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The Only Democracy? » Featured » Major Israeli Theaters Embrace The Settlements (+BIG UPDATE)

Major Israeli Theaters Embrace The Settlements (+BIG UPDATE)

Some cultural news from Israel:

Several of Israel’s leading theater companies have agreed to perform in the new cultural center in the settlement of Ariel, due to open on November 8. The companies include the Habima National Theater, the Cameri Theater, the Be’er Sheva Theater and Jerusalem’s Khan Theater.

Ariel lies 20km inside the West Bank, deeper than any other sizable settlement. The divided highway leading to it – the best road in the West Bank – is open to Israelis only, *and* lacks any signs naming the numerous Palestinian towns and villages flanking the road. According to Peace Now’s 2006 settlement land report, 35% of Ariel’s area was confiscated from private Palestinian owners by military fiat. The rest is public land. No patch of Ariel’s lands was rightfully purchased. Occupied Palestinians are allowed into Ariel only with special permits.

And to this settlement, on that highway, Israel’s highest-profile theater troupes will now travel.

0. Hat-tips, crossrefs, etc.

A big h/t to Ofri Ilani of the influential Ha-Emori blog (Hebrew link), who first covered the story from an Israeli anti-Occupation perspective. A special kudos to Ofri for dwelling upon “Irony #2″ to be described below. Noam Sheizaf from the Promised Land blog later posted a brief summary in English.

This text itself is cross-posted on Daily Kos.

1. Something’s Fishy Here…

Major Israeli theater groups do most of their shows in Tel Aviv and other large towns, hopping to the periphery only for one-off shows once interest in the center begins to wane. It’s a combination of simple economic calculus, and a mutual cultural bias (people in small towns might hesitate to go to a theater show, unless the price is far lower than the hefty ones paid in Tel Aviv). So how on Earth does a settlement of 18,000 people, not particularly known for its high-culture afficionados, manage to land so many big-ticket shows on the very first year it opens a theater?

My guess is that there has been a lot of lobbying – read, arm-twisting – behind the scenes. All theaters receive part of their budgets from the state. The Israeli state is right now, essentially, in settler hands – right up to settler and foreign minister Yvet Lieberman, widely considered the most powerful politician in the country. Add to that a witch-hunt atmosphere against “self-hating” academics and NGOs in the Israeli street, and theater managers – always scrambling to make ends meet – need little convincing to accept this cordial invitation to baptize Ariel’s new cultural gem.

Here is a telling quote from Yossi Graber, a veteran actor of the national theater HaBima:

“I have my own reservations about the Territories, but since I act at a play receiving state funds I am not going to stage a rebellion.”

(btw, this quote somehow fell out of the English Haaretz translation. It’s only found in the Hebrew original)

In plain terms: the power of the state is now used by the right wing to nudge Israeli theaters into accepting the settlements as a normal reality. Although (see immediately below) some of them apparently don’t require much nudging.

Well, when it comes to settlements “nudging” is the name of the game anyway. There is no economic viability in an Israeli exurb that plants itself a good 40+ minutes away from most employment sources, surrounded by traditional farming communities with hostile and resentful residents. What makes Ariel even possible at all, is massive, consistent and ongoing government subsidy. Would-be residents receive generous loans and grants to buy houses on the robbed land (which, being robbed, is cheap to begin with). Then they enjoy an inflated level of public services which can only be dreamed of inside “Israel proper”, free bus passes for their kids and personal tax breaks for the virtue of living in a settlement. Businesses, too, receive immense grants and breaks if they set up shop in the settlements. Students who agree to go to Ariel’s college (now rechristened as “the Judea and Samaria University Center” in order to thumb Israel’s collective nose at would-be boycotters) are practically certain to receive a scholarship. Take all these away – or offset them via external economic sanctions – and Ariel’s mostly non-ideological residents will drift back into Israel. In fact, the town’s population has been largely stagnant in the past five years.

2. Irony, Part I

Kudos to Haaretz for bringing this story, and even more so for writing down the theaters’ official responses to the question, how come they’re hopping onto the Ariel bandwagon so fast. Here goes:

HaBima: “Habima is a national theater, and its repertoire is supposed to suit the entire population. We perform our plays wherever it is feasible to do so.”

Cameri (Tel Aviv’s city theater): “The Cameri, like all Israeli theaters, plays at any venue where there are subscribers who are lovers of Hebrew theater, including all of the country’s theaters.”

Beersheva Theater: “We play anywhere all around the country.”

Khan Theater’s general manager (Jerusalem): “There are plays that are products on one hand, and possess a universal cultural value on the other hand. Anyone who wants to watch them is invited. We do not make a stand on the political matter.”

That last response, again, was dropped from the translated article. Don’t you just love it? As if a major theater booking a play in a settlement whose mayor has turned it into a flagship for the entire project’s legitimacy, is anything but a political statement.

But the major irony here is that no theater spokesperson excluded Ariel from “the country”. Thus, they pull the rug from under a major argument against artists like Elvis Costello, who decided to skip Israel altogether until things get better there. The argument against Costello et al. is that they are engaging in “a blanket boycott” without distinguishing between “the Good Israel” inside the 1967 lines, full of peace-loving people, and the problematic settlements.

Well, it turns out that according to Israel’s leading theaters, a classic component of the “Brand Israel” project to hide our ugly underside using our pretty high culture – the pre-1967 Green Line simply does not exist. It is all “The Country”. And this comes from the bohemian theater lefties. The rest of Israel’s institutions – the bus company, the electric company, the phone companies, the water company, the national parks system, the local-government system, etc. etc. – have integrated the settlements into “The Country” decades ago.

3. Irony, Part II

And as blogger Ofri Ilani sharply noted, one of the very first plays to be staged at Ariel by the Cameri theater this fall, is Bertolt Brecht‘s “Caucasian Chalk Circle”.

Brecht himself, widely revered in Israel, was a dissident German thinker who didn’t mince words about the fascism that took over his country, and continued railing against violence and injustice from his exile. “Chalk Circle” itself is a variation on one of the stories about Solomon, with two mothers quarreling over a child. Brecht changed it into a wealthy distant mother who disappeared from the child’s life, and the poor nanny who actually took care of him all these years. The background is a corrupt failed state, where a drunk lowlife is appointed judge but surprises everyone with his just, Solomonic verdict which hands the child over to the nanny.

Indeed, a classic play to show in Israel in general and in a settlement in particular. While Israelis might claim (as our propaganda has argued for years) that the Palestinian “nanny” hasn’t taken good care of the country in the long centuries of near-total Jewish absence, it is pretty clear what Brecht would think on the matter. Ofri Ilani actually went to see the play, and reports that the present Cameri interpretation is watered down, morphed and dumbed down to the point of totally distorting the main moral-political message.

To round up the irony: for decades the Cameri had built its reputation as the home theater of the late Hanoch Levin. Levin’s plays, presenting searing criticism of brutality and oppression in general, and of Israeli militarism and Occupation in particular, had time and again placed him at odds with the Israeli street. However, he is without question considered to be Israel’s most prominent playwright. Now, the Cameri succeeds in turning both Brecht and Levin in their graves with one fell swoop, while its spokescritters cheerily chirp that they “play at any venue where there are subscribers who are lovers of Hebrew theater, including all of the country’s theaters.”.

4. Irony, Part III

The cultural center’s manager, Ariel Turgeman, told Haaretz that he fully believes the venue will be ready for opening within three months. In recent weeks, construction has been going on by night, to allow the Muslim construction workers to fast during the Ramadan month.

Yes, believe it or not: the new venue is being built by Occupied Palestinians toiling at night. It seems that Salam Fayyad’s much-trumpeted campaign to have Palestinian laborers quit their settlement jobs, is toothless. Just like the man himself, who reserves all his biting power for oppressing his own subjects. But he cannot even promise them compensation, so that they will be able to stop serving settlers for a living.

American politicians and journalists can continue falling over each other praising The Unelected Wonder from Ramallah as Palestine’s great hope. Meanwhile, Fayyad’s main contribution so far has been to make the Occupation even more convenient for Bibi and the settlers, who are now laughing all the way to the box office.

5. A glimmer of hope

Well, not everyone in the said theaters is playing along. The news were only one day old, and already two of Israel’s hottest acting stars announced they will not go to Ariel.

Yusuf Sweid, who is currently appearing in “A Railway to Damascus” at Habima, told a Channel 1 television talk show yesterday that “I would be glad to perform in settlements in several shows that have messages I’d like to deliver in many communities. But settlers and settlements are not something that entertains me, and I don’t want to entertain them.”

Well said. Sweid, a Palestinian-Israeli, is willing to engage settlers in a serious debate over the country’s future. But unlike the theater managers, he will not roll over for fear of settler power.

The other actor is Jewish-Israeli Rami Heuberger, who does not have a specific Ariel show on his schedule yet, but already stated that

“if I am asked, I believe I would have a problem with performing there. As a stage actor it is a very, very problematic issue, and I think that so long as settlements are a controversial issue that will be discussed in any negotiations [with the Palestinians], I should not be there.”

Additionally, judging by angry talkbacks on the Hebrew Haaretz story, quite a few subscribers of these theaters are considering cancellation. The typical Israeli theater-going crowd is famously left-of-center, and has a special enmity towards the settlements. Have the theater managers miscalculated by placing their fear of government power above their core audience’s sensitivities? Time will tell.

10AM PDT UPDATE: —————

This just in from Israel (Hebrew link)

Dozens of Actors and Theater Professionals Refuse to Appear in Ariel

We would like to express our disgust with theater managements’ intention of staging shows at Ariel’s new hall…

This is the opening of a protest letter sent today by dozens of actors and theater professionals to all theater management…

…The actors among us declare they will refuse to play in Ariel, or any other settlement. We call upon managements to carry on their rich cultural activities, within the sovereign borders of the State of Israel, inside the Green Line.

Besides many leading actresses and actors, signed are also leading playwrights (Sobol, Gov, Librecht) and directors.

The settlers’ Yesha council has changed its celebratory tone. Yesterday they still laughed at the 2 actors who first spoke out. Now they say:

Our response… will be very harsh. This hate letter railing against Israel’s best sons who protect [theaters] while they play on stage, requires a direct, sharp and clear response from theater managements, and we expect that. We will announce our next steps over the coming days.

So, what’s the theaters’ “sharp” response? Cameri repeats its previous mantra, while HaBima seems to start backpedalling:

This is the first time that staging acts beyond the Green Line comes up in the Israeli debate… the subject requires an in-depth inspection of all the issues it raises…

An in-depth inspection which you, in your haste to put yourselves in Lieberman et al.’s good books, kinda skipped. Thank God so many in your theater crew have some spine.

So… yes, theater managements have miscalculated. Of all professionals, Israeli theater people are perhaps the most identified with the left in general and with anti-Occupation causes in particular. There is no way they would have taken this lying down, and been able to look themselves in the mirror afterwards.

This is probably a good place to stop; the next diary will probably be about the miscalculations of the settler lobby itself – this one being just the most recent in a rather impressive string of them.

Written by

Assaf Oron works as a statistician and moonlights (voluntarily) as a human-rights activist and blogger. He arrived in Seattle from Israel in 2002 for studies, and for now is sticking with the local greyness, dampness and uber-politeness, while plotting his glorious repatriation to the land of eternal sunshine and rudeness. Meanwhile, he tries to explain to anyone who cares to listen, what the Occupation is and why it must be ended now, not later. Assaf is webmaster for the Israeli human rights organization "Villages Group"

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