Israel's 'Loyalty in Culture' bill bolsters hard-right demonisation of artists

Israel's 'Loyalty in Culture' bill bolsters hard-right demonisation of artists
Suppressing criticism in the arts is fundamentally anti-democratic, say political scientists and leading figures of the creative industries.
6 min read
06 November, 2018
Attacks on anti-occupation groups such as Breaking The Silence are frequent [Getty]
Tel Aviv prides itself on being Israel's most cosmopolitan city, where a vibrant Hebrew culture flourishes in literature, theatre and the arts.

But the atmosphere last weekend at a gathering of a thousand people, many of them cultural luminaries, outside the Tel Aviv cinemateque, was grim.

These left-wing playwrights, actors and museum directors came to protest the hard-right government's newest anti-democratic foray, popularly known as the "Loyalty in Culture" bill.

"No one should be able to police our productions," Esty Zackheim, a popular movie and television actress told the gathering. "Voices that are uncomfortable for those in power also have to be heard."

The bill empowers the ministry of culture to withhold state funding to productions and institutions that negate the existence of Israel as a "Jewish and democratic" state.

Many in the arts - and in the Israeli opposition more generally - believe that phrase will be broadly defined to silence criticism of the 51-year-old occupation of the West Bank and of the ultranationalist policies of the government.

Culture Minister Miri Regev, a former army spokeswoman and military censor, counters that while freedom of expression is a "guiding light" for the government, the bill is needed to combat "incitement" in cultural productions. Most Israeli cultural output relies on state funds from taxpayer money.

The bill, which passed its first reading in the Knesset on Monday night by 55 votes to 44, and which is well on its way to becoming law, is far from the only step that appears aimed at silencing criticism or boosting nationalism at the expense of democratic governance.

These two tendencies combine to make Israel, always a hybrid between a democracy and a Jewish ethnic state, very much a part of the worldwide trend of governments shifting rightwards and away from liberal values.

"You can't maintain an oppressive system in the occupied territories and not suppress the natural criticism that will come from doing that," says Galia Golan, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv.

"But when you try to suppress the natural criticism you are basically taking away the mainstays of democracy."

"You've got a government that doesn't really value democracy," she added, referring to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's coalition. "They say there are all kinds of degrees of democracy. It's scary. When you take away rights of citizens, you no longer have democracy."

Supporters of the government say democracy is not being harmed and that the bill is warranted. Amir Ohana, a Likud member of the Knesset and co-sponsor of the bill, told a television interviewer last month:

"Israel is a democracy and is liberal and you can stage a production that terms Israel 'evil incarnate'. But don't ask for government money for this."

He added that the bill was important to protect Israel's image abroad, where Israeli films are often screened. "Funding those who libel Israel and blacken its image and make a case against us is sick," he said.

But drying up movies that criticize cannot camouflage the deterioration underway. In July, the government spearheaded the nation-state law that for the first time formally defines Arabs as second-class citizens. It specifies the promotion of settlement for Jews - rather than "Israeli citizens" - as a cardinal value, and paved the way for heightened discrimination.

In recent years, government ministers and right-wing Knesset members have often launched verbal attacks against Arab citizens, the anti-occupation veterans group Breaking the Silence - which has been banned from entering schools - and the New Israel Fund, a charity which promotes progressive causes.

Invariably the stated accusation or implication is that these targets are traitors. The Anti-Boycott Law, first passed in 2011 and partially upheld by the supreme court in 2015, makes anyone who calls for a boycott of settlement products liable to be sued if it is determined that this caused economic damage.

Presently, the education minister, Naftali Bennett, is vowing to cut off funding to universities because their presidents are refusing to accept a university in the illegal Ariel settlement in the occupied West Bank as a member of an inter-university board.

With the "Loyalty in Culture" bill, artists and cultural personalities are now being branded as traitors, says Roy "Chicky" Arad, a poet and author who helped found Maayan, an independent poetry and culture magazine.

Israeli culture is in fact not particularly critical of the government and the occupation, says Arad. But artists and producers make a convenient enemy for Regev, the culture minister, to score points with her right-wing Likud party constituency.

"The idea is to mark the artists as traitors," says Arad. "The government is looking for traitors and wants to say that those who are betraying the country are the Tel Avivians, the leftists, the artists and the Arabs. This is something the right loves to do and it helps them in their election primaries and for their internal needs."

The bill also calls for cutting funds to cultural institutions that incite to racism, violence or terrorism, support armed struggle, harm national symbols or mark Israeli independence day as a day of mourning.

This final point will likely hit the cultural institutions of the Arab minority, which on the day Israel celebrates its independence instead commemorate the 1948 Nakba, or catastrophe, of displacement - in which 700,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes by violence or fear of violence during the creation of the state of Israel.

Although a similar provision exists in a law passed in 2011 by the Knesset, known as the Nakba Law, in practice finance ministers have opted not to withhold funds. Under the new bill, that power will be transferred to Regev.

Said Abu Shakra, director of the art museum in the northern city of Umm al-Fahm, is worried. "My concern is that I will have to work under conditions that put a stop to creativity," he said.

"The moment you limit the artists, the work becomes devoid of content and then our institution loses its content. I want us to have content and clear statements, without censorship. When censorship interferes, the art doesn't respect itself."

Regev's track record does not inspire optimism. Two years ago, she stormed out of Israel's version of the Oscars while verses by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish were read out - because his poems object to a Jewish state.

Early this year, Regev reacted furiously against the award winning Israeli film Foxtrot, in which soldiers in the West Bank cover up their killing of the Palestinian passengers of a car. Regev admitted she hadn't seen the film but that did not stop her from accusing it of "slandering" the army.

Last month, Regev asked the finance ministry to review the funding of the Haifa International Film Festival due to the screening of "subversive" movies, the Times of Israel reported.

At the Tel Aviv protest, there was a musical interlude when singer-songwriter Arik Eber, appearing at first with his mouth taped shut, began singing his new song, Meanwhile.
Its words reflect fear of impending censorship: "Meanwhile I can say what I want and no one can shut me up. What worries me is the word meanwhile, meanwhile, meanwhile."

"When is it the right time to start to worry?" he continued.  "And when is it too late? Maybe I'm just an eccentric rambler and there's nothing to be afraid of. Meanwhile." 

Ben Lynfield is a journalist currently based in Jerusalem.