Following an uproar over an anti-IDF lecture by the left-wing NGO Breaking the Silence at the capital’s Barbur Gallery on Wednesday night, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat abruptly announced the gallery’s owners will be evicted for numerous “zoning violations.”
Breaking the Silence is comprised of veteran IDF soldiers and others who condemn an Israeli presence in the West Bank, as well as purported crimes against Arab residents there. Its executive director, Yuli Novak, planned to delineate alleged IDF abuses to an audience at the gallery.
After right-wing political leaders demanded Novak’s speech be canceled, Barkat issued a statement on Wednesday saying that following a yearlong deliberation by the municipal legal team, it was determined that the owners of the gallery were not authorized to use it as such.
Moreover, Barkat said the building – whose owners reportedly chose not to attend municipal hearings – is municipal property, and must be returned to the city within 90 days.
According to the mayor, the decision is unrelated to the lecture.
Rather, he said, it was reached after city hall’s legal adviser concluded that the gallery’s owners violated zoning laws pertaining to the usage of commercial buildings in the capital, and that it was needed for city use.
“I back the decision of the city’s legal adviser, and regret that the organization has chosen to repeatedly violate the city’s provisions regarding the permissible and prohibited use of urban structures,” said Barkat in a brief statement Wednesday afternoon. “It has no connection to freedom of expression,” he contended. “The municipality needs the structure, and is actively consulting with representatives of the neighborhood about future use.”
Wednesday’s decree followed heated statements denouncing the lecture by Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev (Likud) and Deputy Mayor Dov Kalmanovich, both of whom demanded the mayor intercede, and called for the gallery’s shuttering.
“A gallery that serves as a forum for spreading slanderous lies about IDF soldiers is not art,” said Regev, who asked Barkat to cancel the presentation.
“Freedom of speech is an important value in every society, but it has nothing to do with the funding policies of the state establishment.”
After the decision to evict the gallery’s owners was made, the minister said she called to “applaud” Barkat, who was uniformly denounced by the Left for the seemingly draconian move.
“[The mayor] should not be deterred by the left-wing media attacks for his decision to stop allocating a municipal property to the Barbur Gallery,” she said.
Meanwhile, Kalmanovich called the lecture a “flagrant violation of municipal policy,” and said he would organize a protest if it proceeded.
“It’s unthinkable that a municipal structure taken from the community council should serve as a platform for leftist organizations like ‘Zochrot’ [an NGO that promotes the Arab ‘Nakba’ narrative] and Breaking the Silence,” he told Arutz Sheva.
“This crosses a red line,” Kalmanovich continued. “This building belongs to the residents of Jerusalem, and they do not deserve to have it used as a platform for the executive director of Breaking the Silence, Yuli Novak, who wants to take control of IDF [policy].”
The deputy mayor added: “I hope that the mayor will uphold the law, and if he did not find the conviction until today, he will [still] intervene and put a stop to it. I, as a leader of the religious-Zionist [movement] in Jerusalem, intend to lead the fight [against Novak’s lecture] and to win.”
As of Wednesday night, the lecture was not canceled. At the event, the right-wing NGO Lehava joined protests against the gallery and Breaking the Silence.
The Foreign Ministry plans to reprimand the Belgian ambassador to Israel, Olivier Belle, over his country’s support for Breaking the Silence.
Netanyahu instructed the Foreign Ministry to do so, after discovering that Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel had met with a representative of the left-wing group during his three-day visit to Israel.
“Israel views with utmost gravity Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel’s meeting today with the leaders of Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, during his visit to Israel. Initiatives are under way by the Belgian state prosecutor to try senior Israelis, including [MK] Tzipi Livni [who was foreign minister during the Second Lebanon War] and IDF officers,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.
“The Belgian government needs to decide whether it wants to change direction or continue with an anti-Israel line."
“Prime Minister Netanyahu has directed that legislation be advanced to prevent financing by foreign governments for NGOs that harm IDF soldiers,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.
Breaking the Silence receives funding from European governments such as Belgium.
During his meeting with Michel on Tuesday, Netanyahu asked that Belgium stop funding NGOs that he believes act against Israel’s best interests.
He issued the same request to British Prime Minister Theresa May when the two met in London on Sunday.Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.