In my 25 years covering Jewish culture for this paper, a singular benefit has been to watch the emergence of Israel as one of the most creative and exciting homes of small-nation film industries. These days, though, storm clouds have gathered over Israeli cinema. Last month Katriel Schory, whom Variety calls “one of the most respected figures in the Israeli film industry,” announced his resignation as head of the Israel Film Fund.
How much of a difference can one person make, even in a small film community like Israel’s?
Isaac Zablocki, director of the Israel Film Center at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and one of the most knowledgeable observers of cultural currents in the Jewish state, wrote in a recent e-mail, “Simply put, Katri was the leading player in the Israeli film industry and its expansion over the last two decades. … In truth, he dedicated himself to every film his fund made and held its hand through the entire process. … His fund paved the way for other funds to rise up as well.”
Although Schory had offered the obligatory statement about his desire to spend more time with his family as the primary reason for his departure, the decision was clearly triggered by recent events in Israeli politics. His resignation letter was blunt. “Israeli cinema, mainly because of its great achievements, turned these days into an easy target for politicians who … try to impose measures with the aim to curb the creative freedom and independent thinking” of filmmakers.
Recent changes to the Cinema Law, championed by Culture Minister Miri Regev and enacted in October, reduce the budgets of film funds by as much as 35 percent. The money derived from the budget cuts is being redirected into funding for Mizrahi, charedi and settler filmmaking. There is no gainsaying the fact that Mizrahi and charedi voices have been a significant absence in the film community. Were the minister’s choices based purely on merit, this could be a positive development. The other major change in the Cinema Law suggests otherwise: film funds will now have to choose their selection committee members from a list of professionals approved by the ministry.
Zablocki is blunt. He wrote, “The [changes in the Cinema] law [were] an attack on [Schory’s] fund directly and gave more power to the politicians over the process of the funds and the individuals making decisions. He thought politicians should stay out of the artistic decisions. Also, the new law provides funding for films that succeed independently, which simply makes no sense — why should state funds go to those that actually made money?”
If the culture minister’s intentions were previous unclear, her next move dispelled any remaining fog. With the apparent support of the prime minister, Regev brought before the Knesset the “Loyalty in Culture” bill. This piece of legislation would give the culture minister the authority to retroactively suspend funding for arts and culture groups that “contravene the principles of the state.”
Mercifully, the bill became the victim of a combination of the turmoil surrounding Netanyahu’s governing coalition and the sheer abrasiveness of Regev’s personality. But this is quite a lot of power to invest in one politician, particularly in a small nation in which most of the arts are to a large extent dependent on public funding.
Regev’s supporters among the Israeli punditocracy argued that they shouldn’t have to contribute financially to programs that do not reflect their values. That position raises a larger argument about the nature of a democracy; ironically, one of the criteria for determining that a group had transgressed under the cultural loyalty bill was “denying the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
One of the underlying assumptions of a democracy is that all its citizens will abide by the decisions of the electorate. Pendulums swing and coalitions disintegrate. When that happens and the “ins” become “outs,” vesting power in the Solomonic discernment of one politician can come back to bite you. Allowing disgruntled factions to opt out of support for government services on a whim can only lead to the breakdown of a democratic state.
One can argue the question of whether there is a compelling state interest in supporting the arts, and that is a topic to which we will no doubt return. But clearly there is interest in permitting a broad and diverse debate on such issues, whether Miri Regev recognizes it or not.