Israel’s national theater to bring ‘Merchant’ to World Shakespeare Fest in May

Israel/Palestine
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Habima National Theatre
Habima National Theatre

Unlike many post-Oslo normalization programs that claim to promote peaceful co-existence and respect the ‘Green Line’ – thereby obfuscating the reality of colonial power relations –, the case of the Israeli national theater company Habima presents event organizers and the public with a clear-cut ethical issue.

The Israeli group Boycott from Within sets out the Israeli theatre company’s unapologetic collusion with Israeli state violations of international humanitarian law in a letter to the directors of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012:

Israel’s Habima Theatre is due to present, in [May in] your forthcoming festival, “The Merchant of Venice”. As noted on your website, this play includes the role of “Shylock, the most famous and controversial Jewish character in the theatre canon”… In the past year, two large settlements – Ariel in the northern part of the West Bank and Kiryat Arba in its south – set up “Halls of Culture” and asked theatres to come and present their plays there…. on this issue the management of Habima has taken a position which is remote from any kind of social engagement. Claiming to be “non-political”, the management has reiterated its decision to perform in West Bank settlements, “like everywhere else”… We cannot help seeing the positions taken by Habima Theatre on the two issues – presentation of “The Merchant of Venice” in London and regular performances in West Bank settlements – as inherently incompatible.

Furthermore, Habima’s repertoire is reportedly Hebrew-only, and all plays chosen by the theatre are either Jewish-Israeli, European or North American (none of them Palestinian or Arab). The ensemble is predominantly Jewish-Israeli, and the management is entirely Jewish-Israeli. ‘Habima… feels that this is an honorable accomplishment for the State of Israel in general and for the national theater in particular,’ General Manager Odelia Friedman is quoted in Ynet as saying.

Regardless, Shakespeare’s Globe responded that Habima will not be excluded because,

[T]he festival was intended as, and has become, a celebration of languages and not – with the exception of the group from South Sudan – a celebration of nations or states. Habima are the most well-known and respected Hebrew-language theatre company in the world, and are a natural choice to any programmer wishing to host a dramatic production in Hebrew. They are committed, publicly, to providing an ongoing arena for sensible dialogue between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.

To what kind of dialogue are Israeli cultural producers committed? As Nicholas Rowe writes in Raising Dust: A Cultural History of Dance in Palestine, the 1994 bilingual Ha-khan Theatre/ Al-Kasaba Theatre co-production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in which Jews were cast as Montagues and Arabs as Capulets, provoked a more vociferous Palestinian boycott of cultural interaction with Israel within occupied Palestinian territory:

Promoted as a cooperative venture between Israelis and Palestinians, this production subsequently toured Europe, sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs…The familial Montague-Capulet conflict was particularly disdained [by Palestinian artists] as a metaphor for the dispute between Zionists and the indigenous population of Palestine as it did not reflect the actual imbalance of power inherent to foreign colonization and military occupation, and suggested the conflict was simply based on an ancient ethnic and religious tribal hatred.

An even more succinct rationale for cultural boycott can be found in The Independent today, where Suhail Khoury, director of Gaza’s Edward Said Conservatory, asks of the West-Eastern Divan orchestra: “What is this orchestra telling the world – that Palestinian and Israelis can play together? We know that.”

The Gazan conservatory was severely damaged during Israel’s ‘Cast Lead’ bombardment in 2008-9, and today the only way prizewinning musicians can perform in music competitions is by video link – because students cannot leave the besieged Strip.

A British scholar of sixteenth century literature, whom I asked to comment on Habima’s proposed performance at the festival, wrote the following:

‘If we suppose for a moment that Habima were willing to engage artistically with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, how might the company’s politically and morally-conscious production of The Merchant of Venice look? Without damage to the text, Shylock at the end of the trial, the point at which an audience is normally made to sympathise with him, (sometimes by a prolonged scream as in the last performance I saw at Stratford) could be recognisably Palestinian and join a shuffling queue behind iron cage bars (like those at Israeli military checkpoints), which could form the stage backdrop throughout the performance. That would genuinely show that exclusion, appropriation and oppression of other peoples is something that can be practised by Christian against Jew, or Zionist against Palestinian. It would allow the actors to express their frustration at becoming performers within an encircling ring of control. Shylock’s unhappiness is over losing half of the deeds of his house, an issue with profound resonance for many Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem:

You take my house when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live. (IV.1.371-3)

‘Of course, the play is, arguably, not so much about Jews and Christians as two conceptions of justice: an eye for an eye (proportionate Old Testament justice) and the New Testament idea of mercy triumphing over this. That is why the last scene carries echoes of the Easter hymn, the Exsultet, which celebrates the exodus, the escape of the Israelites from Egypt, and all men from the slavery to sin. ‘In such a night’ (in hac nocte in the Latin hymn) is repeated eight times in the last scene of the play (the number of the resurrection). There’s only one way out of an endless cycle of tit-for-tat violence, and that’s mercy: and marriage, here as always, symbolic of unity and love. It’s important to say that the play is about justice, and the attempt to exact justice in the traditional human way of revenge leads nowhere but to loss. In my view the play is not about Christians and Jews ethnically, but about two views of justice, (of course it may well have been performed for lawyers in the Inns of Court, like so many of these plays including Twelfth Night), and a production of the play could stage both the process of exclusion, appropriation of land and housing and means of living, and to take up the symbolically hopeful signpost of the end of the play. Shylock’s daughter steals from his house, breaks out of the cycle of retribution, and marries a Christian. This is a comedy, a play that ends with unity, unlike Romeo and Juliet.

‘To perform this play as if it is only about the shocking past of mistreatment of Jews is to miss the point of a play that carefully balances justice, and shows the scales come down on the side of mercy, because the other way leads only to death. The present scandal of the illegal appropriation of Palestinian land, the reduction of Palestinians to shuffling queues of migrant workers, cowed civilians dodging sniper fire from towers, demands that an acting group confronting the text, interpret it in the light of one of the worst injustices of our time. The pursuit of ‘merely justice’ in the play (exacting Shylock’s bond of a pound of flesh) would lead to bloodshed, which the law does not allow. It is not difficult to apply this to the Israeli treatment of Palestinian land, even if by some bizarre and convoluted argument they could say that it belonged to them.’

Please contact the festival directors at [email protected], to register your own opinion of these plans.

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