Al-Midan Theater announced a general strike on Friday in protest of the Ministry of Culture’s refusal to transfer over two millions shekels of promised government funding. While an act of defiance, the strike is also rooted in economic necessity, since the theater has not received federal funds for months and is one million shekels in debt.
In the spring of 2015, the theater showed a play about a Palestinian citizen in Israel who was sentenced to life imprisonment for abducting and killing an Israeli Jewish soldier in 1984. Soon after, the Ministry halted funding to the theater, dubiously citing financial mismanagement as the reason behind the decision. With Miri Regev herself, upon entering her position as Minister of Culture, having said that she would not “lend a hand to undermining the image of the State of Israel, Israel Defense Forces soldiers or the state’s heritage as a Jewish and democratic state” and the timing of the decision, the political motivations for this decision are hardly disputable.
On March 29 the Ministry retracted its decision to withhold funds to Al-Midan, after Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, filed a petition against it. The Ministry formally agreed to transfer 1.1 million shekels for 2016, in addition to the first installment for 2017. The theater’s production director, Yazid Sadi, told the media at the time, “‘Personally, I was not impressed by the reinstatement of funding… I expected it, as the Culture Ministry needs from one side to show how democratic they are, but from the other side they made us pay a penalty of 300,000 shekels… So that we think twice next time before we want to stage A Parallel Time or any other meaningful political theater or art.’”
Despite last year’s agreement, the Ministry of Culture has effectively frozen the transfer of these funds through bureaucratic procrastination and has refused to pay the first installment for 2017, pushing the theater to the brink of closure.
A representative of the Ministry of Culture has claimed that the theater does not meet 2017 standards for funding. This justification, however, does not explain the Ministry’s freeze on the transfer of the 2016 funds.
The administrators of the theater announced their strike on Friday to an audience of hundreds, following a play about the life of the late Palestinian novelist, Salman Natour, himself a fierce advocate for the political and cultural rights of the Palestinian community in Israel. The event was part of the Mossawa Center’s sixth annual Palestinian Culture Month, a project created to counter-balance the severe cultural discrimination faced by Palestinian citizens in Israel. This year’s month of culture included literary, musical, and theatrical events.
As a result of a petition filed by the Mossawa Center in cooperation with the Heads of Arab Localities, the Ministry of Culture announced plans to increase funds for Arab cultural activities in September of last year. Despite the additions, the amount allocated for Arab culture remains at about six percent, whereas the Arab community makes up nearly twenty percent of the population. (For more information on the Ministry of Culture’s budget for Arab Palestinian culture, see our September 22, 2016 press release).
As the case of Al-Midan demonstrates, funding for Arab culture is conditioned on political conformity. Generally, in democratic states, the government funds cultural projects so that the voices of artists are not limited by the whims of their audiences or the state. However, in the case of the State of Israel, where the Ministry of Culture uses the threat of withholding funds as a means of censoring artistic, cultural, and political expression, the opposite seems to be the case.
In solidarity with Al-Midan theater, the Mossawa Center calls on the international community to hold the Israeli government and, in particular, the Ministry of Culture accountable for denying its Arab citizens freedom of expression and for its refusal to provide equitable cultural funding. We encourage the international community to pressure Minister of Culture Miri Regev to fulfill her commitment to provide funding to Al-Midan and to allow freedom of expression in the Arab community and all communities in Israel. In light of the lack of government support for Arab culture, we also urge the international community to support Palestinian and Arab culture as patrons, donors, and advocates.
Minister of Culture Miri Regev