Israel’s Brewing Culture War, Explained

Abigail Cain
Feb 19, 2016 7:58PM

Photo of Miri Regev via; Photo of Naftali Bennett by The Israel Project via Wikimedia Commons.

A culture war is brewing in Israel, and the country’s artistic community appears to be caught in the crossfire. At the end of January, Miri Regev, Israel’s minister of culture and sport, proposed an amendment that would slash government funding for any arts organization not “loyal to the state”—the latest in a series of pressures placed upon artists by the increasingly conservative administration of Benjamin Netanyahu. Here’s what you need to know about deteriorating relationship between Israel’s elected officials and its artists, and how the events of the last month may impact future artistic expression within the country’s borders.

The Backstory

Regev’s proposed legislation—referred to as the “Loyalty in Culture” bill, given that it would allow Regev to defund cultural institutions producing or supporting work deemed subversive—is not the first amendment to Israel’s budget law that puts limits on state money going to the arts. The so-called “Nakba Law,” enacted in 2011, allows the finance ministry to eliminate funding for any group that is considered to be “acting against the principles of the country.” That included commemorating the nakba, an Arabic word meaning “catastrophe” that is used to describe the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes when Israel was founded in 1948.

In the years since the Nakba Law was passed, several have argued that politics in Israel have shifted further to the right. And in an effort to appeal to their conservative voter base, elected officials are making an increasing number of controversial decisions about which cultural endeavors should receive state money. At the forefront of this political movement are two members of the Israeli cabinet: Naftali Bennett, education minister and chairman of the Jewish Home party, and Regev, who is also an up-and-coming member of the right-leaning Likud party.

Regev, who was appointed by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May, wasted no time in cementing her hard-line stance against what she considered unpatriotic cultural institutions. A month after taking office, she warned a theater in Jaffa that its funding would dry up unless the manager, an Israeli-Arab actor, agreed to perform for a settlement in the Jordan Valley. In quick succession, she withdrew state funds to a theater that was staging “Parallel Time,” a play about a Palestinian man in prison for the torture and murder of an Israeli soldier, and reportedly forced the Jerusalem International Film Festival to toss out a film about the man who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by threatening to revoke financial backing for the festival.

At a meeting with representatives from a range of cultural institutions, Regev made her position clear: “I decide the criteria; I can decide which institutions get money. The government doesn’t have to support culture…. The artists will not dictate to me.” Before being elected to the Israeli Knesset, Regev previously served as an IDF Spokesperson and chief military censor.

Those affected quickly rallied to contest these abrupt changes in arts funding. By mid-June, more than 3,000 Israeli artists had signed a petition protesting what they considered “anti-democratic steps” on the part of government officials to limit their freedom of expression. “We...are the voices you are trying to silence,” they wrote. “We hope that Israel will not deteriorate into a country in which artists that express their views are put on a ‘black list.’”

Regev’s supporters argued that this doesn’t qualify as a restriction on free speech, but rather “the logical assertion that the government was not obliged to subsidize demonization of the nation.” State funds should instead be directed towards “restoring a climate that nurtures love of Israel and promotes pride in Jewish heritage.”

Regev responded to the protests by calling the artists “tight assed, hypocritical and ungrateful” in reaction to her attempts to provide state funding for culture.

The Proposed Bill

Although there was a lull following the June protests, sparks began to fly again late last month when Regev proposed her “Loyalty in Culture” bill at a meeting of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee. As Haaretz first reported, the legislation listed specific activities that might lead the ministry to fine cultural institutions or withdraw funding, such as inciting violence or racism, defacing the flag, or denying Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state. Many of these stipulations already exist as part of the Nakba Law, but Regev’s amendment would transfer the power of enforcement from the finance ministry to the culture ministry, substantially raise fines for groups found violating the law, and allow allocated funding to be cancelled before being distributed.

Regev asserts that this would mark the first time support for an arts group truly hinged on its “loyalty” towards the country. “I won’t be an ATM,” she told the New York Times. “I have a responsibility for the public’s money.” Award-winning Israeli poet Meir Wieseltier views the law in a more sinister light; it “brings us closer to the rise of fascism and exposes its true face,” he said.

Shortly after Regev unveiled the proposal, Israeli right-wing group Im Tirtzu posted an online blacklist of 117 left-leaning artists, writers, and performers it alleged were affiliated with “mole organisations that operate with foreign government funding.” The group claimed it published the list—which included acclaimed writers Amos Oz and David Grossman, along with notable playwright Yehoshua Sobol—to support Regev.

Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposing Zionist Union party, denounced the blacklist as “a dirty attempt by McCarthyism to take over Israel.” Even Regev spoke out against Im Tirtzu’s campaign, as did Bennett, who tweeted that its actions were “embarrassing, unnecessary and degrading.”

Public backlash was so intense that the leader of the group voluntarily suspended himself, and the blacklist was taken down. To date, Regev’s loyalty bill remains in limbo—since she presented the amendment to the Knesset in January, it has not come up for consideration by the ministerial committee on legislation. The ministry of finance, which would lose its current authority to deny subsidies to “unloyal” cultural institutions if the bill passed, announced its opposition to Regev’s proposal last week.

Abigail Cain