Israeli Culture Minister's Distorted Understanding of Democracy

A culture minister who demands the cessation of funding because certain cultural activities contradict the leaders’ worldview fails to understand democracy and cannot serve in this post.

Olivier Fitoussi

Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat has asked the Finance Ministry to explore the possibility of cutting off government funding to the Tel Aviv Cinematheque because this weekend it is to host, for the second time, “48 mm: International Festival on Nakba and Return.” The film festival is organized by Zochrot, a Tel Aviv-based nonprofit that seeks to promote awareness among Israelis of the nakba, or catastrophe, the term Palestinians use for the state’s founding in 1948. Cinematheque director Alon Garbuz said the festival will be held regardless, that it is funded by Zochrot and that the Culture Ministry’s contribution to the cinematheque’s operating budget was in any case relatively small.

Livnat should be reminded of the principles of state support for cultural institutions in democratic states, even if efforts are made to subordinate this democracy to the principles of Judaism. The role of a culture ministry in a democracy is not to create culture, but rather only to see to sufficient public funding to support the institutions and artists who do so while guaranteeing that these resources are shared equitably, without discrimination or political favoritism.

Public spending on culture in Israel is a minuscule fraction of the state budget (less than .0005 percent), when the minimum that is considered reasonable is one percent. The culture minister does not raise her voice to protest the meager funding for culture. But she has repeatedly called for stripping culture institutions of the tiny amounts allotted to them. For example, threatening to take funding from theater companies that avoid performing in the settlement of Ariel, demanding that a director return public funding for her film because it was submitted to an international festival as a Palestinian movie film and repeatedly reprimanding creative figures for failing to represent Israel in accordance with Livnat’s own vision.

This conduct joins the legislative initiatives that are threatening to eliminate the aspiration for equality in Israel, and expresses a distorted understanding of the principle of freedom of speech — one of the hallmarks of a democratic state, the government of which supports cultural endeavors but does not interfere with their content. In four days, in accordance with a law passed this year, Israel will commemorate the flight of Jews from Arab countries and Iran will be marked. Does the culture minister believe that Israel’s Arab citizens have no history worth noting, even with cultural events, and that the nakba is not an important part of this history?

A culture minister who demands the cessation of funding because certain cultural activities contradict the leaders’ worldview of those in power does not understand the meaning of culture in a democratic state and cannot serve in this important post.