The Collapse of the Anti-Democratic “Loyalty in Culture” Bill

29 November 2018

Something unusual happened in the Knesset on Monday. The governing coalition failed to put together enough support to see one of its bills — the latest in a series of laws intended to punish dissent in Israel — passed into law. In an effort to save face, the coalition whip pulled the vote from the Knesset’s agenda.

This was a clear victory for democracy and an embarrassing moment for the governing coalition that had to withdraw a much-publicized vote.

The bill was an initiative of Minister of Culture and Sports Miri Regev. It was known as the “Loyalty in Culture” bill. It would have granted her the authority to withdraw funding from artists if she determined that their work violated a set of political criteria — from denying Israel’s existence, to mourning Israel’s Independence Day, to denigrating the flag. Israeli law already establishes criteria for such funding, but it is currently managed in the Finance Ministry under a process that restrains political interference in such decisions.

The collapse of this bill is an important moment in the ongoing effort to protect free speech and thought for all Israelis. As we all know, every artist — every poet, dancer, musician, painter, performer — uses their medium to speak. And their speech must be protected. Every democratic society allows artists to hold a mirror to the way things are and help us imagine how they could be.

Some in Israel have tried to “blame” NIF for the failure of this anti-democratic bill. Minister Regev even charged that Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman — two leaders whose decisions on this bill helped to scuttle the vote — were taking instructions from NIF. Kahlon made the decision to allow his party’s rank-and-file Knesset Members to vote against the bill. Lieberman, who recently defected from the coalition, announced that his party would oppose the bill unless the coalition also supported some of his legislative priorities.

The charge that these politicians were taking their cues from NIF is ridiculous. But it is not wrong to point out that NIF was involved in the effort to stand up for freedom of speech in the face of this attempted legislative overreach.

Of course we were.

On every issue that we work on — from human rights, to social justice, to religious freedom — NIF partners with Israelis who champion our values. This case was no exception. As populists have sought to limit the capacity of Israelis — including Israel’s artists — to speak truth to power and to engage in dissent, we stepped in to support freedom of speech.

Here are three quick examples:

  • NIF provided an emergency grant to a coalition of artists’ groups who were mobilizing to make their voices heard on this bill. The coalition included cultural institutions, artists unions, and groups funded by the Ministry of Culture.
  • Zazim — an organization incubated by NIF — mobilized thousands of Israelis to urge Likud MK Benny Begin and the Kulanu party to oppose the bill.
  • The Association for Civil Rights in Israel — our flagship grantee — played an invaluable role at the Knesset, providing expert legal analysis.

It isn’t over yet. We know that Minister Regev will not easily give up on her proposal, especially as she faces primary elections within the Likud party. Nevertheless, I take heart from this victory.

I am immensely grateful to every artist — and every person — who stood up against this proposed government censorship. To all of these Israelis, I promise that NIF will continue to stand with you and with all Israelis as we protect the freedom to think, to speak, and to imagine a better future for everybody.