Friday, April 13, 2012

WAR IN THEATRELAND: Netanyahu's misguided missiles programmed with ignorance and lies

IT might have been a blast from the past, but it had the impact of a damp squib. Playwright Arnold Wesker was wheeled out on Wednesday's Guardian letters page heading signatories to a letter saying "We welcome Israel's national theatre".

Delighted that the Globe theatre has invited the Habima to perform The Merchant of Venice in London, the writers extol the Hebrew theatre's virtues in standing up to oppression (a century ago, in Russia) and exploring "the challenges faced by the Jewish people", describing it as "a symbol of the cultural success of the State of Israel".

They go on to claim that now, as in the past, "there are those who wish to oppose their work, seeking to delegitimise the State of Israel and its success, the Jewish people, and even the Hebrew language itself."

(Guardian , April 11)

Lifelong Zionist Wesker's dedication to artistic freedom is remembered for his effort to ban Jim Allan's play Perdition, which dealt with Zionist leaders' collaboration with the Nazis in wartime Hungary. Other signatories include Maureen Lipmann, remembered among other things for her "Jewish grandmother" role as Beattie in the 1980s British Telecomm ads, and with less affection for her defence of Israeli attacks on Gaza. The actress said the Israelis could not be limited by proportionality, because Arabs did not value their children's lives as much as they did.

Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, Wesker went as far as comparing opposition to Habima with "Nazi book burning".

Another person condemning those who oppose the Habima invitation has been Howard Jacobson, who suggested criticism of Israel's assault on Gaza was making Britain as antisemitic as Nazi Germany on the eve of Kristallnacht. So far as we have heard this frightening comparison did not lead to Jacobson packing his bags for alyah to Israel. He has won a Booker prize with his novel accusing Jews who opposed Israeli policies of being "ashamed to be Jewish". Now he is applauding the Globe welcoming Habima, and denouncing the boycotters.

That phrase about opponents and critics trying to "delegitimise the State of Israel" has become so familiar now it must be time the Zionist state's guardians learned a new password before they fall asleep at their posts. Or, perhaps as we've ventured into theatreland we might suggest they need a new and improved script. But leaving aside the state and its legitimacy, or otherwise, as a member of "the Jewish people", even with a mere smattering of Hebrew, I am alarmed by the suggestion we need to be legitimised, and still more by the idea this should depend on a particular theatre company.

I have never been keen on a blanket policy of cultural boycott. I even agree with Wesker's letter when it says the theatre's artistic work should not be "hijacked" for political purposes, and adds: "No artists should attempt to silence the expression of other artists simply because they are Israeli".

Indeed not. So who is "hijacking" cultural activity, or rather hitching it up to their political aims, and who is attempting to silence Israeli artists? For a few years now, Israeli propagandists have been talking about marketing "Brand Israel", hoping to sidestep concerns about military policies and oppression of the Palestinians by selling cultural and scientific achievements (even the drones in use by NATO!) and tourism.

It was Nissim Ben-Sheetrit of Israel’s Foreign Ministry who said: “We see culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between propaganda and culture.”

As for cultural autonomy, my fellow blogger Naomi Wimbourne-Idrissi points out: "Artists who accept funding from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs are required to sign a contract which states that the artist 'is aware that the purpose of ordering services from him is to promote the policy interests of the State of Israel via culture and art, including contributing to creating a positive image for Israel.'"

It is those defending the Globe invitation who are silencing, or at any rate ignoring, Israeli artists - those who are critical of Habima because of its relation to the state, and implication in the occupation of Palestinian territory, and who were the first to write about it. Here is what some Israeli campaigners said in a letter to the Globe:

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. Last year, a large group of Israeli theatre professionals – actors, stage directors, playwrights – declared they would not take part in such performances; among them were such well-known people as Joshua Sobol, Edna Mazia, Shmuel Hasfari and Anat Gov. For several weeks, this was a major issue on the Israeli public agenda, and the aforementioned Israeli theatre professionals have received much support from colleagues abroad, such as Stephen Sondheim, Mary Rodgers, Tony Kushner, Mandy Patinkin, Theodore Bikel, Mira Nair, Julianne Moore, Vanessa Redgrave, Hal Prince, Roseanne Barr and other Broadway and Hollywood stars.
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The dissident Israeli theatre professionals have argued that the West bank settlements had been created in violation of International Law and with the specific aim of blocking any possibility of achieving peace with the Palestinians; that the expropriation of land in an occupied territory and the creation and maintenance of armed settlement enclaves are the very opposite of what is commonly termed "Culture"; and that therefore, a settlement maintaining a "Hall of Culture" was a blatant contradiction in terms.
It is especially noteworthy that Ariel and Kiryat Arba, like most settlements, are surrounded by walls and fences, closely guarded by soldiers and their own armed security personnel. A theatrical performance in a settlement is by definition a performance to an exclusively Israeli audience, with Palestinians living even in the nearest village being physically excluded from any chance of attending.
Despite all of the above, however, 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". Moreover, the management specifically promised Limor Livnat, Minister of Culture in the Netanyahu Government, to "deal with any problems hindering such performances", i.e. to pressure recalcitrant actors into taking part in them, even against the dictates of their conscience. And it must be pointed out that for several months, Habima has indeed sent out its actors to hold theatrical performances in West Bank settlements, on a regular basis.
As Israeli citizens who are deeply concerned about the future of all people living in the region we deplore this attitude. 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. By inviting Habima to perform in London, you are siding with its administrators in the debate on settlement performances, and you are taking a step against the conscientious Israeli actors and playwrights who have refused to perform in the settlements."

It is plainly this call from within Israel, as well as pleas for solidarity from Palestinians, that was echoed in the letter from artists in Britain, who include Dr.Jonathan Miller, Miryam Margolies, Mike Leigh and Alexei Sayle. Messrs. Wesker, Lipmann and Jacobson might disagree, but they are not entitled to ignore the background or pretend they are answering opponents who are simply anti-Israeli or even anti-Jewish. The least one can say about the Wesker letter and similar comments are that they ignorant, but the effect of what they are trying to say is thoroughly dishonest. If they are depending on the Israeli embassy or its fronts for information they have been supplied with a lousy script.

For more background see:

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