The series of steps being taken by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev to influence theater content by withholding funding (or threatening to do so), attests to abandonment of proper notions of artistic freedom of expression in favor of the belief that artistic expression must correspond to the political views of those in power.
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The High Court of Justice has protected freedom of artistic expression numerous times in the past. Most of those instances pertained to censoring movies and plays, during the days when such censorship was in place — (while censorship of plays has since been repealed, not so censorship of films and literature). But those cases, frequently involving plays, are relevant to current decisions as well. When the censor banned Yitzhak Lior’s play, “Efraim Returns to the Army,” which compared the Israeli government to the Nazi regime, Justice Aharon Barak, who experienced the Holocaust as a child, noted in 1987 that although the play pained him greatly, “we are living in a democratic country, in which that pain is the very core of democracy.”
In a judgment in another hearing on the case, then-Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar said the idea that the play review board should set criteria for educational and moral values, banning plays that don’t meet those criteria, does not fit our concepts of legality. The High Court reiterated those principles when it rescinded the censorship of Mohammed Bakri’s film, “Jenin, Jenin.”
Revoking support for theaters or threatening festivals over the content of their shows is just as invalid, as it constitutes government intervention in speech, which must be forbidden except in cases of incitement to racism or violence. The fact that a movie or play depicts people that committed murder does not constitute incitement to violence (according to other court rulings, “hurting feelings” can also possibly justify limiting expression – but only in extreme and rare cases), and it’s doubtful (though I haven’t seen them) that the play, “A Parallel Time” about Arab terrorist Walid Daka, or the film about Yitzhak Rabin’s assasin, Yigal Amir, contain anything that even resembles that kind of incitement.
Because cultural offerings in Israel, like everywhere else, depend on public support, withholding that support is a significant threat to the freedom of artistic expression. Miri Regev’s belief that her party’s 30 Knesset seats allow her to do as she pleases is fundamentally flawed. The funds allocated to cultural offerings belong to the entire public — they do not come from her or her party’s own coffers, and she must not allocate them on the basis of her political views.
Aside from trampling freedom of expression, her actions also reflect poor administrative processes, which should grant any organization a hearing chance revoking its funding. It’s apparent that these rules, as well, were broken in the case of the Al-Midan theater, the Haifa–based company that staged “A Parallel Time.”
Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s decision to remove the play from the list of performances made available to Israeli schools is another example of illegitimate political intervention in professional bodies. It is akin to a decision made by then-Education Minister Zevulun Hammer in 1997 to ban an episode of the television show “Open Cards” about LGBT youth. The High Court struck down that decision, and that’s how the court must respond should Bennett fail to alter his current position, which tramples both freedom of expression, and the decision–making ability of Education Ministry officials who, unlike the minister, are familiar with the various plays and their content.
“A government that burdens itself with the authority to decide what citizens should know ends with it determining what citizens should think; and there is no bigger contradiction to true democracy, which cannot be ‘dictated from on high,’” wrote Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau in 1962. Regev and Bennett should take those words to heart.