Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Undeterred by previous setbacks in her campaign to become Israel’s all-powerful cultural czarina, Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev recently introduced a bill that would grant her the authority to censor cultural expressions she deems disloyal to the state, by denying them public funding.
The usual suspects – leftist artists, writers and their ilk – responded with immediate condemnation of this attempt to trash the freedom of speech, while the cheerleaders of Israeli McCarthyism, such as the extremeright- wing Im Tirtzu organization, gloated on the far periphery of what is becoming less and less recognizable as the only democracy in the Middle East.
What is most distressing, however, about what is emerging as the latest round in our democracy’s struggle to maintain the rule of law, is how newly installed Attorney- General Avichai Mandelblit has come out in favor of Regev’s latest bid to rule upon and preserve the loyalty of the country’s citizens.
“Freedom of expression is part of the DNA of the State of Israel, and I have no intention of harming this, but the state will not fund any cultural institution that subverts it or that burns the flag,” Regev told the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee last week.
Regev’s legislation would withhold state funding from cultural institutions “that incite to racism, violence or terrorism, or support armed conflict of terrorism against Israel.” In other words, for some reason the minister thinks that such crimes – all of which are covered by the criminal code – require her intervention in order for justice to be seen to be done.
One reason Regev would deny funding is the expression of opinion rejecting Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state – there goes the funding for Natorei Karta’s anti-Zionist pageant. Another is marking the establishment of the State of Israel and Independence Day as a day of mourning – Nakba Day – which would deny the freedom of speech to up to some 20 percent of the population. And for those secularists who don’t believe in the apparent religious sanctity of state symbols, Regev’s bill would have her defend against the “physically shaming of the dignity of the Israeli flag or state symbols.”
Regev has coined a new concept in her pursuit of truth: cultural justice. “As long as I am culture minister I will allocate funds according to cultural justice and through a different allocation of resources,” she said.
It is alarming that an ambitious politician who champions such anti-democratic views should receive support from the country’s attorney-general. Although the Justice Ministry was quick to issue a statement noting that Mandelblit had qualified his support for Regev’s “cultural loyalty” bill by toning down some of its more egregious components, a watered down censorship bill is still a censorship bill.
For example, Mandelblit rejected Regev’s request to deny all state funding for such cultural groups, acceding only to a 6 percent budget reduction. And in all fairness, the attorney-general said that such punitive reductions should apply to all culturally culpable artistic groups – including those that refuse to perform in the Negev and the Galilee, not only in Judea and Samaria.
Since we still maintain that a suspected cultural deviant is innocent until proven guilty, it is perhaps reassuring to note that Mandelblit would consider defunding on a case-by-case basis, not on the wholesale evaluation of ideology that Regev requested.
It is no coincidence that Regev’s “cultural loyalty” bill emerged from beneath the same political rock as Im Tirtzu’s recent campaign to label hundreds of Israeli leftwing cultural figures as “foreign agents” and “traitors.”
The smear campaign featured such prominent cultural figures as writers Amos Oz and Yehoshua Sobol, actress Gila Almagor, and Hadag Nahash lead vocalist Sha’anan Streett. It sought to shame them by associating them with left-wing organizations such as the New Israel Fund, B’Tselem – The Israel Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and Yesh Din – Volunteers for Human Rights.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when asked to comment on the campaign, said graciously that he is opposed to using the term “traitor.” He added that Israel is a democracy “where there are many opinions.” That is true, for now.
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