Opposition slams bid to turn art into government mouthpiece

Bill conditioning arts funding on ‘loyalty’ clears first Knesset hurdle

Proposed law would withhold state funding from works that deny Israel is Jewish-democratic country, promote racism, incite violence, destroy state symbols

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Hundreds attend a protest against the 'Cultural Loyalty Bill,' proposed by Culture Minister Miri Regev, outside the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv, on  October 27, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Hundreds attend a protest against the 'Cultural Loyalty Bill,' proposed by Culture Minister Miri Regev, outside the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv, on October 27, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A bill that would allow the culture minister to withhold public funding for cultural organizations “that are working against the principles of the state” cleared its first Knesset vote on Monday night after an hours-long, furious parliamentary debate.

The legislation, proposed by Culture Minister Miri Regev and supported by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, cleared its first reading with 55 lawmakers in favor and 44 opposed. It requires two more readings to become law.

The so-called Culture Loyalty Law 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.

While the Finance Ministry is currently responsible for final decisions on withholding such state funding, Regev’s bill would transfer full power over budgets for the arts to herself.

Critics say the law will essentially enshrine state censorship over the arts.

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev speaks at an event marking the Jewish new year in the northern Israeli city of Safed on September 3, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Presenting the bill to the Knesset chamber on Monday, Regev insisted it did not undermine freedom of speech and called the legislation “correct and worthy.”

“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.

“A handful of artists, who haven’t really read the law and don’t understand it, are trying to mislead the public and are using their artistic stage for political purposes,” added the Likud minister.

The proposed law was criticized by seething opposition members.

Hundreds attend a protest against the “Cultural Loyalty Bill” proposed by Culture Minister Miri Regev, outside the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv, on October 27, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“There is no culture if the government controls it,” said opposition leader Tzipi Livni. “Instead of culture, we’ll get propaganda.”

Many Israeli artists “love the state, but sometimes wants to express criticism and this is what creates the Israeli mosaic and the different parts that together form a cultural lands that we can, and should, be proud of,” added Livni.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said Israel already has laws on its books to accomplish Regev’s aims. He was referring to the unenforced so-called “Nakba” law, which allows the government to withhold funding from organizations or events that present Israel’s establishment as a “catastrophe,” according to the Palestinian narrative.

“We already have all the tools to stop incitement against the State of Israel. What we lack is a functioning government. Instead of fooling everyone, get up in the morning and go to work and there will be no problem of incitement, and stop with all these fabrications,” said Lapid.

Regev has made numerous threats to cut state funding for cultural productions and organizations that she deems to be disloyal to the Jewish state since assuming her role as culture minister, following the 2015 elections.

Two years ago, she walked out of the Ophir awards — Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars — when a poem by late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was read, because his work contain objections to the existence of a Jewish state.

Jaffa Arab-Hebrew Theater, October 28, 2011. (CC BY-SA Itzuvit, Wikimedia Commons)

She also panned last year’s critically acclaimed film “Foxtrot” as a defamation of Israel. The story of parents grieving the loss of their son is largely allegorical, but Regev insisted the film — which includes a scene of IDF soldiers committing a war crime — amounted to “self-flagellation and cooperation with the anti-Israel narrative.” After its release, Regev asked the Israeli film funds to provide detailed information about the approval process for movies, in an attempt to clamp down on state funding for movies critical of Israeli government policies.

Earlier this month, Regev asked the Finance Ministry to examine the financing of the Haifa International Film Festival, due to the screening of “subversive” movies. The Walla news site reported that the two movies to attract the minister’s ire were “Out,” which tells the story of a former IDF soldier who joins a right-wing organization that tries to damage the reputation of human rights activists, and “Acre Dreams” which depicts a love affair between a Jew and an Arab at the time of the British Mandate.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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