Ministry's Bid to Fine Israeli Artists Who 'Boycott' Settlements Taken to Court

Rights group petitions against funding criteria that would reward institutions that perform in the settlements and penalize those that don't.

Moti Milrod

New Culture Ministry regulations that give financial incentives to cultural institutions that perform in the settlements while penalizing those that don’t is illegal and violates freedom of conscience and expression, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel claims, in a petition it has filed with the High Court of Justice.

ACRI is demanding that the High Court hear the petition before the ministry’s budget allocations to institutions are set for 2017. Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran instructed the ministry to respond by November 28.

The criteria for government support for theaters, orchestras and dance troupes signed by Culture Minister Miri Regev in April includes a weighted “location of runs” clause that gives an extra 10 percent allocation for appearing in the territories, while reducing the allocation by 33 percent for not performing in the West Bank, Negev or the Galilee.

In June, cultural institutions received a form on which they were to declare whether they perform in all three regions or if they avoid doing so. The form incensed several directors of cultural institutions, but the Culture Ministry’s legal adviser, Hadas Farber-Almogi, said in a legal opinion that the form was balanced and does not undermine the rights or freedom of conscience of individual artists within the institutions.

The ACRI petition is the second that has been filed with the High Court against the new funding criteria. In June, the Israel Culture and Arts Forum withdrew a petition when the High Court refused to intervene. The new petition, filed by attorney Dan Yakir, argues that both the incentive and the penalty equally undermine freedom of expression.

“Allocations are a ‘zero-sum game,’” the petition states. “After the points are assigned according to the support tests, the result is not an absolute sum in shekels but a number that represents a percentage of the total support for that field. As a result, giving one entity a bonus means increasing the bonus receiver’s share of the pie, which also means reducing the others’ share of the pie.

“Giving a bonus to all those entities that appeared in the West Bank and increasing their share of the funding pie, means reducing the portion of those who didn’t appear in the West Bank and lessening their share of the pie, that is, reducing support for them,” according to the petition, which argues that the bonus and sanctions are based on “conditions of a clearly political nature, that aim to direct behavior relating to one of the issues that is at the heart of the political debate in Israel.”

In response to the Culture Ministry legal adviser’s claim that the funding criteria are consistent with the provisions of the Anti-Boycott Law, (which allows anyone who feels they’ve been harmed by a boycott against Israel or the territories to sue for compensation), ACRI argues that while the law applies to situations of “boycotting,” the funding criteria refer to “avoiding” performances. “The law allows imposing sanctions only on someone who issues a public call to boycott or who commits to participate in a boycott, while the criteria undermine support for anyone who ‘avoids’ appearing in the territories, even if it’s a private act that isn’t made public or meant to influence others,” the petition states. Under the boycott law, ACRI argues, for a person or entity to participate in a boycott is not a civil violation or grounds for administrative sanctions, including the withholding of financial support. ACRI also argues that the funding criteria essentially circumvent the boycott law and enable support to be reduced by a ministry committee with no oversight by the Knesset or other external entity.

Moreover, said ACRI, the criteria undermine the right to equality. “Entities that deliberately refrain from appearing in the territories will be harmed by this negative rule, but so will entities that simply couldn’t manage to appear in the territories for such prosaic reasons as lack of demand or the absence of appropriate venues for staging performances, because they will not get the bonus given to entities that appeared there. This is not just undermining the right to equality using a geographic criterion, but also on political grounds. While criteria are meant to preserve neutrality [these] set a price tag that benefits those who hold the political beliefs that prevail in the halls of government and penalizes those who eschew that position.”

In response to the petition Regev said, “It’s no surprise that the Association for Civil Rights in Israel is petitioning against giving equal rights to citizens – meaning, of course, certain very specific citizens. This petition will be rejected. Israeli citizens who live in Judea and Samaria are not second-class and I will not allow any discrimination against them. These changes are part of a broad policy of cultural justice, and have been through an orderly public and legal process.”

The Culture Ministry said, “This is a general arrangement intended for a worthy purpose – to ensure that the subsidy budget for culture and art will be used for rich and varied culture and arts activities for the benefit of all Israeli citizens, and will be accessible to all citizens no matter where they live.”