Defunded for Politics, Israeli Arab Theater Reaches Deal With State

Attorney general told culture minister that he would be hard pressed to defend funding cut-off of Al-Midan theater due to freedom of expression issues.

Culture Minister Miri Regev in the Knesset during the preliminary vote on a private member's bill to repeal the Book Law, Mar. 23, 2016. Regev stands at the podium in the Knesset plenum.
Emil Salman

The Culture Ministry and the Al-Midan Theater signed an agreement Tuesday under which the ministry’s financial support for the Haifa theater, which was cut off last June amid claims of political activism, will resume.

Al-Midan petitioned the High Court of Justice against the funding cut-off in October. At the same time, the parties negotiated out of court.

Under the agreement, which was submitted to the court Tuesday, Al-Midan will get the full one million shekels ($260,000) it should have gotten for 2015, and will get the same amount in the coming years. However, it will pay the ministry a 300,000-shekel fine, to be spread out over the next four years.

The agreement also stipulates that neither side admits to the other’s charges against it. For instance, the ministry had accused Al-Midan of “political and party activity” that violated government funding regulations, and also of “administrative problems.” But while the agreement does state that Al-Midan is obligated “to correct any deficiencies in its management to date,” the preamble makes clear that this doesn’t constitute an admission that such deficiencies actually existed.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has been urging Culture Minister Miri Regev to reach a settlement, saying he would be hard-pressed to defend the funding cut-off because it related to issues of freedom of expression. Regev claimed yesterday that he essentially forced her to sign the deal.

Regev originally halted Al-Midan’s funding largely because it staged the play “A Parallel Time,” which was based on the writings of Walid Daka, a Palestinian who kidnapped and murdered an Israeli soldier. But the ministry subsequently accused it of financial irregularities and of renting its premises to political organizations.

David Bachar

According to a report by the terror victims association Almagor, the theater hosted, inter alia, a conference in support of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in 2009 and one in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2012.

The Haifa municipality also cut off funding to Al-Midan, about a month before the ministry did. But it restored the funding in November after the theater took it to court as well.

Since losing its funding, Al-Midan has virtually ceased to operate, and most of its workers were fired or quit. 

Last August, two deputy attorneys general ruled that the ministry couldn’t cease funding a theater because of what it chose to stage. Thus, the parties have been focused since then on resolving the allegation of financial irregularities.

In its High Court petition, Al-Midan accused Regev of exceeding her authority, both by freezing the theater’s funding without granting it a hearing and by freezing it for political reasons – namely, her objection to “A Parallel Time.” In a brief submitted to the court in January, the ministry denied that the play had anything to do with its decision, which it said was based solely on concerns that the theater had violated government funding regulations.

Though the agreement makes no mention of “A Parallel Time,” Haaretz has learned that Al-Midan plans to stage the show again next month.