Lawmakers Expected to Approve Bill to Defund 'Offensive' Cultural Institutions

If the bill passes, the Culture Ministry would be able to cut funding or even end it entirely for a cultural institution that rejects Israel's identity as a Jewish and democratic state

Moshe Kahlon and Miri Regev
Rami Chelouche

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation is expected to approve a bill on Sunday that would allow Culture Minister Miri Regev to strip cultural institutions of their government funding if the ministry decides they have violated any of five basic principles.

Currently, only the Finance Ministry has this authority, and it has never used it. But Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon supports giving the Culture and Sports Ministry this power as well.

Even if the committee approves the bill, however, it’s not clear that the Knesset will do so as well, primarily because early elections might be called for March 2019. If that happens, the Knesset will probably dissolve in November, leaving a window of only a few weeks for legislation. And that most likely won’t be enough time for the bill to pass all three of the required votes.

If the Knesset did pass the law, the Culture Ministry would be able to cut government funding or even end it entirely for any cultural institution that rejects Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state; incites to racism, violence or terror; supports armed struggle or terrorism; marks Independence Day as a day of mourning; or destroys or denigrates the flag or other state symbols.

Regev submitted the bill because the Finance Ministry has repeatedly refused her requests to use its own power to cut funding to cultural institutions that she feels has committed of one of these acts. She has submitted 98 such requests, but the treasury’s legal advisor rejected all of them.

In the bill’s explanatory notes, Regev wrote, “The principles of freedom of expression and equality don’t mean that the state must finance every type of expression. The state is not obligated to fund activities whose goal is to undermine the basis of its existence. Compliance with the fundamental principles on which the state was founded is a legitimate consideration in handing out funding, and the state is entitled to opt not to fund activities that violate these fundamental principles.”

In August, Regev sent Kahlon an angry letter in which she complained that his ministry was refusing to enforce the law that allows it to cut funding to cultural institutions. She even accused him of working personally to turn the law into a dead letter.

A month earlier, she sent him a letter complaining that “Time after time, I’ve received proof that the stages and screens of state-supported cultural institutions have become the province of political organizations on the extreme left, whose entire purpose is to slander Israel.”

On Thursday, the Israel Democracy Institute sent a legal opinion to all members of the ministerial committee that urged them to shelve the bill. The bill is liable to “severely undermine freedom of expression in a field for which this is the basis of its existence,” the opinion warned. Moreover, it said, this bill could result in art being mobilized on behalf of politicians.

“Putting the decision on compliance with content-related demands in the hands of a politician” undermines democracy, the opinion charged. Moreover, it said, putting this power in the culture minister’s hands would make Israel an outlier among the many Western countries that fund cultural activities.

Last month, Regev and Kahlon published a joint statement about their intent to submit the new bill. They decided to do so after concluding that the tools provided by existing legislation “don’t allow the problem to be dealt with suitably and proportionately, and that the existing law is meaningless and unenforceable.”

The new bill, the statement added, is meant to give the Culture Ministry the tools “to prevent damage to the state’s fundamental values. Freedom of expression is a worthy and important value, but democracy has the right to defend itself.

“Israel has artists who are first-class by international standards and who bring honor to the state and make us all proud,” it continued. “But there’s also a small, radical group that misses no opportunity to incite against the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces. It’s neither right nor appropriate for the state to fund this group.”

The bill says that if the Cultural Ministry’s funding committee, which decides on funding for cultural institutions, concludes that an institution has violated one of the five enumerated principles, it will give the culture minister its findings. The minister will then have to give the institution a hearing before deciding whether to cut its funding.