Israeli Court Rejects Petition to Restore Gov't Funding to Controversial Arab Theater

Funds for the Al-Midan Theater were first suspended in 2015, the same year it put on a production of a play inspired by a convicted Palestinian terrorist

The Al-Midan Theater in Haifa.
Rami Shllush

The High Court of Justice denied a petition on Monday filed by an Arab theater challenging the Culture Ministry’s decision to halt funding. The Al-Midan Theater claims the cutoff is a response to the production of a play inspired by the story of a convicted Palestinian terrorist.

Justice Hanan Melcer said he found no grounds to interfere in professional judgment of an internal ministry committee that decided to cut off government funding to the theater in Haifa, which made headlines in 2015 over a play that it produced, “A Parallel Time,” which critics claimed glorified Palestinian terrorism.

The play was based on the writings of Walid Daka, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who was convicted of involvement in the abduction and murder of Israeli soldier Moshe Tamam in 1984 and sentenced to life in prison.

>> Read more: Self-censoring and ignoring the occupation: The grim state of Israeli theater | Opinion 

In February of 2018, a ministry committee wrapped up a review of the theater’s operations for the years 2016 and 2017 and concluded that the ministry’s annual support of 1.1 million shekels ($312,000) for Al-Midan should be halted because the theater did not meet the minimum criteria for funding. The ministry criteria required that eligible theaters produce 100 performances a year, yet Al-Midan only mounted a handful of performances. The theater claimed that its reduced operations were the result of the ministry’s suspension of funding over the production of “A Parallel Time.”

“Justice has come to light. Al-Midan is not a theater and hasn’t been one in recent years,” said Culture Minister Miri Regev in response to the ruling. “Al-Midan has been a home that has given a platform to inciters against the Israeli army and the State of Israel, its symbols and values, and has occupied itself with incitement and not art. State funding and the taxpayers are not up for grabs and the right to receive it is conditioned on meeting the basic definition of what is considered a theater in Israel.”

Al-Midan's Artistic Director Amer Hlehel at a conference on freedom of expression in Tel Aviv, 2017.
Moti Milrod

It was a mistake, Regev said, to call Al-Midan a theater, when it was actually what she called “a center for performances about the Nakba and graduates of terrorism.”

The Nakba, “catastrophe” in Arabic, is what Palestinians refer to the events around the period of the Israeli War of Independence when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes.

“The [ministry panel’s] decision is in within the domain of the judgment conferred on it as a professional entity, and under the circumstances, it appears reasonable, reasoned and based on data that the [theater] itself provided,” Justice Melcer ruled. For her part, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut said the data presented showed that low level of activity the following year was not the result the delay in the funding.

“The decision is difficult but we accept and respect the High Court decision, despite the fact that we don’t agree with the ruling,” the theater’s chairman, Joseph Atrash, told Haaretz. “We will consider our [next steps] and where we go from here.”

The Culture Ministry said that theater had sufficient funds at its disposal to mount productions that it did not produce “as a matter of choice.” But the theater said the scope of its operations dropped in 2016 because of the delay in the transfer of ministry funding the year before over the controversy regarding “A Parallel Time.”

In June of 2015, after the ministry suspended the transfer of funds, the theater filed an earlier petition to the High Court. That case was settled about a year later in an agreement that was to pave the way to a resumption of funding. The terms of the settlement provided that if the suspension of funding affected the theater’s operations, the drop in the scope of the productions at Al-Midan would not be taken into consideration when it came to the ministry’s funding criteria for 2016 and 2017.

In 2011, the Knesset passed a law barring entities that receive state funds from financing activities that deny the existence of Israel as the state of the Jewish people or its democratic character, vandalism or physical contempt for the Israel flag or state symbol, or marking Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning. The law authorizes the state to withhold funding from institutions that hold such events.

Authority to deprive institutions of funding is given to the finance minister under the law. Last year, Regev was unsuccessful in having a bill passed that would have given her, as culture minister, that authority.