Israel Pulls Funding From Jewish-Arab Festival in Haifa a Day Before It Opens

An Israeli government ministry claims that the Haifa Story Festival was not aimed at people from marginalized communities in Israel, and therefore doesn't merit funding allocated to events that cater to disadvantaged groups

Haifa’s Beit Hagefen Arab-Jewish cultural center, 2007.
Doron Golan

A day before the opening of a Jewish-Arab cultural festival that opened Thursday in Haifa, a government ministry informed the municipality that it was withdrawing state funding for the event.

The Ministry for the Development of the Periphery, the Negev and the Galilee argued that the Haifa Story Festival is open to the public at large and not only to people from marginalized communities, or the periphery, Haaretz has learned.

Publicity materials promoting the event stated that it was directed at “residents of the peripheral neighborhoods of the city.”

The term periphery in Israel is frequently applied to geographically outlying parts of the country but also sometimes refers to disadvantaged populations in the country’s urban centers. The ministry withdrew the funding although it had funded the festival in 2016 and in 2017 and despite the fact that plans for this year’s event were similar to previous years and directed toward the same audience.

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The ministry announced its decision on Wednesday, a day before the festival’s opening on Thursday. A source told Haaretz that the actual reason that the ministry pulled its funding commitment was over political disagreements, adding that funding was withdrawn even though the ministry’s sponsorship already appeared on promotional materials for the event.

“What’s sad in this case is that extremists in Israeli society have managed to influence the thinking and decisions of government ministries in a way that is not on point,” the source said.

The main theme of this year’s festival, which ran through Monday of this week, was “Haifa identity activism.” The programs included tours exploring the LGBTQ community in Haifa and the labor movement in the northern coastal city, as well as an event entitled “Who’s afraid of Palestinian identity?”

During its first five years, the festival was entirely independent, but for the past three years, it has been sponsored by the Haifa Municipality and Haifa’s Beit Hagefen Arab-Jewish cultural center. Last year and the year before, as noted, it was also supported by the ministry.

“After the Haifa Municipality got approval for the publicity and the festival from the ministry, we brought it to fruition,” Asaf Ron, the director of Beit Hagefen, told Haaretz. “The municipality will submit [its] report according to the rules, and we hope and believe that the funds will be transferred.”

When asked by Haaretz what would happen if the ministry’s funding does not come through, Ron said he expects that the Haifa Municipality would take legal action.

For its part, the Haifa Municipality issued a statement saying: “At the two festivals prior to this year as well as this year, the participants are from the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood and adjacent neighborhoods that are considered the social periphery. The Haifa Municipality is not able to stand and check the identity cards of those coming to the festival and bar admission to those who are not from those neighborhoods.”

An event at Beit Hagefen featuring famous author Sami Michael.
Beit Hagefen

The municipality called it “inconceivable” that the municipality would announce a day before the event that it was withdrawing funding from a program that the municipality said was the same as the prior two years. The municipality said it would take steps to collect the 70,000 shekels ($19,400) in funding from the ministry if it is not paid.

The Ministry for the Development of the Periphery, the Negev and the Galilee stated: “[The ministry] is constantly working to strengthen the culture in the social and geographic periphery, and in light of that, from time to time it invites requests for funding from local governments. The Haifa Municipality submitted a request to hold a Haifa Story Festival event for the residents of peripheral neighborhoods of the city. It should be made clear that the municipality knew that approval of advertising does not constitute confirmation that the other criteria in the request for proposals were met. In examining [the program] close to the time for the event, it transpired that the municipality’s request does not meet the conditions of the request for proposals and the event will therefore not be funded by the ministry.”

This isn’t the first time that the government has sought to prevent funding for an event at Beit Hagefen, and has also sought to head off programming. In July, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev approached Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav seeking to prevent a protest event against the controversial nation-state law from being held at Beit Hagefen.

Regev said at the time that she opposed public cultural institutions receiving ministry funding from hosting political events and that such institutions that “grant a platform to incitement and harm to our [national] symbols, values and our very existence” should be denied funding.

Mayor Yahav refused Regev’s request and the event went ahead as planned. Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber responded by saying that municipal governments are not authorized to interfere with the content of public activities and must give equal access to any event that seeks to rent space from them.