Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks at Kohelet Conference in Jerusalem, October 9, 2018.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On Wednesday, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit strongly rejected a demand from Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked that he dismiss his deputy, Dina Zilber, or at least ban her from public appearances, because of critical comments she had made against the government’s cultural loyalty bill. At a meeting of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee the previous day, Zilber sharply criticized the legislation – passed by the Knesset in its first reading on Monday – which would allow state funds to be withheld from cultural institutions deemed to be disloyal.
It was the most public spat between Mandelblit and Shaked, who usually make an effort to work out their differences quietly and behind the scenes. Although Shaked is Mandelblit’s superior, he has independent powers as the judicial branch’s top official. What was especially offensive to Mandelblit was Shaked’s announcement that Zilber would no longer be allowed to represent the government in the Knesset or in other government forums, saying she had displayed personal bias and suggesting sarcastically that she “run for political office.” She wrote in a letter to Mandelblit: “It is clear that she does not wish to act professionally and honestly as a legal adviser.”
With uncharacteristic terseness, Mandelblit responded that Shaked had exceeded her authority and had no control over Zilber’s public appearances. Rather, Mandelblit said that only he decides who represents the attorney-general’s office in public forums.
In her remarks to the Knesset panel, Zilber condemned the spate of recent legislation being advanced by the government as impinging on the rule of law and civil rights. “These are not simple days; they are bringing us not only new laws but also confrontational dialogue, the wounding and scarring of our shared social fabric, labeling and branding – who is for us and who is against us,” Zilber said. “If there’s someone who is loyal, then there’s someone who is a traitor.”
The Jerusalem Post’s legal affairs reporter, Yonah Jeremy Bob, reported that it was Mandelblit’s sternest rebuke ever of Shaked, saying she had no legal authority over his deputy. Yet, he noted, the two had reached an understanding limiting Zilber’s future appearances in the Knesset and other public forums until her final status is decided.
As Bob reported, the fight has put Mandelblit in an awkward position. He has been angered by Zilber’s constant opposition to government bills, but does not want to appear to be giving up the independence of the legal establishment. Mandelblit agreed, though, that Zilber would need his explicit permission to be sent to such forums until her status was decided.
The cultural loyalty legislation was passed by the Knesset in its first reading on Monday, with 55 lawmakers in favor and 44 opposed; the bill requires two more readings to become law. During Tuesday’s Knesset committee meeting, parliamentary legal adviser Eyal Yinon agreed with Zilber that the bill was problematic.
“It can be seen as seemingly part of the imposition of restrictions on freedom of expression,” Yinon said. The legislation, proposed by Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud) and supported by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), calls for the withdrawal of state funding to groups “working against the principles of the state.”
The bill would allow the government to deny funding from organizations or events that deny that the State of Israel is a Jewish, democratic country; incite racism, violence or terror; support armed struggle or acts of terror; or mark Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning.
Presenting the bill to the Knesset on Monday, Regev insisted it did not undermine freedom of speech and called it “correct and worthy.” “There is no harm here to freedom of speech and art. There is no intention to silence people or stifle criticism,” Regev said.
“There is no culture if the government controls it,” opposition leader Tzipi Livni retorted. “Instead of culture, we’ll get propaganda.” Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said there was no need for the new bill, because Israel already has the legislative tools to stop incitement.
While we understand the anger of both Mandelblit and Shaked, Zilber legitimately voiced her views, and she should not be punished for doing so. We need to cultivate a culture in Israel that encourages public debate and does not curtail freedom of expression by public officials, especially those who are meant to represent the rule of law and order.
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