The Guardian / January 21, 2023
Culture minister’s attack on two documentaries set in Palestinian territories part of campaign to silence dissent, film-makers say.
Israel’s culture minister is attempting to revoke state funding from two documentary films dealing with the occupation of the Palestinian territories, increasing concerns that the country’s new hard-right government will follow through on promises to crack down on dissenting voices.
The minister, Miki Zohar, of Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, has pledged to “revoke funding that promotes our enemy’s narrative” and withhold grants from films that “present Israeli soldiers as murderers”. He has also said he will require film-makers to sign a declaration they will not use state funds to create content that “harms the state of Israel or IDF soldiers”.
The minister says he wants the producers of two films, both currently screening in festivals and viewable on Israeli cable networks, to return government-funded grants. One, called H2: Occupation Lab, tracks the history of Israeli control over the West Bank city of Hebron/Al-Khalil. The second, Two Kids a Day, explores the arrests and interrogations of Palestinian children.
Israeli cinema, including its high-profile documentary industry, is heavily reliant on the state through grants administered by a group of government-paid film funds.
David Wachsmann, the director of Two Kids a Day, said: “These two films are in the eye of the storm, but this is an attack on freedom of expression in Israel, on culture and on every Israeli artist.”
The film explores the arrests and interrogations of four children from the Aida refugee camp who were held – in one case for four years – on accusations of stone-throwing. Human rights organizations have documented hundreds such arrests annually. Most take place in the middle of the night when the children are sleeping.
“Israel has decided to turn culture into propaganda,” said Noam Sheizaf, who directed H2: The Occupation Lab along with Idit Avrahami. Their film tracks the history of Hebron, where military rule and a far-right takeover by Jewish settlers have turned the once-bustling centre of the Palestinian city into a dystopian ghost town.
It argues that the mechanisms of control first developed in Hebron – “Jewish supremacy in its most blatant and unapologetic form”, says Sheizaf – are replicated throughout the Palestinian territories and will increasingly reach Israel.
Both films drew the ire of Shai Glick, a far-right activist known for targeting artists and cultural institutions he believes sully Israel’s reputation. His organization, Betsalmo, launched pressure campaigns to get local authorities to cancel screenings – succeeding on one occasion when a public screening of H2 was canceled by the Israeli town of Pardes Hanna.
Glick’s efforts reached the culture minister, who has asked the finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, to investigate whether the government can retroactively revoke grants made to the films.
“Our film argues that not only the [Palestinian] territories, but also Israel is going through a process of ‘Hebronization’,” Sheizaf said. “What’s crazy is that the process that’s at the heart of the film happened to the film itself.”
The culture ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
This is not the first time an Israeli culture minister has targeted Israeli productions dealing with the occupation. Miri Regev, the firebrand politician who held the post from 2015-2020, worked to withdraw state support from critical productions. She also created the “Samaria Film Fund” for Jewish settlers to counter what she claimed was a left-wing bias in the industry. However, her bill that would have made state funding conditional on “loyalty” to the state, died in parliament.
But under the current government – the most right wing in Israel’s history – artists worry that the guardrails that existed just a few years ago are about to come down. A proposed legal overhaul would gut the independence of the judiciary and of legal advisers, who have occasionally served as a check on similar efforts. The reforms to the judiciary have been the subject of mass protests in Israeli cities in recent weeks.
At the same time, the government’s communications minister has vowed to dismantle the country’s public broadcaster, which, alongside its news operation, funds scores of television and documentary productions.
“The feeling is that this is happening in the context of a watershed moment,” Sheizaf said. “If all of these things come to pass, this will be a very different country, overnight.”
Wachsmann said that the controversy had resulted in more public discussion of Israel’s practices. “That’s the plus in all of this – there’s been a focus on Palestinian children. They’re the issue here.”
Noa Yachot is a Guardian US editor for membership and strategic projects