Nationality and Nudity: The Fiery Israeli Government Debate Over Censoring Art, Exposed

EXCLUSIVE: A behind-the-scenes look at the high-level discussion that devolved into a shouting match

Einat Weitzman and Hassan Murad in 'Shame.'
Gadi Dagon

Sunday’s meeting between the culture minister and attorney general, which produced decisions that could lose cultural institutions state funding for productions featuring nudity or for renting halls to groups violating the so-called Nakba Law, was a tense one that repeatedly degenerated into shouting.

Several sources described what happened at the meeting, whose participants, in addition to Miri Regev and Avichai Mendelblit, included deputy attorneys general Raz Nizri and Dina Zilber, and Finance Ministry legal adviser Asi Messing. The meeting was first reported on by the daily Israel Hayom.

The sources said Regev burst out shouting at various points during the discussion and repeatedly assailed Zilber and Messing, but Mendelblit didn’t say a word in Zilber’s defense. Ultimately, he adopted most of Regev’s proposals despite his deputy’s objections.

Regev opened by describing her recent visit to New York, where a controversy had erupted over a performance of “Julius Caesar” in which the assassinated Caesar was made up to look like U.S. President Donald Trump. Regev said she met with a member of the committee that allocates funds to municipal productions and was told “they can refuse to fund what doesn’t suit their values.”

“They don’t have Dina Zilber there,” she added.

Culture Minister Miri Regev.
Ilan Assayag

“Here we had a noose,” chimed in another ministry official, referring to an installation at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design that showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being hanged.

Regev then demanded that cultural institutions lose their state funding if they violate the Nakba Law, which prohibits activities that reject Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state; incite to racism, violence or terror; express support for an armed struggle against Israel; treat Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning; or desecrate the Israeli flag. By law, the finance minister can defund institutions that violate this law, but Regev charged that the treasury simply ignores complaints filed over this issue.

Messing said the treasury opposes giving the Culture Ministry the power to become “a kind of performance police.” He also said he can’t remember any case in which the ministry provided evidence that the Nakba Law had been violated.

“I’m not willing to be made a laughingstock,” Regev retorted. “I have 20 complaints about the Jaffa Theater. They claim there are radical organizations in the Jaffa Theater that call for boycotting Israel.”

Mendelblit said that when a complaint is received, it should be sent to the treasury, and the government must then send representatives to see the production and make a decision.

“Dina Zilber doesn’t let me do that,” Regev said. “I want to receive complaints and have professionals look into them. That’s what she doesn’t let me do.”

Mendelblit then promised that Regev would get a response within a week of passing a complaint on to the treasury.

Zilber stressed that such complaints can’t be filed before a production is staged, but only after someone has actually seen it performed.

“So how will I prevent an event involving incitement against the army in advance?” Regev asked.

“How do you know it’s an event involving incitement?” Zilber replied. “Because someone told you it’s left-wing?”

“That’s why I want to check,” Regev said.

After receiving Mendelblit’s promise of a one-week response time, Regev moved the discussion to another issue. Some cultural institutions, she charged, circumvent the Nakba Law by renting their halls to other organizations, which then host events there that violate this law.

Citing the Tel Aviv Cinematheque in particular, Regev said she didn’t want it hosting events that, for instance, encouraged people to refuse to do military service.

“Every place I put a single shekel, I’m involved; I, as the state, am a partner,” she added. “What do I do when others don’t respect what the state believes in?”

She then shouted at Zilber, “Help we with this! How are you helping me? If someone incites against the state and does something criminal, I’m party to the crime.”

On this issue, Mendelblit overrode both Zilber and Nizri to side with Regev. Noting that cultural organizations can’t circumvent the ban on their engaging in partisan politics by renting their premises to political parties, he said they similarly shouldn’t be allowed to circumvent the Nakba Law by renting their premises to groups that violate it.

“We’ll work with you and the Interior Ministry to amend the regulations,” he promised Regev. “The state-funded organization must take responsibility and pay for third-party violations.”

But when Regev mentioned the left-wing NGO B’Tselem, Mendelblit retorted, “Enough with this B’Tselem; I’m not categorically disqualifying B’Tselem. But if you rent to Hamas, which stages a show against Israel’s existence, you should take responsibility. I see this as logical.”

Financial sanctions, he added, are less draconian than the alternative, which is closing the venue down.

Finally, Regev raised the issue of full nudity in productions. Back in May, she sought to defund such productions at the Israel Festival, saying full nudity “violates the basic values of the Israeli public and of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Mendelblit replied that it’s hard to draw the line between artistic nudity and pornographic nudity. “I don’t want to be backed into this corner,” he said. “I don’t know how to defend it. You have to fund even art you don’t like.”

Regev responded that she once saw a dance performance in which the dancer lay on the floor and performed intercourse. “In my view, that isn’t art. Why do I need to fund it?”

“If it’s an event degrading the female body, that’s different,” Mendelblit said. Zilber added, “It depends on the context,” citing a show featuring naked Holocaust survivors as an example of one that might be unacceptable.

But Mendelblit stressed that he wouldn’t and couldn’t defend a blanket ban on full nudity in court. “The state shouldn’t support pornography or degrading woman’s bodies,” he said. “But I don’t think full nudity automatically goes there.”

Yigal Ezrati, director of the Jaffa Theater, told Haaretz, “The request that I investigate the content of an event hosted by someone I rent to won’t stand up in court. It’s ridiculous.”