Culture Minister Miri Regev’s threats to make funding contingent upon artistic content, her interference and her direct appeals to cultural institutions and local governments in regard to these issues have no legal foundation, they infringe on freedom of expression and they exceed her powers as a cabinet minister. So ruled Deputy Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Dina Zilber in a legal opinion that she submitted in response to queries from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Nevertheless, the minister continues to scatter threats in every direction and some elements of Israel’s cultural community continue to fear her.
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In at least two cases, Zilber warned that Regev’s efforts — all of which fall under the invented category of “freedom of funding” — could have a “chilling effect” on artistic freedom of expression. And indeed, despite the legal and constitutional barrier, it seems this chilling effect is already being felt on the ground in the form of self-censorship. For instance, just recently, in an unprecedented move, the steering committee of the Acco Festival of Alternative Israeli Theatre twice vetoed performances of “Prisoners of the Occupation,” which is about Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.
Self-censorship is no less dangerous to art than institutional censorship, and in the long run, it also doesn’t pay. As evidence, consider the fact that even though it would be hard to find any political works dealing with the current Israeli situation at the Israel Festival, which opened yesterday, this didn’t allow to it fly under the Culture Ministry’s radar. The minister made threats anyway, against two shows that include full frontal nudity. But as noted, these are empty threats in light of the deputy attorney general’s opinion, which was issued in August 2015 and which clearly forbade conditioning financial support on content.
At a time when many artists and institutions are desperately financially dependent on the Culture Ministry, and when every play or film that the commissars and their agents haven’t yet seen rouses them from their slumber, there’s a fear that at least some key cultural figures will prefer to gag themselves.
One would expect artists and cultural institutions not only to stop being afraid and create political art that will respond courageously to what is happening, but also to raise their voices in protest — like the solidarity shown this week by most of the artists participating in the theater festival in Acre, who announced that they would withdraw unless “Prisoners of the Occupation” was reinstated — and stand firm against the chill winds blowing from the Culture Ministry, which (for now) lack any legal basis.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.