Israeli Attorney General to Culture Minister: You Have No Authority to Intervene in 'Offensive' Art

Avichai Mandelblit rejects Miri Regev's request for authority to pull funding from institutions for their content, says it 'seriously infringes on freedom of expression'

Culture Minister Miri Regev at the Local Government Conference for Innovation in Tel Aviv, February 28, 2019.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit told Culture Minister Miri Regev that she has no authority to intervene in the content presented by a cultural institution supported by her ministry, or to deny institutions funding because of their content.

The letter was sent to the minister a month after she had asked him to adopt the ruling by the Haifa District Court in the “McJesus” case, and support her authority and the authority of local council heads to intervene in the display of works of art.

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In the letter to Regev, which was sent two weeks ago, Mendelblit clarified that “such intervention, which seriously infringes on freedom of expression, requires explicit authorization by law. This is permitted only within the context of the permanent arrangement ... a mechanism that’s under the authority of the finance minister.”

Mendelblit also wrote that Regev’s remarks regarding decisions by people in his office and by treasury officials, who she said “chose to ignore the public logic of the principle of freedom of funding,” are inappropriate because their role is to be, inter alia, gatekeepers of the rule of law. Regev has repeatedly argued that while artists are free to create whatever art they want, the government should be free to refuse to fund it if it offends public sensibilities.

Last month the Haifa District Court dismissed a suit by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel against Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem, who removed the McJesus exhibit, which depicts the crucified Christ as Ronald McDonald, from the Haifa Museum. The court ruled that while professionals should determine what content will be displayed in museum exhibitions, the mayor has the authority and duty to prevent offending the city's residents. ACRI then announced that it would appeal to the Supreme Court.

After the ruling in February, Regev wrote to Mendelblit, saying that the ruling backs the approach she’d been championing throughout her term as culture minister: “The message from the ruling is clear and unequivocal. The state and all its arms, including the culture minister, has and must have the authority to intervene and remove content that offends the public’s feelings, so long as we’re talking about public institutions that are owned or funded by the state. This is the ruling we’ve all been waiting for.”

To protest Regev’s letter, some 300 artists wrote to Mendelblit, saying: “The ruling provides an opening to politicians’ intervention in artistic content presented by cultural institutions, an unparalleled danger to the freedom of artistic expression.”