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Israel Broadcasting Authority Among Country’s Cultural Institutions Struggling to Survive

Israeli Film Fund Loyality Oath
Edel Rodriguez for Variety

TEL AVIV — The Israel Broadcasting Authority, the nation’s sole public broadcaster, earned an eleventh-hour reprieve last month after nearly succumbing to the death knell, which has been tolling for the beleaguered station for years. The clemency, however, is temporary — the IBA, which encompasses several radio and television stations and serves as employer to some of Israel’s oldest and most distinguished journalists, is but one of a long list of troubled cultural institutions in Israel relying on public funds and finding its survival increasingly uncertain.

The station was first put on life support in early 2014, when then Communications Minister Gilad Erdan announced that he had reached a limit of frustration with the IBA’s sloppy finances and that he was shuttering the organization entirely. A brand new structure for public broadcasting, Erdan said, would be built in its place.

The announcement came after decades of bickering over the IBA’s political loyalties and its handling of public tax dollars. No fewer than 14 committees have been established in the Israeli government over the years to dissect the organization and offer solutions for its improvement, but not a single one of them led to real change. With Erdan’s announcement, however, it seemed that the IBA may actually be doomed for good.

Clear plans for the new broadcasting authority were hard to come by, but Israeli producer Ram Landes, who helped establish the nation’s two commercial television channels (Channel 2 and Channel 10, the latter of which has been doing its own death dance with the government for years), laid out the bare bones for the media: The new broadcasting authority would include all eight stations of Israeli Radio, Israel’s public Channel 1 TV station, a children’s station, sports and news programs, and a station featuring exclusively Arabic programming.

But this is Israel, where no political decision is simple and alliances and unions both pull weight of Biblical proportions. While the private media sector in Israel has flourished, producing 10 Oscar-nominated films and television hits like “Homeland” predecessor “Prisoners of War,” its public sector has been mired in the same corruption, cronyism and foot-dragging that has dragged down its government and sent dozens of its leaders to prison.

So it came as little surprise to political watchers here that despite an April 1 deadline for IBA’s closure, the committee tasked with creating the Authority’s replacement could not complete their work in time. At the end of March, with the Knesset up in arms over plans to outsource news reporting, the organization was granted an additional six months to live. It is now set to be shuttered Sept. 30.

Erdan is no longer minister of communications. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, since winning a surprise fourth term last March, has been collecting ministerial portfolios the way some collect coins or stamps, has since taken over the role. With Israel’s most-circulated daily newspaper, Israel Today, already in his pocket and the popular news portal Walla! facing allegations that it regularly doctors coverage of Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, to paint the pair in a more flattering light, political watchers are voicing concern that whatever public broadcasting unit is built upon the ashes of the IBA will be similarly swayed.

Meanwhile, Miri Regev, the nation’s outspoken culture minister, also faced a setback this month in her long-running campaign to muzzle artists whom she felt threatened Israel. Her bid to push a bill through Israel’s parliament that would withdraw funding from cultural institutions deemed “disloyal” to the Jewish State failed in its early stages, but political insiders say that doesn’t mean left-wing organizations can now breathe easy.

“Miri Regev is the kind of person who will keep trying from different angles,” says Lahav Harkov, the Jerusalem Post’s Knesset reporter. “I don’t know what else she has up her sleeve right now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was something.”

The so-called loyalty bill was the latest shot from a woman Israeli daily Haaretz has referred to as “Israel’s Trump in Heels” and who has threatened to nix funding from both film festivals and mixed Arab-Jewish theaters. She says Arab parliamentarians should be jailed for praying at the Temple Mount, has openly criticized Israel’s Army Radio over its selection of music, and has said her sights are now set on Israel’s Opera and National Theater, two of the nation’s oldest and most successful institutions, because she feels they receive too big a slice of the funding pie.

“People have become accustomed to politicians who are afraid of saying what they think, who are afraid of criticism. But what to do that Miri Regev is a woman, from the periphery, and from the military? Miri Regev is a combination you don’t find too often,” she said in a 2015 interview in Haaretz, speaking of herself in the third person.

Much like Donald Trump in the U.S., Regev has tapped into a working-class anxiety that bubbles furiously beneath the surface of Israeli society — the longstanding division between its Ashkenazi Jewish community, who trace their family roots to Europe and still dominate political, social and educational circles, and its fast-growing Mizrachi Jewish community, whose roots come from Spain, Portugal and the Middle East. Unlike Trump, however, Regev has genuine working-class roots: Born to a Moroccan immigrant family in the hard-knock Israeli development town of Kiryat Gat, she blazed a powerful career in the Israeli Defense Forces before transitioning into government. And she is clearly still on the battle path.

“She has a strategy of a populist cultural revolution, and part of that is changing what kinds of institutions the culture ministry funds,” Harkov explains. “So stipulating loyalty for funding would take money away from Arab institutions and super avant-garde Tel Aviv people, but to her, those people aren’t going to vote for her anyway. As far as she is concerned, those are the [institutions] who have always received money, and now it’s time for it to go elsewhere.”