A Loyalty Test for the Arts?

The “Bill for Loyalty in the Arts” is set to go through a second and third reading on the Knesset floor, and it looks like it will pass, with the government coalition supporting it.

According to the law, arts institutions will be liable to have government funding to them cut if they exhibit one of the following behaviors: 1. Denial of the state’s nature as a Jewish democratic state 2. Incitement to racism, violence, and terror 3. Support for armed struggle or terror acts by an enemy state or terror organization against Israel 4. Designating Independence Day as a day of mourning 5. An act of desecrating the respect for the Israeli flag or other symbols of the State.

Many claim that the law isn’t so bad, because it “only” cuts funding; it doesn’t make it illegal to have art that denies Israel’s Jewish nature – it merely ensures that Israeli government money doesn’t go to organizations that do so. I’ve written before explaining why cutting off funding is effectively censoring these organizations, but I also want to explain additional reasons why the law would be bad:

  1. One of the roles of art in society is to challenge us and take us out of our comfort zone. If you cut funding or try to discourage that, you’re depriving us of one of the major benefits of the arts.
  2. Artists create works for an audience. No government funding=expensive tickets to make up for the lack of funds=no audience=artists won’t put in the time and effort to make their more subversive works into real pieces of art. This means that the borders of Israeli art’s most “out-there” productions will become less “out-there”. This will make Israeli art more boring: The mainstream measures itself in relation to and in conversation with the avant-garde, so if the avant-garde becomes less adventurous, the mainstream will follow.This will lead to a decline in Israel’s international reputation. At the moment, we have a good arts reputation around the world -and rightly so. The Israeli arts scene has so much that is vibrant and beautiful. Why would you want to change that?
  3. Speaking of international reputations: There is an international effort to engage in a cultural boycott of Israel. One of the responses to that boycott is: “Why boycott the artists? They represent the openness of Israeli society and the willingness to listen to other voices; they challenge Israeli assumptions and expand Israeli empathy for the other; a vibrant arts scene is vital to the type of tolerant society that opposes military occupations. Besides, art is beyond politics. It’s not fair to punish artists for their government’s agenda.” We can’t really make that argument if we’re regulating it to make sure that the Israeli government only supports arts that match its agenda and its politics. As a matter of fact, by having the Israeli government boycott “anti-Israel” artists (because, withholding funding is also known as boycotting), we’re sending the message that boycotting artists for political reasons is fair game, so it’s ok for other governments or institutions to boycott “pro-Israel” artists.
  4. The categories in the law are extremely broad. A few years ago, I watched a performance by Hazira Performing Arts Arena, in which the Book of Joshua was read out loud, accompanied by music and dance. The play won the Ministry of Education’s “Jewish Culture Education” award. However, the text of the Book of Joshua can certainly be interpreted as incitement to racism. Many on the right are excited at the prospect of stopping “left-wing” art. But this law has the potential to effect art that is on either side of the political spectrum.
  5. The bill allows the government to cut funding to organizations who “implement” arts that engage in any one of the 5 disloyal behaviors that it outlines, such that it constitutes a “meaningful” portion of their activities. But it doesn’t define those terms. What percentage of an institution’s activities are considered “meaningful”? What about hosting guest exhibits, or renting out the venue to performances -does that count as “implementing” something? This lack of clarity pressures culture organizations into performing their own “loyalty tests” of guest exhibits/performances in order to not lose government funding, which could make it virtually impossible for a “disloyal” artwork to find a cultural venue that will host it.
  6. How will the government make its decisions? Will there be a published “black list” of de-funded organizations? If so, those organizations might find themselves the victims of public boycotts, as well as of threats of violence -which means that organizations could literally fear for their physical safety is they produce the “wrong” type of art.
  7. Under the new law, there will be members of the Israeli government -most notably the Minister of Culture -whose job description will include measuring the loyalty of arts and culture. I just want to state this again: There will be a government official in charge of measuring the loyalty of citizens and of their speech. Sure, for the moment it’s “only” measuring their loyalty in order to cut funding, and not in order to outlaw. But isn’t it a slippery slope? Isn’t there something jarring about the realization that a minister will be in charge of measuring the loyalty of the arts, since that’s usually something that’s only done in dictatorships?

Playing with tests of loyalty is a dangerous game; no political side will emerge the winner, but the Israeli public, and Israel’s vibrant arts and culture scene, will emerge the losers.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry.