious and that’s part of a commandment that he respects. But when he says he isn't disparaging art and the humanities, he’s just lying.
How do we know? Because over and over, his example is “gender studies” – a field that this homophobe who supports a theocratic state based on religious Jewish law clearly disdains – and because he describes art as “throwing paint on walls.” It’s true that I was merely a humanities student (a master’s degree summa cum laude, including two prizes, with my apologies to the minister), but I recognize disparagement when I see it.
All this reasoning is unlikely to affect Smotrich, a man who flaunts his blatant ignorance as if it's something to brag about, and embarrasses us all internationally with his disgraceful English. He’s an egomaniac who disdains anything that he doesn’t know and doesn’t understand.
Perhaps Smotrich would do well to read the following: “When I lived in London I would visit the National Gallery, and my favorite pictures were those of Rembrandt. In my opinion, Rembrandt was a tzaddik – occasionally, there are great people who are blessed by God with the sight of the hidden light. I believe that one of them was Rembrandt, and the light in his pictures is the very same light that G-d created in the beginning.”
The person who wrote these words was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, whom Smotrich probably calls by his acronym HaRaAYaH. He was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, the founder of the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and one of the founding fathers of religious Zionism.
And this is what Rav Kook wrote to the artist Boris Schatz and the other founders of Bezalel in 1908: “One of the clear signs of the revival [of the people] is the esteemed work that is about to emerge from your esteemed association: ‘The revival of art and Hebrew beauty in the Land of Israel.’
"It’s heartwarming to see our talented brothers, geniuses of beauty and art, who find a decent place in the wide and high avenues of general life, and an exalted spirit carried them to bring them to Jerusalem … and such a good omen should make everyone happy … even those who are colder and more preoccupied with the very serious question of survival," he wrote.
“Perhaps this is not the right time, some thoughtful people will say,” he continued. “There are prior, more essential needs. Yes, perhaps, and perhaps, there certainly are, but the demand that comes from the heart of its sons [of Jerusalem] the demand itself is a sign of life, a sign of hope for salvation and consolation.”
Rav Kook was referring to the question of the contribution to productivity when he wrote that “This important profession, of the fine arts, really could bring a blessing and develop an entry to a livelihood and financial support to many families of our brothers living on holy ground." But he also stressed the power of art “[to uplift] many depressed souls, to give them a clear and illuminating perspective on the glory of life, nature and work, the dignity of work and diligence. All these are exalted principles, which fill the soul of every Jewish person with feelings of joy and glory.”
It’s true that Rav Kook limited art to specific fields and rejected others. Yet this is someone who attributed to art the power to see beyond the literal, writing: “Even a secular artist sees the whole world in an entirely different manner, more glorious than the way all the others see it.”
What does this statement actually contribute to productivity? We have to ask the finance minister. But what does Smotrich – how ironic that he bears the name of the first artist, wise-hearted Bezalel, after whom the institution that he enjoys disparaging is named – have to do with “exalted principles”? He disdains art just as he disdains gender studies, just as he disdains anything that goes beyond his ultra-conservative four walls.
Again and again, people like Smotrich prove that their world is narrower than that of an ant, and far more self-interested. Again and again, it becomes clearer that more than anything else, such people reduce Judaism to the bare minimum — a simplistic and closed worldview, so fragile that any intellectual challenge threatens its survival.
Myths aside, Rembrandt was a non-Jew. In addition to Christian scenes, including Jesus on the cross, he painted quite a few nude women – “Andromeda Chained to the Rock,” Danae between the sheets, “Bathsheba at Her Bath.”
And still, Rav Kook was so impressed by his art that he elevated him to the level of a tzaddik blessed by God with the sight of the hidden light. It would be interesting to know what he would have thought of Smotrich and his description of what they do in Bezalel.