Dareen Tatour in conversation with Einat Weizman: the role of art and intellectual diversity against the ‘loyalty in culture’ bill

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The Knesset session began on November 5, 2018 in an atmosphere full of democracy, resembling a theater where a new play is staged, during which members of the Knesset exchanged insults and offenses. Verbal altercations erupted between legislatures when Oren Hazan from the Likud party described Meretz’s Ilan Gilon, who uses a wheelchair, as “half a human.” Hazan then refused to apologize before another doubled the insult back at him.

After a few minutes of back and forth, Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev stood up and began her speech by naming a few works of art that have been recently presented in the country’s theaters, such as Palestinian former prisoner Walid Daqqa’s play “A Parallel Time,” which played at the Al-Midan Theater. She then moved to list works by director and actress Einat Weizman such as “Prison Notebooks,” “Prisoners of the Occupation,” “The State of Israel against Poet Dareen Tatour,” before reading part of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “Write Down, I am Arab” (sometimes titled “ID Card”), and my poem “Resist, My People.”  

This is to say, in a long speech that went on for three long hours, the minister of culture said she will not fund venues that present the aforementioned works. These works should instead be banned and censored. She also spoke of why there must be a vote on the loyalty in culture bill, drafted by her, and why there should broadly be loyalty in art to the state of Israel, so she claimed. If the bill becomes a law, it will grant Regev the sole discretion to decide what projects should be censored, what projects critical of Israel constitute “incitement.”

At the same time the law was discussed at the Knesset, I sat with my friend Einat Weizman talking about our strong friendship that was born between jail and detention, which I have been through for the last three years because of a poem I wrote against the occupation’s practices against my Palestinian people.

We were considering our joint artwork and revising the script of the play that we wrote together and that was recently performed at the Tmu-na Theater; we laughed, we cried, we got happy and we got sad at the memories of everything we went through during the period following the premier of our joint play “I, Dareen Tatour,” which also did not escape Miri Regev’s incitement to ban and censor, and for the Tmu-na Theatre to be penalized for showing, and still is showing, the play.

With all these mixed feelings that are full of life, work, hope and contradictions, we, like many other Palestinian and Israeli artists, were also waiting for this Israeli Knesset debate to end and for an announcement on the result of the first vote for Regev’s loyalty in culture bill. We would look at the screens of our phones between moments of work and discussion to read the news regarding the bill, continuing until we received the true news that the Knesset approved the first reading, with 55 voting in favor, and 44 objecting. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested, at the end of the session, that the next law (that should be approved) is the death penalty for Palestinians convicted of killing Israelis. He also spoke against the early parole bill, a proposal to reduce sentences for all prisoners, including Palestinians, by one-third.

In the end the bill passed its first of three readings. The chance Einat and I will both face legal pursuit increased. Yet what is more worrisome for us is that our artworks–whether Einat’s plays that she either writes or directs, or my poems–are inching towards a position where they will be examined, tested and controlled by the Israeli authorities. 

We could be interrogated by the police over our artworks, do they go along with this law of loyalty?  

I looked at Einat, she looked at me, we both smiled; a smile full of indefinite meanings. That is when I decided to write about this law and the reality it would impose on artists here, in the country, whether Palestinians, of whom I am part, or leftist Israelis such as Einat. We are both living examples of the consequences and effects on artistic life here in Israel. I, as a Palestinian poet, was detained, jailed and was a victim of such racist laws that were imposed against me very strictly, which stole three years of my life that I have spent moving between prison, house arrest and other forms of detention. I still suffer from the racism of these laws and I will keep suffering from them for another three years as the Israeli authorities can send me back to jail if I publish a political poem that is directly against the occupation by claiming that I would have broken the law, according to the sentence imposed upon me on July 31, 2018.

Einat Weizman, the leftist actress, director and writer who is against occupation and mainly tackles political documentary theater in her artworks. Because of her documentary plays and shows in theater until today, she has become increasingly subjected to legal pursuit and interrogation as she opposes the policy of occupation through her artworks that show the reality in which Palestinians in Israel suffer.

Einat Weizman has theatrically released five plays so far: “Shame,” which shows the relationship between art and politics; “Palestine, Year Zero,” which tell the story of home demolitions and the continuous Nakba, “House 113,” an artwork that tackles Bedouins’ resistance in the unrecognized village of al-Araqib to keep their lands and prevent its confiscation; “The Occupation’s Prisoners,” in which she talks about the lives of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails and the conditions they suffer from (the play was banned in Israel); and her latest play “I, Dareen Tatour,” in which she talks about the story of my detention and what I went through in jail. I also embody the reality of the occupation in my poem and I talk about it. Einat does the same in her plays; she presents the reality of life in Israel and Palestine and uses theater as a tool to search and investigate, and at times to raise unusual issues in Israel, and sometimes to present a different story other than those presented by the ruling party. Of course, because of this choice, she faces many challenges and finds herself faced by a direct confrontation with the ruling establishment in the country, which rejects and makes it difficult to absorb this kind of art. Thus, she has suffered from attempts to censor her art and attacks because of her political orientation.

In order to clarify the situation in which we are living, I had this conversation with her:

Dareen Tatour: How can the complicated relationship between art and politics be explained?

Einat Weizman: Art is essentially political, and the relationship changes in accordance with the historical and political period. The role of art is to raise questions, challenge and motivate the public to listen to a new speech and publish disturbing (or uncomfortable), hidden subjects. I think art should try to overcome the aesthetics and pleasures and create social systems searching to have an impact on and effect reality and that are not only to be presented and approved. Every artistic production of my works is preceded by research and joint work with communities and victims. Stages are joint, they create strong relationships that exist even outside the scope of the work itself. I think that these stages of a joint work, as it is with prisoners or with the community in the al-Araqib, can be a main basis for coexistence, a genuine partnership and for a society (the strongest) not to overpower/control another.

DT: Beginning with “Shame”, to “I, Dareen Tatour,” what has changed in your art, thoughts, opinions and the type of plays you present?

EW: There is a principle and style for my plays as they are always based on facts and real events, they have something close to giving a testimony. I believe that the play with you created something very special, different and unique; something I have not lived in my previous plays. I have been immersed in you emotionally, intellectually and ideologically like never before.

Einat was not the only one to live this state, I was like her; immersed in her and in the plays with all of my feelings, writings and thoughts. I could say I was immersed in how to find a common language between us that would eliminate all the differences between us; especially those between both our Palestinian and Jewish people, through art, humanity and love, as the play is a joint work between two women surrounded by many challenges, cultural, social and national differences. However, art removed all of these differences, gathered the idea and united the heart and mind for us to be in a beautiful relationship characterized by mutual love and respect and finding a mutual life between us as a Palestinian and her as a Jewish Israeli.

In our artistic and humanitarian relationship, we were able to find a mutual life that would remove all the obstacles and differences; something that the Israeli authorities did not understand about the importance of art that discusses our issues as Palestinians in Israel, but rather increase the tensions and conflicts. The most recent of which is this bill that increases the gap between the two people and prevents them from finding a mutual language; the language of art that mimics our pain and agony. In the mutual art that we offer, we can unite people and eliminate many of the differences that emerged with the existence of the occupation. I do not rule out finding real peace through the art that sheds the truth and which Israel, through its right-wing extremist government, officially bans and prevents its delivery through the loyalty in culture bill.

DT: How would you define the loyalty in culture bill?

EW: To my regret (unfortunately), loyalty in culture has existed long before the bill did, most artists realized the national identity of the period and they know very well the subjects that could cause them trouble and the subjects that are easier on them to talk about and that receive support and encouragement; several years ago, a new prize was created, “The Zionist Creative Works Prize.” Several artists use self-censorship on their creations, they use allusions and symbols instead of talking about specific things as they are. I believe that the status quo here is very crucial and very critical to the point that there is no time to use symbols. The role of artist is like a mirror; it is not always there to show pretty things for the society but to expose things, too, and to highlight phenomena and show what is marginalized.

DT: How does the bill affect you and your art as an Israeli artist?

EW: The bill does not affect me, it affects cultural institutions that are afraid of taking a decisive, critical stand when dealing with problematic cases in the Israeli society, in fear of punishment and economic-funding cancellation by the ministry. That is why it is harder for me than any time before to find theaters that are ready to take the consequences and give a stage to present such cases.

DT: But after every artistic production you present and show on stage, they attempt to punish the institution that presented it, or boycott the play; these acts also hurt you, your work, your livelihood. You live and earn your livelihood from art and artistic production?

EW: It is very difficult to earn livelihood out of the type of art that I present. I live off teaching acting and I enjoy this very much, it gives me a chance to take a break from everything that occupies me.

DT: Is Einat Weizman today the same Einat Weizman after the bill was approved in its first reading? 

EW: The bill certainly had not and would not change me, I will continue with my true self, my honesty and nature are the only thing that controls and moves me. (The belief in my heart is stronger.)

DT: You are the first to have suffered from this bill as an Israeli artist? Right?

EW: In fact, the bill will never be executed. I have suffered in its first stages, I suffered in threats and threatening messages to everyone working on canceling the economic budget and support of them. I produced two evenings at the Jaffa Theatre that are both still being examined at the ministry of finance; one titled “Prison Books” in which I read letters written by political prisoners, and another in support of you The State of Israel against Poet Dareen Tatour” in which I read some protocols of your trials. The play on prisoners of the occupation was censored and banned by the organizing steering committee of the Akko festival after being approved by the technical committee. This exclusion was because of a post I wrote on Facebook as evidence of the unacceptable political views. This exclusion received the full support of the Minister of Culture Miri Regev, who added to it and incited against me saying that I support and am pro-terrorist whose hands are stained with blood.

This situation has created solidarity of all other artists to me and my position, so that the festival’s technical director resigned from his position in protest against the ban and thus canceled the entire festival. Despite the great solidarity at the festival, after that I did not find any other theater in Israel that agreed to produce or give a stage to show the banned play. The “Prisoners of Occupation” play must be presented and there actually are several cultural organizations in the world that are interested in producing it, and I hope that it would be presented on stage as soon as possible.

As you know this is the maximum that could happen to me as an Israeli Jew, and perhaps the most extreme of things that could happen in comparison with what you have went through in prison and house arrest because of a poem you have written, so I feel a little silly talking to you about these things in comparison with all that you have suffered.

It is true that what happened to me will not happen to any Israeli Jewish artist and I am not sad about it. On the contrary, I am very happy that Israeli artists enjoy the freedom of expression, unlike us Palestinians in this country.

Einat Weizman attends a photocall for “Rabin, The Last Day” during the 72nd Venice Film Festival at Palazzo del Casino on September 7, 2015 in Venice, Italy. (Photo: Dominique Charriau/WireImage/Getty Images)

After I suddenly found myself in prison because of a poem that I wrote and posted on Facebook and after the first reading of the loyalty in culture bill by the Knesset, I began to feel that this law targets my identity, my history and my language, and puts all of its values and standards in a place of doubt and question. Thus, in Israeli laws, everything Palestinians turns into a place of doubt and calls for an investigation against it and for the charge of terrorism to be fixed upon it.

Therefore, because my holding on to my Palestinian identity has become a crime and terrorism in this time of democracy, if it is to be called democracy, it has also become hard for me to abandon my principle of writing, writing everything I feel about injustice, racism, oppression and occupation. And because I am Palestinian, I am not able to resist all of this prejudice, occupation and racism, even if peacefully and through art that I am good at, that is writing poetry. So, Israel attempts to practice the policy of occupation on arts, besides the land, human beings and home country. However, it does not know that art does not recognize any boundaries.

When I started receiving news, while under house arrest, on the possibility of Einat Weizman being interrogated because of the evening she organized in my support, I felt severe pain. It was very worrisome to me that an evening organized in my support could be the reason for closing down a theater that presents art. It is true that I faced injustice and was imprisoned by the Israeli authorities, but I reject that any artist, regardless of their identity or political views, would go through what I went through even if they were Israeli and have incited against me and wished extreme punishment to be placed upon me, and that is indeed what happened. True art teaches people love and sacrifice, and that is its first message towards humanity. It is true that art shows the differences between us as humans, in our thoughts and life, but it is the perfect way to find solutions and change through constructive criticism; something that the Israeli government cancels by approving the loyalty in culture bill. Israel, with its new bill, not only abides art to its ruling authority but tries to strip artists of their humanity, too.

DT: Is the bill’s purpose to punish artists who are against and refuse occupation?

EW:  The loyalty in culture bill has caused a huge stir, the reason for that is that this bill will hurt the more fortunate classes, the Israeli Jews, but for several years there has been a severe and powerful blow to the freedom of the Palestinians to express their opinion. The Al-Midan Theater was [temporarily] closed three years ago, where were the protests at the time? This theater is one of the most important artistic platforms for Palestinian citizens in Israel to present their theatrical works. A Palestinian poet (you) thrown in jail for publishing a poem while Israeli poets continue to write, publish and organize poetic evenings. For us Jewish Israelis, the threshold of our struggle has dropped. If we had struggled in the past against the occupation, today we have to only fight for the right to say “enough for occupation.”

DT: As an actress and director, have your political views and opinions harmed your work with theaters, directors and shows?

EW: In the past, I enjoyed the audience’s love, today I suffer of threats and hatred messages. Of course, it is difficult for me to find a job only by determining my political identity, I am already aware of the price and am ready to pay it.

DT: Would the leftist Israeli artist become careless of the reality with this bill? Could the Israeli artist ignore the occupation and the Nakba (catastrophe) in the art that is being presented to the viewer? Could the artist really be like that?

EW: As I said, art is essentially political, an artist just like any other person, must be aware and conscious of politics, even if they were not a direct part of it. It appears to me at this time, in this place, that these are the pressing cases that must be dealt with and presented.

DT:How could artists stand against the loyalty in culture bill and challenge its existence, in your opinion?

EW: To continue to be creative, to continue to criticize, today more than ever, to find other means to gain money and fund artistic works, to work with places that are supported by the state.

DT:The freedom of expression and democracy, do they have room with the loyalty in culture bill?

EW: Even before this bill, these did not have room here, and the best proof on this is you.

If the bill becomes a law, Minister Regev will have the authority to determine the allowed and banned artistic cultural standards. If the artwork harms the state as she claims, the bill gives the Israeli authorities the right to lower or entirely cancel the budgets of cultural institutions in accordance with Regev’s standards. Therefore, everything Palestinian, to her, is a threat to Israel and its Judaism and is actually banned because everything that we present as Palestinian artists has a political face and talk about our basic causes in the struggle, the Nakba, the Right of Return, prisoners, martyrs, the Intifada and resistance of all types of suppression.

The more there are laws, the more artists insist on bringing out their voice and message. The case here with this law is not about silencing the mouths of the left but silencing everything that is different or against the authority. The problem also here for us Palestinians is that we want to hold on to our Palestinian identity in art and bring to life the continuous Nakba and every scene of racism that we suffer of under this cover of alleged democracy. Despite that this bill was not the first and won’t be the last either under the rightist extreme government in Israel, we at the same time do not have any other tangible alternatives whether for the budgets or theaters, a reality we cannot hide. Thus, we must seriously consider working on finding a project that would give art its independence off the authority, where we will have the chance to achieve our intellectual, cultural and artistic independence today more than ever before by working on a project that would free us of this cultural and artistic occupation.

When I look at our mutual experiences, Einat Weizman and I, I find it the best example for uniting all artists; Palestinians and Jews. The Art that was created between us was able to overcome the language barrier, constant struggle and the contradictions, that produced huge love and creativity carrying a message with noble meanings in its simplicity and sincerity. The art that was born between us is the best ambassador between Palestinians and Jews under the government and laws that would only create more injustice, oppression and racism, and expands the gap between the Palestinians and Jewish societies, prevent achieving peace and equality between both. Therefore, to achieve peace and create something that seemed impossible for all artists to follow the steps of what we achieved together, and we will achieve it in the coming days, Einat and I, with poetry, writing, poetry and love, then, the voice of art must win and light its light everywhere in front of the darkness of all of these laws and its shallowness.

The art that was born from us established one country for both peoples as long as they look and keep looking for peace. Miri Regev and the rightist policies are still very far from the true message of art which we reached through our inciting, outlaw art, as they say. They are afraid of words, afraid of pictures, afraid of the stage and afraid of every artistic or literary expression that embodies the Palestinian right and expresses the Palestinian culture. They attempt to Judaize the cultural scene, to blackout the Palestinian story as they do not realize the true meaning of art and the importance of accepting cultural diversity is the safe road for creating a dialogue between the different cultures to be able to reach the right amount of understanding, love and peace. We are in a crucial need here and especially here, more than any time before, for roads that brings points of views in both societies together rather than separating them and increasing the space between them.

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It seems individual Jewish attachment to tribe meets the fact individual Palestinian attachment to tribe is at least as strong. What? Is all Art Agitprop? I don’t think so.