Israeli campaign against artists draws accusations of 'McCarthyism'

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An ultra-nationalist Israeli group that has campaigned against foreign-funded NGOs broadened its assault to include left-wing artists on Thursday, accusing authors such as Amos Oz and David Grossman of disloyalty to the country.

Israel's Culture Minister, Miri Regev (L), a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party and former army spokeswoman, speaks with a supporter during an election campaign stop at a market in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv, Israel, in this February 25, 2015 file picture. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/Files

The offensive by Im Tirtzu takes place amid deepening left-right divisions in Israel, with members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government frequently critical of the arts and advocating a more religious-nationalist agenda.

Culture Minister Miri Regev, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, has proposed cutting government funding for any theater or arts institution whose programs “subvert the state”. Education Minister Naftali Bennett wants to introduce a civics book in schools that critics say reinterprets history with political bias.

In posters published online and on its Facebook page, Im Tirtzu takes aim at what it calls “foreign agents in the cultural world”, accusing Israeli actors, writers, directors and other “intellectuals” of obstructing the government’s mission.

“They are members of foreign agent organization’s operating with foreign government funding ... against the State of Israel,” it says, naming around 100 people from the worlds of cinema, theater, publishing and television.

It published on Facebook the names of several dozen “cultural people” listed on the websites of left-leaning charities and non-governmental organizations as serving as members of their boards or public councils.

The posters follow a video campaign launched late last year in which Im Tirtzu accused the heads of several high-profile Israeli NGOs, including one focused on human rights violations by the Israeli army, of being foreign-funded “agents” bent on undermining the state.

Netanyahu said he did not agree with Im Tirtzu’s campaign.

“I am opposed to labeling as a ‘traitor’ anybody who (holds opposing views to the mainstream). We are a democracy and there is a multitude of opinions,” he told Israeli reporters traveling with him during a working trip to Cyprus.

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The two campaigns have coincided with discussions in the Israeli parliament on new legislation that would require more transparency from Israeli NGOs, especially those that receive funds from foreign governments or the European Union.

The legislation, roundly criticized by European and U.S. diplomats, is seen as targeting left-leaning groups since they receive more of their funds from foreign governments. Right-leaning Israeli NGOs tend to be funded by private donations and would not face the same level of scrutiny.

Opponents of Im Tirtzu have accused its leaders of a cultural witchhunt, akin to U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s much-vilified campaign in the 1950s to expose Communist sympathizers in the United States, including in Hollywood and the arts.

Commenting on Twitter, one of Im Tirtzu’s founders appeared to defend McCarthyism, writing: “The historical details revealed that in most cases, he was correct,” according to Israel’s Haaretz daily.

Im Tirtzu was once regarded as a fringe group, but has increasingly close ties to members of Netanyahu’s government, particularly the Jewish Home party led by Bennett.

Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, author of the NGO bill and a member of Jewish Home, were quick to distance themselves from Im Tirtzu’s latest outburst.

“The campaign against the artists is embarrassing, needless and disgraceful,” Bennett wrote on Twitter.

Shaked told Army Radio: “It does not serve any agenda and I do not think this is a proper campaign.

“I do not think these artists who hold salient left-wing views should be considered moles. Not everyone who is on the left should be demonized, certainly not.”

Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Janet Lawrence