In Israel, It’s ‘Loyalty’ or Culture

The government is moving forward with its brutish attempt to gag artists and cultural institutions that provide vital criticism

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Moshe Kahlon and Miri Regev
Moshe Kahlon and Miri RegevCredit: Rami Chelouche
Haaretz Editorial

On Sunday the Ministerial Committee for Legislation is due to discuss the so-called loyalty-in-culture bill proposed by Culture Minister Miri Regev, who seeks to grant herself power to censor Israeli culture. Under the proposal, Regev will be granted the authority to withhold budgets from cultural institutions on several grounds, some of them criminal offenses such as support for terror, incitement to racism and the desecration of state symbols.

But Regev wants to make herself investigator, judge and executor while deciding on her own (after receiving opinions from advisers) when a work or cultural institution “supports terror,” “incites to racism” or “desecrates state symbols.” The other grounds for withholding funding are legal actions such as artistic statements about the Nakba – the Palestinians’ term for the events of the 1947-49 war – and “rejecting the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” – such a vague definition that any culture minister could take advantage of it to censor institutions.

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The disingenuous argument that this is not an attack on freedom of expression but just “withholding funding” stems from the view that state funds are the personal piggy banks of government ministers. If they want to fund, they will; if they don’t, they won’t – all based on political considerations. After all, they have the “freedom to finance.”

But that’s not how things work. Public funding in a democratic country is distributed based on equal criteria in accordance with the law, and not based on criteria that let ministers hand out money based on their political opinions.

Maintaining freedom of speech and artistic freedom are crucial in culture. This bill brings Israel closer to a situation in which only works glorifying the government and its policies receive funding. This state – of art in the name of and subject to political whims – characterizes authoritarian regimes.

The finance minister has similar authority – the so-called Nakba law of 2011. And yet, not only are the proposed powers broader, but the fact that a damaging law that has never been used is already on the books isn’t an excuse to pass an even more harmful law that would grant powers to the minister responsible for culture, of all people. This is a minister who has already announced that she intends to use her power against works that criticize the army or the occupation, or even against works that simply contain nudity – which she calls an offense to “the country’s Jewishness.”

>> Read more: No Nakba, No Boycott: Israeli Minister to Get Power to Crack Down on Cultural Institutions

Despite the smokescreen, this isn’t a bill that would withhold funding from “terrorism supporters” or “people acting against the country.” This is a brutish and blunt attempt to gag cultural institutions and artists that provide criticism. The bill is likely to pass thanks to the embarrassing support of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, contrary to the opinion of his ministry’s legal adviser and despite the misgivings of the attorney general. The government cannot approve this malicious bill.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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