Israel Increases Oversight of Film Industry, Prompting Cries of McCarthyism, Blacklisting

A committee set up by Israel's culture minister is requesting the names of screenwriters, directors and producers, as well as the names of officials who approved or turned down each script and why.

Culture Minister Miri Regev, left, and the ministry's Galit Wahba-Shasho at the 2016 Israel Festival.
Olivier Fitoussi

The Culture Ministry is asking film foundations to provide information on officials who approved or rejected film proposals in recent years a move one source calls “an attempt to create blacklists.”

"The atmosphere is totally ‘1984,’" added a major figure in the Israeli film industry, while also comparing the move to McCarthyism. "It amounts to a public execution of the Israeli film industry, and that’s no understatement."

The New Fund for Cinema and Television, for example, has already complied to an urgent request to supply information about its approval process for the documentary series “Megiddo,” which tells the story of Palestinians in Israeli prisons for security offenses.

The ministry's request came at the behest of a committee set up by Culture Minister Miri Regev to examine the activity of foundations that support Israel's film industry.

The panel is headed by the chief of the ministry's Culture Administration, Galit Wahba-Shasho. One source says the request regarding "Megiddo" is merely a first step toward increased government oversight of films critical of the government.

“I am obligated to present data from the film foundations' reporting on their activities in various areas over the past five years,” Wahba-Shasho has asked film foundations in a letter.

The committee is not merely requesting information about financial support and the names of screenwriters, directors and producers who received it. The panel wants the names of officials who approved or turned down each script and the reasons why.

The New Fund for Cinema and Television was asked to provide all such information on “Megiddo,” which is being shown on the Yes Docu satellite television provider.

One person familiar with the situation calls it “an attempt to create blacklists and thereby apply unacceptable pressure. With such a database, the Culture Ministry would be able to know just who approved films like ‘5 Broken Cameras,’ ‘The Gatekeepers’ and so on. It’s all about political oversight.”

Another adds, “There’s a difference between an attempt to understand how the foundations work and a demand that would make it possible to know which official approved a certain film. It's unclear what purpose such lists would serve aside from threats and intimidation."

The Culture Ministry is also asking for information about the foundations' managing committees and boards of directors.

In her letter to the film foundations, Wahba-Shasho said the committee was established as part of Regev’s policy “to promote cultural variety and justice in all creative fields, including Israeli cinema.” The committee will also address topics such as the length of tenure for directors at the foundations, management of the foundations and the appointment process for senior positions.

“You can see where the culture minister wants to take this," the major figure in the Israeli film industry told Haaretz, calling Regev's efforts a threat to Israeli democracy.

"She is propelled by the list of recommendations written for her by the Kohelet Policy Forum, which included recommendations to make film approvers employees of the Culture Ministry, to significantly increase the political appointments at the Film Council, and to give the minister the authority to accept appeals regarding films that did not receive support. "

Regev referred to the “Megiddo” inquiry in a letter to the Parents Circle group of bereaved families.

“Since I began in my position I have been working to prevent public support with state funds for activity that disdains, offends and subverts the values and symbols of the State of Israel," she wrote. "I believe with all my heart that Israel's thriving democracy that believes in civil rights, the rule of law and freedom of expression must not support this destructive and harmful activity.”

She said she was discussing the matter with the attorney general, and that “in the case at hand the decision was made by my predecessor Limior Livnat, and the budget was given by the New Fund back in 2014. However, I have formed a committee that is redefining the budgeting rules so as to prevent a recurrence of such instances in the future.”

As Regev put it, “I stand firm in my belief that a distinction must be made between freedom of funding and freedom of expression. Anyone who wants the state’s support ought to uphold its values and symbols.”

Regev noted that she had not seen the episode of the series that has been aired. “Nonetheless, I have instructed that the series be reviewed, and even though it was approved and funded before my time, if it is found to have offensive content, I will use all legal means at my disposal to withdraw the ministry and government’s support.”

Other members of the committee include Professor David Alexander, president of the WIZO Academic Center in Haifa; Nadav Mishali, director of the Ofakim Cinematheque; and Dr. Hani Zubida of Jezreel Valley College.