Opposition slams bid to turn art into government mouthpiece

Ministers advance bill conditioning arts funding on ‘loyalty’

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 the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

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)
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)

Cabinet ministers voted Sunday to advance a bill that would allow the culture minister to withhold funding for cultural organizations “that are working against the principles of the state.”

The decision by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation means that the legislation, proposed by Culture Minister Miri Regev and supported by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, will be fast-tracked to a full cabinet vote before being introduced in the Knesset as a government bill.

The so-called Culture Loyalty Law would allow the government to pull funding from organizations or events that present any of five topics: 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.

Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at a conference of Hadashot News in Jerusalem on September 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit had initially blocked the bill, warning that it constituted “a serious risk to freedom of speech,” but he allowed a vote to go ahead on the condition that changes would be made before the cabinet vote, the Calcalist financial newspaper reported.

Responding to the committee vote, Regev said that freedom of expression was not limitless.

“Freedom of expression is a guiding light for us and a central value in the life of the State of Israel as a democratic state, but preserving freedom of expression does not allow incitement against the Jewish and democratic State of Israel,” she said in a statement.

Left-wing lawmakers slammed the ministerial approval of the bill.

Knesset opposition leader Tzipi Livni said the “demand for loyalty in art is another step in silencing expression and forcing culture to be a mouthpiece for the government.”

Meretz chair Tamar Zandberg said that Regev “wants to become the chief censor and the head of the thought police — working not for the promotion of culture, but for the suppression of freedom of creativity and free thought.”

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai also slammed the proposal Sunday and vowed to provide funds from his city’s municipal budget for arts cut as a result of the law.

“This is a proposal to shut up critics by a government that doesn’t understand that without freedom of expression, there will be no culture here at all,” Huldai said in a statement.

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, 28 October 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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