The Knesset’s top legal authority said Tuesday that a bill that would allow the culture minister to withhold public funding from cultural organizations deemed disloyal to the state is problematic and seems to impose restrictions on freedom of speech.
Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon was speaking at an Education, Culture and Sports Committee meeting that debated the bill a day after it passed its first reading in the plenum the night before.
“It can be seen as seemingly part of the imposition of restrictions on freedom of expression,” Yinon said, calling the bill an “oxymoron” that faces “significant constitutional obstacles.”
The legislation, proposed by Culture Minister Miri Regev and supported by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, calls for the the denial of government funding to groups “that are working against the principles of the state.”
“A closer look at the details of the amendment and the basic concepts that are based on it reveal that there are considerable constitutional difficulties that, in my opinion, raise doubt as to whether they can pass the constitutional scrutiny tests,” Yinon said.
“An artist and creator in a democratic country is supposed to be true to himself and to his creation. Considerations of loyalty to the state are not supposed to guide him,” he continued. “Art in a democratic state is by nature challenging, critical and contentious, often subversive and provocative, and sometimes is not well received by the consensus it seeks to undermine.”
Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber, who was also at the meeting, said the bill “poses real difficulties” and that the authority the legislation aims to grant Regev creates “a cooling and self-censoring effect.”
The legislation cleared its first reading Monday 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.
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.
Critics say the law will essentially enshrine state censorship over the arts.