Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit pushed back Wednesday against a demand by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked that one of his deputies be fired after she criticized government-backed bills and right-wing political rhetoric during a Knesset hearing.
On Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber criticized the so-called “Loyalty in Culture” bill during a meeting of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee. She said the legislation, which threatens to strip state funding for cultural institutions that produce art seen as overly critical of the government or the state, “poses real difficulties.”
The bill would transfer the authority to cut culture funding from the Finance Ministry to the Culture Ministry headed by populist Culture Minister Miri Regev.
The authority that the legislation aims to grant the Culture Ministry creates “a cooling and self-censoring effect,” Zilber told lawmakers at the meeting, adding: “The country is changing. These are not simple days and they are bringing us not only new laws but… confrontational dialogue, the wounding and scarring of our shared social fabric, labeling and branding — who is for us and who is against us.
“If there’s someone who is loyal, then is there also someone who is a traitor? A fifth column?” Zilber asked in the Knesset hearing.
She accused lawmakers of seeking “obedient legal advisers, compliant artists, a complacent media, and a deferential public with a single unified opinion.”
Her comments drew the ire of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who slammed them as unprofessional and political and demanded that Zilber be fired.
“It is clear that she does not wish to act professionally and honestly as a legal adviser,” Shaked wrote of Zilber in a letter to Mandelblit, Zilber’s superior, adding that the deputy attorney general’s views would be better served “in running for political office.”
Zilber “crossed every line,” Shaked charged.
On Wednesday, Mandelblit responded to Shaked’s order, bluntly telling her she did not have the authority to issue such a demand. “The decision on which legal official under my jurisdiction will represent the attorney general is under my sole authority and responsibility,” Mandelblit wrote to the justice minister in a letter, calling her demand “inappropriate.”
Mandelblit told Shaked he would look into Zilber’s comments in the Knesset to see if they were inappropriate for a government legal adviser. While the examination was underway, he said, Zilber would not represent his office at Knesset hearings.
Shaked seemed to tone down her criticism Wednesday following Mandelblit’s response, saying at a traffic safety conference in Tel Aviv, “If a bureaucrat in the public service wishes to engage in political debate, they are welcome to resign, join a political party or advocacy group, and have their voices heard. But they can’t do that as part of the government’s legal advisory system.
“All state bureaucrats are committed to the government’s and the Knesset’s positions,” Shaked added. “You can’t run a state any other way.” Legal advisers are permitted to express “a legal view that disagrees with the government’s position,” she affirmed, “but certainly not to express political views” when appearing in their professional capacity.
She added that she would wait for the results of the attorney general’s inquiry before deciding whether to act on Zilber’s comments, which she said “have hurt the legal advisory system.”
Shaked’s initial comments against Zilber drew criticism from opposition lawmakers. In a letter to the justice minister, MKs from the Yesh Atid party chastised her for “sending a clear and threatening message to all [state] employees that anyone who dares to criticize will be pushed out.”
The Meretz party said it would table a no-confidence motion in the Knesset plenum over the dust-up, calling Shaked’s demand to forbid Zilber from representing the attorney general “an attack on the independence of the deputy attorney general.”
“Shaked is overstepping the bounds of her authority to frighten and intimidate the legal system under her purview. The justice minister is supposed to be the one protecting the independence of the legal system,” said Meretz head MK Tamar Zandberg.
Zilber also saw defenders from unexpected quarters. In an interview with Army Radio on Wednesday morning, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a Likud lawmaker, said, “I don’t agree with every word [Zilber] said, but she’s a very ethical person in the public service, and I hope this is dealt with in the right way.”
During Tuesday’s Knesset committee meeting, the parliament’s own legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, also opined that the “loyalty in culture” bill was problematic and seemed to impose restrictions on freedom of speech.
“It can be seen as seemingly part of the imposition of restrictions on freedom of expression,” Yinon said, saying the bill faces “significant constitutional hurdles.”
The legislation, proposed by Culture Minister Regev and backed in principle by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, calls for the denial of government funding to groups “that are working against the principles of the state.”
The legislation cleared its first reading Monday with 55 lawmakers in favor and 44 opposed. It now heads to committee before returning to the plenum for two more Knesset votes before becoming law.
The bill would allow the government to pull funding from organizations or events that feature any of five topics or themes: denial that the State of Israel is a Jewish, democratic country; incitement of racism, violence, or terror; support for the armed struggle or acts of terror against Israel by an enemy state or a terror group; marking Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning; or any act of destruction or physical degradation of the flag or any state symbol.
The bill relates only to state funding for such themes. It would not outlaw such expressions outright.
Presenting the bill to the Knesset chamber on Monday, Regev insisted it did not undermine freedom of speech and called the legislation “correct and appropriate.”
“There is no harm here to freedom of speech and art. There is no intention to silence people or stifle criticism,” said the culture minister.
Critics say the law will effectively grant the state, one of the major funders of arts in the country, de facto powers of censorship over the cultural production of Israel’s largest arts bodies.