Israeli Artists Burn Art in Protest of “Loyalty in Culture Bill”

In protest of a new federal law that stipulates Israeli artists and arts institutions can only receive public funds if they show loyalty to the state, several artists gathered in Tel Aviv on Sunday night to set fire to their artworks. Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev proposed the “loyalty in culture bill” in order to gain authority to retroactively suspend funding for cultural activities that, she says, “contravene the principles of the state.”

On Sunday, October 21, the bill received a majority vote in its first reading at the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. The Jerusalem Post reports that the initial vote was delayed a week, after opposition from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who said the law “would harm the right to freedom of expression, and lead artists to shy away from creating different content for fear of losing government support.” However, after changes to the structure of the bill, Mandelblit retracted his opposition to the legislation.

According to media reports, artists’ financial support could be partially or completely withdrawn if a cultural institution decries racism and violence—or if they refer to Independence Day as a day of mourning. (Palestinians and many Arab Israelis commemorate Independence Day for the flight and expulsion of hundreds of thousands in the wake of the founding of Israel in 1948.) “Freedom of expression is a guiding light and a central value in the State of Israel as a democratic state,” Regev said, “but preserving freedom of expression does not mean allowing incitement against the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.”

Haaretz reports that the organizers of last Sunday’s demonstration invited artists to burn their works “to sacrifice them as victims of the loyalty law.” Illustrator Zeev Engelmayer, author Amir Harash, and artists Oren Fischer, Sigalit Landau, and Shahar Sarigand are among those who participated in the action. The Culture and Art Institutions Forum in Israel also published an open letter against the bill, which said it would “suffocate the vibrant democratic, social, cultural, and artistic discourse in Israeli society.” Adding to the outcry, Uri Reshtik, CEO of Shaham, the Israeli Actors Guild, said: “This is a problematic law whose implementation could lead to silencing and preventing any political content in Israeli theaters. We will fight to make sure the law does not pass in its present form.”

Prior to the protest, Israeli artist Itai Zalait burned a life-size figure of Regev, who was portrayed as a wicked queen looking at her reflection in a mirror, in front of the National Theater in Tel Aviv. Zalait told a broadcaster: “It is my right as an artist to present my statements in the public space, I’m not sure that we can still do that in a few years.” In response to the action. Regev said: “In the past three years, I’ve done a lot to hold a mirror up to the Israeli cultural world, revealing the exclusion of entire sections of the population as well as the paternalism of those who consider themselves the heart of the nation.”

While Regev continues to try to champion the bill, following a press conference held at the Knesset on Monday, November 26, Regev conceded that the coalition decided not to pass the law at this point in time. According to the Jerusalem Post, her failure to muster support for the legislation may have stemmed from approaching elections and a sharp decline in her popularity.

In response, Edna Harel-Fisher, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and the former legal adviser to the Ministry of Culture, said: “We should view the Minister of Culture’s actions with grave concern and make every attempt [to] ensure that this dangerous law is indeed ‘dead in the water,’ so we will not take a big step toward becoming an illiberal democracy that encourages only state-authorized art.”