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Israel’s Culture Minister Pushes Bill to Freeze Funds for Arts Organizations Highlighting Palestinian Narratives

The new bill suggests that culture organizations that criticize the State of Israel or highlight the Palestinian national narrative will have trouble with government funding.

Miri Regev (via Regev’s official Facebook page)

TEL AVIV — A new bill from the office of Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev, has proposed to cut funding from culture organizations that criticize the State of Israel or highlight the Palestinian national narrative. The Loyalty in Culture Bill is the latest episode in the right-wing minister’s three-year campaign to curtail artistic expressions that do not align with the “principles of the state.

Under the terms of the new bill, funding will be withdrawn from culture organizations that “harm or dishonor” the symbols of the state (flag and anthem), “deny the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” or “observe Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning.” That last clause refers to the Palestinian Nakba Day (“Day of the Catastrophe”) which commemorates the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland with the establishment of Israel in 1948. The bill also targets organizations that “incite racism, violence, and terror,” but the definition of those remains in the hands of the minister, who will be allowed to summon organizations to hearings about potentially unlawful projects.

The bill was introduced as an amendment to the current Culture and Art Law, which gives the Israeli Treasury the authority to withhold funding from subsidized culture organizations that break the law. Regev has been campaigning to transfer that responsibility to her office since 2016, but initially, she was rebuffed by other Israeli officials. The minister of finance, Moshe Kahlon, and General Attorney Yehouda Weinstein, expressed reservations about the violation of artists’ right to freedom of expression. However, a new General Attorney, Avichai Mendelblit, has since overturned Weinstein’s policy and allowed Regev to proceed with her proposal.

The Loyalty in Culture Bill adds to two existing laws similar in spirit and purpose: the 2015 Nakba Law, which denies funding to organizations or individuals who recognize the Palestinian Nakba or even make use of the term; and the 2011 “Boycott Bill” which penalizes any organization or individuals who publicly support the Palestinian Boycott and Divestment Movement (BDS) against Israel. But much to the dismay of Regev, the treasury has rarely enforced these laws.

In a public letter she sent to Kahlon in July, Regev wrote that 100 complaints against artists and organizations who have violated these laws have not been handled. With the smell of elections in the air, Kahlon backpedaled on his position and endorsed Regev’s bill. The two eventually agreed that the treasury does not have the expertise or resources to examine the complaints and that they should be handled by the culture ministry.

“The purpose of the bill is to give the right tools to the relevant bodies to prevent harming the basic principles of the state,” Regev and Kahlon said in a joint statement. “Israel has freedom of cultural expression, but there will be no freedom to harm the values and symbols of the state.”

Regev went on to say, “In Israel there are artists of the first degree who bring honor to the state and pride to all of us, but there are also small, extremist groups that never miss an opportunity to incite against the State of Israel and the IDF. This is inappropriate, and it is not right that the state should support this group.”

Supporters of the Barbur Gallery during court proceedings. The gallery was shuttered by the government for hosting an event by veteran Israeli combatants who call for the end of Palestinian territories’ occupation. (image by Eyal Sher; image courtesy of the Barbur Gallery)

This latest development adds to an already tense relationship between Regev and the local artist community. Asaf Zmir, director of the Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts, responded to the new bill in an op-ed published on the website Saloona, where he wrote, “Regev’s proposal will cause real damage. Political intervention and censorship in culture undermine its very existence.”

Booker Prize winner David Grossman, an Israeli novelist and peace activist, was one of the leading voices against the Loyalty in Culture bill when Regev first introduced it in 2016. “I don’t think the question of loyalty should be raised at all. It’s a fascist question. It’s one of the signs of the deterioration of the democracy and the democratic perception here in Israel,” he said in an interview. Grossman, who lost his son in the war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, added that people with moderate opinions like his are becoming increasingly isolated in the current political climate in Israel.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said in a statement, “In a democracy, plays, films, and cultural events are meant to examine social and political issues rather than glorify the regime.” The Israeli Actors Guild published a statement on its website saying, “We will fight for the freedom of expression and art within the law. We will not allow cynical exploitation of art, and we will not allow that withdrawal of funds [to organizations] because of the political inclinations of one minister or another.”

The Al-Midan theater (image credit: Hanay)

“If it is necessary to censor, I will censor,” Regev said when she started her term as minister of culture in 2015, and she proved to be true to her word. In August, the minister proposed the Film Industry Reform, which allows her office to review film scripts before they are approved for production with the state-subsidized film funds. Regev failed to pass the reform in the Knesset (Israel’s unicameral parliament), but she vowed to pursue it by other means.

Earlier this year, Regev pressured the municipality of Jerusalem to evict the Barbur Gallery from a city-owned premise after it hosted a lecture by the left-wing NGO “Breaking the Silence.” In 2015, the ministry of culture froze the funds of Al-Midan Theater in Haifa for putting on the play “A Parallel Time,” which was based on the diaries of a Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail. Shortly before that, the ministry withdrew its sponsorship from choreographer Arkadi Zaides’s performance “Archive” for using footage shot in the West Bank by Palestinian volunteers at the Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem.

The Loyalty in Culture Bill will be brought to the Knesset for confirmation when the legislature returns to a new session later this month. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who frequently boasts of Israel as being the only “genuine democracy in the Middle East,” has consistently supported Regev’s moves.

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