Israel’s Culture Minister Threatens to Cut Funding for Artists Who Defame Country

Israeli Film Fund Loyality Oath
Edel Rodriguez for Variety

The Israeli government is under no obligation to fund cultural projects that defame the country, the nation’s hardline new culture minister declared this week in a speech that has raised the hackles of left-wing artists and kickstarted a tense debate about the nature of democracy and free speech today in the Jewish State.

Miri Regev, a right-wing lawmaker from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, told members of Israel’s parliament on Sunday that she will not hesitate to cut state funding for organizations or artists who encourage boycotts of Israel or promote behavior that she feels delegitimizes the nation.

In her defiant speech, which came just days after she threatened to defund a joint Arab-Jewish children’s theater over its director’s refusal to hold performances in the occupied West Bank, she told the lawmakers, “Whoever wants to defame Israel can do it alone. We won’t block it, but we won’t fund it.”

Her remarks were the latest in a spree of threats directed at left-wing creatives in Israel; last week she told a gathering of artists, “The government doesn’t have to support culture, I can decide where the money goes, the artists will not dictate to me.”

In response to her remarks, several hundred artists and filmmakers held an emergency meeting to discuss the threat of censorship and signed a petition that declared, “We hope with all our hearts that Israel will not deteriorate into a country where artists who express their views are blacklisted.”

But left-wing lawmakers also waded into the fray this week, calling for a film that takes a sympathetic look at the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to be pulled from the lineup of the upcoming Jerusalem Film Festival.

The documentary “Beyond the Fear,” a Latvian-Israeli co-production, chronicles the relationship of Yigal Amir, a religious Jew who murdered Rabin in 1995, with Larissa Trimbobler, a woman he met and later married while in prison. Some of Israel’s most prominent liberal voices, including former President Shimon Peres and Rabin’s granddaughter Noa Rothman, have spoken out against the film, and Regev pledged to reconsider state funding to the Jerusalem Film Festival if they do not oblige.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Jerusalem Film Festival issued a statement in response to the uproar, acknowledging the controversy surrounding the film’s screening but stating that they had decided to nevertheless continue to keep it in competition. Due to “a deep desire to acknowledge the feelings of the public,” however, fest administrators said the film would be screened not during the festival week, but on a separate date.

“The Jerusalem Film Festival is not a political body … our role is to provide a platform for the best and most interesting films of the year,” the statement read. “Censorship of films on the subject in which they are engaged is not part of our job.”

Last year, Israeli Arab filmmaker Suha Arraf was ordered to return half a million dollars in public funding after she declared her directorial debut “Villa Touma” a product of Palestine rather than Israel. The brouhaha set off a firestorm of controversy among artists and lawmakers here over the definition of an Israeli filmmaker and the obligation of Israel to provide taxpayer funds to projects that call its existence into question.