Israel's Nationalistic 'Loyalty in Culture' Bill Passes Legal Test

Bill gives Culture Minister Miri Regev power to cut funding for cultural activities that 'contravene the principles of the state.'

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Miri Regev, center, at a meeting of the Knesset Education Committee in Jerusalem, January 27, 2016.
Miri Regev, center, at a meeting of the Knesset Education Committee in Jerusalem, January 27, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has given a green light to a restricted version of the so-called “loyalty in culture” bill initiated by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, the Justice Ministry announced Wednesday.

The bill, an amendment to the Culture and Arts Law, would give the culture minister the authority to retroactively suspend funding for cultural activities that “contravene the principles of the state,” similar to the authority already granted to the finance minister.

Mendelblit, however, did not agree to allow works to be reviewed in advance as a condition for obtaining government funding; nor is he allowing the ministry to deny full funding to groups that refuse to appear in certain locations such as the West Bank settlements.

The bill will be brought before the Ministerial Committee on Legislation in three weeks, and Regev intends to have it pass its first reading before the Knesset breaks for its spring recess at the end of March.

Mendelblit agreed to an arrangement very similar to Section 3b of the Budget Foundation Law, which permits a retroactive budget reduction for “actions against the principles of the state.” That section lists the following grounds: “Denying the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; incitement to racism, violence, and terror; support for an armed struggle or terror act by a hostile country or terror organization against the State of Israel; marking Independence Day as a day of mourning; an act of vandalism or physical degradation that dishonors the country’s flag or state emblem.”

Currently the Culture Ministry has no authority to condition support for cultural institutions on the content they present. For example, when Regev appointed a panel to examine whether the films at the Nakba Film Festival at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque were violating the law, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber told her she had no authority to make recommendations to the Finance Ministry to withhold funding or fine the cinematheque.

However Mendelblit did not okay the text that Regev wanted. He denied her initial proposal to allow the culture minister to review the work of an artist or institution before it was allotted funding, saying such sanctions could only be applied after the fact, and that the Culture Ministry would have to consult with the Israel Council for Culture and the Arts before making any such decision.

The Justice Ministry announcement also stated that Mendelblit had rejected the ministry’s request for an arrangement to prevent “discrimination based on geographic location,” which would permit a full denial of funding to institutions that refused to perform in specific places. Mendelblit did, however, agree to allow the criteria for support to include “a small and limited” funding reduction to any group that refused to perform in the Negev, the Galilee, or the settlements.

“In accordance with the attorney general’s position, this reduction will not apply if the refusal to appear stems from exceptional security circumstances, the lack of a proper space to stage the performance, or any other relevant and justified reason,” the Justice Ministry announcement said, adding that the reduction could be no more than 6 percent, and even that was subject to the institution being given a chance to present its reasoning first.

Regev, in a press statement, said she’s “proud and happy to announce that a cultural institution that subverts the state will not enjoy its support. For the first time, the Culture Ministry, which is responsible for funding cultural institutions, also gets the required authority to assure that cultural institutions are not above the law. I thank the Justice Ministry for allowing me to implement my policy under which the voice that permits is also the voice that forbids. It’s a great achievement for democracy that the elected government has freedom of funding, the freedom to choose what the State of Israel will finance, based on its laws, principles, and policy.”

Adalah, an Israeli Arab legal rights NGO, said the bill would harm numerous artists, “but particularly those from the Arab population, whose political opinion does not match the minister’s views or the political line of the government. The minister’s proposal essentially gives heavy and preferred weight to the ideological and political views of the artist requesting support, over the content of the work itself.”

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