Israel Budgets $114 Million to Closing Arts and Culture Gap in Arab Community

The Culture Ministry's plan includes establishing a repertory theater, an art museum, a cinematheque and schools for the arts, in addition to adding thousands of Arab community structures to the historic sites registry

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The British Mandate-era school building in Kalansua, which has been surveyed for preservation, on Thursday.
The British Mandate-era school building in Kalansua, which has been surveyed for preservation, on Thursday.Credit: Amir Levy
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

For the first time, Israel's Culture and Sports Ministry will be establishing cultural institutions in Israel’s Arab community. The ministry’s plans call for a new repertory theater, an art museum, a cinematheque, a school for dramatic arts as well as music schools and art galleries.

According to a detailed work plan from the ministry, these institutions are expected to open their doors late this year. The plan, which was spurred by an October cabinet resolution to bridge the gaps in Israel's Arab communities, also includes the country's first survey of sites meriting historic preservation in Arab towns and villages.

Such a survey was recently completed in the north, and identified thousands of historic sites. In the coming weeks, similar surveys will be completed in the country's center and south. “Up until now, there hadn’t been state support for the preservation of Arab sites, but rather for neglect and exclusion,” Prof. Mustafa Kabha of the Open University said.

In order to enter the registry of structures for conservation, it must be of historical and architectural value and built after 1700 – earlier sites are under the purview of the Israel Antiquities Authority. So far, most sites recognized for conservation have been in Jewish communities. Beyond identifying and preparing for conservation, some of the sites – mainly historic structures that were used by Palestinians before the establishment of the state – will be restored and house cultural institutions, with an earmarked budget of 63 million shekels.

The overall plan, for which the ministry has published a general outline, allocates about 365 million shekels ($114 million) in government funding for cultural institutions in the Arab community over the next five years. The government will not use the usual bidding process; the prerequisites for such financial support are generally geared toward institutions in the Jewish community. In an effort to overcome the institutional problem this poses, the ministry decided to issue a series of invitations for bids that will be open to local governments and nonprofits, who will compete for approval to establish various state-backed cultural institutions in the Arab community.

The first call for bids is for establishing an Arabic-language repertory theater. The state has not funded an Arab theater since 2015, when then-Culture Minister Miri Regev halted support for Haifa's Al-Midan Theater for its production of "A Parallel Time," a play about Walid Daka, who was given a life sentence for kidnapping and murdering an Israeli soldier in 1984.

Culture Ministry Director General Raz Frohlich is taking an opposite approach. “We must not intervene in content,” he told Haaretz. “We provide the funding based on criteria that are unrelated to content. We have no interest in content, and that’s deliberate. It shouldn’t change based on a change of government,” he said.

Additional invitations for bids are expected to be issued in the coming weeks. The successful bidders will be announced in the final quarter of the year, and the institutions are expected to begin operations shortly after that. That budget stands at 113 million shekels (about $35 million), coming from existing ministry funding and additional sums from a five-year plan.

While theater is thriving in the Arab community, albeit not supported by the state and on a smaller scale, "The Arab community has no institutions like an art museum, a cinemateque or a school for the dramatic arts," a source involved in the plan said. "We’re building something completely new.”

The five-year program also includes significant strengthening of the Academy of the Arabic Language, which was established in 2008 and has worked on a limited basis due to budgetary restrictions. Its funding is to increase from half a million shekels a year to five times that amount.

In the context of the Nation-State Law, which states that Hebrew is Israel’s national language and that Arabic has only “special status,” according to Kabha, who is president of the Academy for the Arabic Language. “The upgrading of the Academy of the Arabic Language conveys a different message. The law degraded the status of the Arabic language. Strengthening the academy is support of coexistence, genuinely, rather than with slogans."

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