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Israeli dramaturgist: ‘Habima theatre is an active participant in Palestinian oppression’

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As I have stated in previous posts here and here, the refusal in the UK by Shakespeare’s Globe to rescind the invitation to the Israeli national theatre, Habima, is because – it claims – it will not punish Israeli artists for what they are compelled to do by law – namely perform in illegal, exclusively-Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.

This echoes the plea for sympathy recently made to the Observer by Habima’s artistic director, Ilan Ronen: “This is the law. We have no choice. We have to go, otherwise there is no financial support. It is not easy…”. The Palestinian boycott is institutional so while it applauds public expressions of dissent by individual members of the company, it is only concerned with the fact that, as stated by co-manager Odelia Friedman, “Habima will perform for all residents of Israel. Residents of Ariel are residents of Israel and Habima will stage shows for them”.

Now Israeli dramaturgist Vardit Shalfy, one of the initiators of the 2010 artists letter to the boards of Israel’s repertory theaters announcing they will refuse to perform in the ‘hall of culture’ on Ariel settlement, has written an article in Haaretz supporting the call for the Globe to exclude Habima from its festival. Crucially, she counters the Globe-supported narrative that Habima is another victim of Israeli apartheid policies, or that it is an exception:

Habima is not the only theatre in Israel which is complicit in violations of human rights. All repertory theatres in Israel perform in the settlements. The administrators of these theatres try to stress one point in their defense: money. They argue that the government compels them to perform in the settlements by cracking the budgetary whip. In fact, support by the ministry of culture amounts to no more than 30% of the theatres’ budgets. One can also ask whether it is moral and legitimate to perform anywhere and in front of any audience simply for a budgetary excuse. Would theatre administrators accept an invitation to perform at a homophobic conference? an event organized by rabbis advocating the exclusion of women? a paedophile convention? (Translation Ofer N.)

I asked Shalfy whether, if Habima rejected the state funding that obligates them to perform “for all residents of Israel”, the Israeli government would attempt, and succeed, in shutting them down, or changing the management? She responded:

I don’t know which sanctions the government would have imposed had the theatres objected to performing in settlements. But, protest was possible, and the mobilization of public opinion in Israel and abroad was possible. Theatre administrators could have raised the missing funds (30%) from supportive donors in Israel and abroad. However, they have chosen to obey without questions.

She further undermined Habima’s victimhood narrative by explaining to me how the theatre company has chosen complicity rather than been forced into it:

Theatre administrators could have come together and generated a public outcry. Let’s not forget that government ministers would like to be re-elected. No minister wants to be portrayed as the minister who closed the theatres.

A longer excerpt from Vardit Shalfy’s courageous article in Hebrew has been translated by Sol Salbe: 

Those who oppose the boycott, from within and without, resorted to the old stand-by argument: Among those invited to the festival, Israel is not the only country that violates human rights. So why pick on Habima? But even if we ignore the childishness of the argument (just because “others do it” does not justify committing an offence), it is evident that it is based on disinformation and demagoguery.

Habima’s critics in Britain do not claim that the theatre is unworthy of participation in the festival because it is Israeli, nor do the claim that is unworthy because it represents a country that violates human rights. They object to Habima because it appears in the Ariel Cultural Centre. In other words it is not the state that Habima represents that is on trial, but the theatre itself, as the regime’s collaborator in implementing its policy.

The Habima Theatre stage is an active participant in oppressing the Palestinians, because by appearing at the Ariel Cultural Centre, “as it does elsewhere in Israel’ (even though Ariel is not in Israel, not even according to the laws of the state itself), it actually takes part in the huge effort undertaken by the government to normalise the settlements.

Is there another theatre among the 37 invited to the festival which collaborates so directly in the violation of human rights? Does the Chinese theatre troupe, for example, help the police in oppressing the Tibetan people? The answer, most likely is no. Therefore, in Habima’s critics’ view, the Chinese theatre troupe shouldn’t be excluded from the festival.

President Shimon Peres has acknowledged the effectiveness of the cultural boycott – singling out the Habima/Globe campaign. This is from an interview with the newspaper Maariv last week, as reported by

“Israel has been blessed with a lot of talent that manufactures many excellent products,” he said. “And in order to export you need good products, but you also need good relations. So why make peace? Because if Israel’s image gets worse, it will begin to suffer boycotts. There is already an artistic boycott against us — they won’t let Habimah Theatre enter London — and signs of an undeclared financial boycott are beginning to emerge.”

Eleanor Kilroy

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4 Responses

  1. OlegR on May 3, 2012, 11:18 am

    Should Habima have joined the boycott of Ariel.
    It would not have to worry as much from the government refusing to fund it
    but from the people refusing to go to it’s shows.
    It is an Israeli theater, no Israeli watching it then no theater.
    It’s as simple as that.

    • Mooser on May 4, 2012, 6:29 pm

      Gosh, Oleg, you’ve got one heck of a way with the English language! Did you ever think of writing plays for the deaf?

  2. pabelmont on May 3, 2012, 12:10 pm

    Just following orders (orders backed up by money — remember when NPR lost most gov’t funding but it still survives (perhaps with too much zio money)).

    I agree with whoever said the managers of ALL Israeli theaters should have made a joint decision not to play the OPTs. Strength in numbers, call it “Just NOT following orders.”

  3. DICKERSON3870 on May 3, 2012, 2:34 pm

    RE: “Habima’s critics in Britain do not claim that the theatre is unworthy of participation in the festival because it is Israeli, nor do the claim that is unworthy because it represents a country that violates human rights. They object to Habima because it appears in the Ariel Cultural Centre.” ~ Vardit Shalfy

    MY COMMENT: Apparently “Pastor” John Hagee and his Christian Zionist followers provided much of the funding for the Ariel Cultural Centre.

    SEE: Recruiting Brecht to Whitewash Occupation, by Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam, 4/26/10

    (excerpts) Poor Bertolt Brecht. He’s rolling over in his grave after learning that Israel’s cultural commissars are exploiting him to whitewash the Occupation. Haaretz reports that four maor Israeli theater companies will grace the boards of the new cultural center in Ariel, satirically referred to in one blog post on the subject as “the capital of Samaria.” It will be the first time any major Israeli company has performed in the Conquered Territories. Ironically, one of the plays to be performed is The Caucasian Chalk-Circle by Brecht. . .
    . . . Ariel’s mayor [Ron Nachman] disingenously professes not to have a clue why there should be any controversy. . .
    . . . Nachman wants Israeli liberal culture to buttress his settler enterprise. And the Israeli arts community appears only too willing to go along for the ride.
    News accounts note that completion of the project was delayed for 20 years for lack of funding. Without providing details, they say that Nachman recently secured funding to complete the center. Dare we guess who might’ve been the Sugar Daddy? John Hagee’s Israel-settler philanthropy notes a $500,000 gift in return for naming the main building of Ariel’s Milken Sports Complex for Hagee. Since so much of the settlement’s infrastructure and amenities are funded by Hagee and other Christian Zionists, it’s quite possible that Israeli theatergoers have Christian Zionist philanthropy to thank for ruining their theater seasons with potential subscriber boycotts and the like. . .


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