Hundreds gathered on Monday at the Habima theater in Tel Aviv to demonstrate support for its actors who are boycotting performances in the West Bank city of Ariel.

MK Dov Henin (Hadash) said that, "the Israeli theater is not and will not be a puppet theater. It is a theater of people with independent thoughts and consciences."

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The protests came after managers said that an artists’ boycott has only fueled the public’s interest in the soon-to-be-opened cultural center in the Ariel settlement, and will have a negligible effect on the schedule for the center’s debut season.

“Our schedule for this year has only eight theatrical shows, and out of these, only two shows include actors who signed the letter vowing not to appear at the cultural center,” Ariel Turgeman, the cultural center’s manager, told The Jerusalem Post.

“The theatrical performances are only a small part of what we have planned for the cultural center – we’ll also have children’s shows, concerts, all types of events planned,” Turgeman said, adding that he felt the significance of the boycott letter had been exaggerated in the media.

On Saturday, following media reports that several major theater houses are scheduled to perform at the center, 36 professional theater actors and workers issued a letter in which they vowed not to perform there because it is in the West Bank.

Late Monday evening, authors Amos Oz, David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua and Sami Michael, as well as Israel Prize laureate, sculptor and architect Dani Caravan signed a petition supporting the boycott, as did additional actors and directors.

The letter was widely criticized by members of the public and government leaders, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who at the beginning of Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting said, “The State of Israel is under an attack of delegitimization by elements in the international community. This attack includes attempts to enact economic, academic and cultural boycotts. The last thing we need at this time is to be under such an attack – I mean this attempt at a boycott – from within.”

The Ariel Cultural Center is set to open on November 8, with productions scheduled by the Beersheba Theater, the Cameri Theater, the Habima National Theater and Jerusalem’s Khan Theater.

It has taken more than 20 years to build the cultural center because of recurrent problems with funding. It will include a main theater with an upper mezzanine and seating for 530 people, and a smaller auditorium with seating for 100.

The center’s secretary, Jenny Simon, a 20-year resident of Ariel originally from the US, said the boycott letter has had “the reverse effect from what they [the authors] wanted.”

“We saw the impact of this letter in the petitions of support for us signed by people from all over the country, and the fact that the phones have not stopped ringing since yesterday. People from outside of Ariel, from Kfar Saba, Petah Tikva and other places, are calling and ordering tickets, saying they’ll make a point of coming to see shows in Ariel instead of their own cities.”

Simon said the center will play an important social and cultural role for residents of Ariel and others living outside the city, who would otherwise have to travel to Tel Aviv, Petah Tikva or elsewhere to enjoy such cultural offerings.

The anger that Simon said callers and residents expressed was echoed by locals in Ariel on Monday, including kiosk owner Avi Levy.

“Everyone in Ariel thought the same thing of the letter: They’re treating us like we’re second-rate citizens. They need to remember that 90 percent of the soldiers from Ariel serve in combat units and give their all to this country,” Levy said.

If he had his way, “those actors would be kicked out of the actors’ collective,” a sentiment that was shared by Uzi, a patron of the kiosk and a resident of Ariel.

“I have a membership in the Cameri Theater, which I may cancel now,” Uzi said. “Maybe they [the actors who wrote the letter] should open a branch of the Cameri in Nablus if that’s what they want.”

In Tel Aviv on Monday evening, hundreds of people came to a demonstration organized by Peace Now to show support for the actors’ boycott. Those in attendance at the rally outside the Habima National Theater included MKs Haim Oron and Nitzan Horovitz of Meretz, and Dov Henin of Hadash.

Peace Now general-secretary Yariv Oppenheimer said the rally “wasn’t only sending a message about the occupation, but also about democracy. These actors have the right to exercise their own free will and not perform somewhere they don’t want to.”

When asked to respond to critics who have said that art and culture shouldn’t be mixed with politics, Oppenheimer said, “Of course they mix, and culture and art have a role to play in speaking about issues of values and morals.”

Following widespread public outcry and threats to cancel theater memberships, several of the actors who signed the letter – Dror Keren, Irit Kaplan, Alon Dahan, Olah Shor and Micha Slackter – rescinded their support for the boycott.

In a letter sent to the management of the Cameri Theater on Sunday, Keren said, “I never signed a document calling for a boycott against anyone, and I will never do such a thing.”

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