Israeli Justice Minister Muzzles Official in Clash Over ‘Cultural-loyalty Bill’

Ayelet Shaked says Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber will no longer be able to represent the ministry in the Knesset, where she should be 'running for political office'

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FILE Photo: Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber and Ayelet Shaked in the Knesset, 2014.
FILE Photo: Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber and Ayelet Shaked in the Knesset, 2014. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said Tuesday she would bar Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber from representing the ministry in the Knesset and elsewhere, over her criticism of a bill that aims to deny state funds to cultural institutions deemed disloyal to the state.

Shaked said Zilber had committed a disciplinary violation by expressing a personal view that contradicted the ministry’s position.

In a debate preparing the bill for a second and final vote in the full Knesset, Zilber told the legislature's Education, Culture and Sports Committee on Tuesday that the bill poses some “real difficulties.”

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“Let’s have nothing but obedient attorney generals, artists who are eunuchs, a reined-in media, and people disciplined and educated to all think alike,” Zilber said.

She said Israelis were seeing “not only new legislation but new words: governability, loyalty and overriding” – referring to a bill now shelved that would have let the Knesset override the Supreme Court’s rulings on asylum seekers.

Zilber cautioned against a “they’re-all-against-me” dialogue that “offends and scars our common culture and assigns labels. Who’s on our side, who’s not? If someone can be loyal, does that make others traitors? A fifth column?”

The legislation in play was introduced by Culture Minister Miri Regev with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s support. The measure, which made it through a first vote in the Knesset this week, would let the Culture Ministry cut the budgets of cultural institutions; the Finance Ministry would not be the only ministry that could do so.

Zilber said the authority sought by the bill would have a “chilling effect and lead to self-censorship” in cultural life.

“Culture means a free imagination and beauty, and a plethora of voices of courage and honest and open challenges that don’t simply adapt to the government,” Zilber said.

In a letter to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, Shaked wrote that Zilber admitted that the views she voiced were her personal opinions. Shaked said this contravened the civil service’s regulations requiring employees “to loyally represent the ministry and government's political decisions.”

Shaked said Zilber had made similarly critical comments a month ago, and called them “extreme and divisive remarks against lawmakers and cabinet members.”

Mendelblit’s office said he would closely examine these claims and decide how to respond.

Shaked alleged that Zilber’s “repeated” actions showed that “she doesn’t want to act as a professional and honest legal adviser.”

“There is no choice but to determine that her political views should be expressed by running for political office in one of the parties in the Knesset,” Shaked wrote.

MK Itzik Shmuli (Zionist Union) said in response to Shaked’s letter: “We can always count on our justice minister to be the first to lead an offensive against the gatekeepers trying to protect law and the truth, and the first to be silent and hide when we must face those who try to crush these principles.”

MK Amir Ohana (Likud) urged Shaked to support his bill to make the appointing of the attorney general and legal advisers political appointments.

“Someone like Zilber gets to sit and mock the public and its elected officials, while all we can do is tweet back at her,” Ohana wrote on Twitter.

In the committee meeting where Zilber spoke, the Knesset’s legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, called the “cultural-loyalty bill” an oxymoron that he doubted could “pass the test of constitutionality.”

“An artist and a creator in a democratic country has to be loyal to himself and his work. Loyalty to the country isn’t something that should guide them,” Yinon said.

“By nature, art in a democracy challenges; it’s critical and caustic, sometimes subversive and provocative, and sometimes not amenable to the consensus view, which the artist is trying to challenge.”

Lawmakers advanced the bill in a first vote Monday 55 to 44. Regev read from the works of Palestinian poets Mahmoud Darwish and Dareen Tatour and told the members of the opposition that she was “ashamed of them for defending terrorists.”

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) said “there is no culture if it’s under government control.” MK Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List of Arab parties, said “it’s no surprise that in a government that opposes democracy, the culture minister moves against culture.”

The bill would deny state funds to anyone who denies Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state; incites others to racism, violence or terrorism; supports an armed struggle or terrorism against Israel; marks Independence Day as a day of mourning; or disrespects the flag or other state symbols.

Regev initiated the bill after the Finance Ministry did not enforce legislation such as the so-called Nakba law, which lets the ministry cut state funding to institutions that publicly observe Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning. The ministry’s legal adviser rejected 98 appeals to enforce the Nakba law.

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