My Word: Theater of the absurd

Shakespeare might not have had a word for it, but I call it “chutzpah.”

By
April 7, 2012 22:40
Actress Emma Thompson

Actress Emma Thompson 370. (photo credit: reuters)

There is a tendency for op-ed writers discussing anything related to the theater to include two phrases: “All the world’s a stage” and “The show must go on.”

Having got them out of the way, I can tackle the latest drama involving Israel – which takes the first phrase to its absurd extremes and turns the second into a much shakier version of the cliche.

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Sense and Sensibility scriptwriter and star Emma Thompson, showing a remarkable lack of both attributes, is the latest big name calling for a cultural boycott of Israel.

In Britain or not in Britain? That is the question being bandied around by certain stars of stage and screen, including two-time Oscar winner Thompson and regular Oscar nominee Mike Leigh, who last week put their names to a petition expressing “dismay and regret” that Habimah, Israel’s Tel Aviv-based national theater company, had been invited to participate in a six-week Shakespeare festival taking place at London’s Globe Theatre.

The stage was set for the latest boycott calls when Habimah held performances in the Ariel cultural center, over the Green Line.

“Habimah has a shameful record of involvement with illegal Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory,” says the protest letter, published in Britain’s Guardian newspaper on March 29.

“We ask the Globe to withdraw the invitation so that the festival is not complicit with human rights violations and the illegal colonisation of occupied land.”

This is the call by people who seem to have lost the plot.

The festival, which begins on April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday, includes 37 international companies performing the Bard’s plays in 37 languages.

Apparently, the artists opposed to Israel’s inclusion have no problem with the participation of such luminaries of human rights as China – the National Theater of China is scheduled to perform Richard III – or the Palestinian Ashtar Theater, which will perform Richard II.

I don’t have a problem with their inclusion either. It’s the boycott that I oppose.

Similarly, I don’t object to Iran participating in the Academy Awards – although I’m patriotically disappointed that it happened to beat Israel’s entry, Footnote, to gain the Oscar for the best foreign language film in February.

I do mind Syria still sitting on the United Nations Human Rights Council. If leaders in Iran, Syria and the Palestinian territories were to concentrate on exporting culture rather than a culture of terror, I’d be the first to give them a round of applause.

Unfortunately, the first connotation of the word “bombing” where I’m sitting has nothing to do with box-office sales.

Ariel may or may not be part of Israel depending on your political persuasion, but its taking center stage in the latest boycott effort shows that it is inarguably part of the Middle East. And for the record, the vast majority of Israelis do think of it as part of a consensus.

Its residents, hungry for culture rather than the bloodthirsty monsters they are portrayed to be, are a lot like you or me.

No Israeli government – not even the most concessionary – has suggested giving up major centers like Ariel, the Etzion bloc or Ma’aleh Adumim, although such protests are obviously intended as curtain raisers for this step.

It’s strange that instead of using theater to cross cultural divides – and who better than Shakespeare to demonstrate the timeless universality of human emotions – the self-appointed elite of the cultural world prefers to exploit it to create even greater divisions and disharmony.

Assuming the show does indeed go on, it will presumably be the target of picketing and heckling (and, hopefully, nothing more physically harmful).

You may recall that in a different culture clash, a performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in London’s Albert Hall in September was so disrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters that the BBC’s live broadcast had to be abandoned.

In its more than 100-year history, Habimah has not steered away from controversy. The national theater, which recently returned to its newly refurbished iconic building in Tel Aviv, is well known for a repertoire that includes the work of late anti-war satirist Hanoch Levin, for example.

It’s a free country (yes, despite what you might have read elsewhere): People in Israel, like those in the United Kingdom, openly speak their minds.

Israeli artists and intellectuals – who continue to be the heart of the ever-dwindling number of hard-core left-wingers, come to think of it – have also condemned performances in Judea and Samaria, particularly in Ariel and more recently in Kiryat Arba. That’s their right, even if I happen to think they’re wrong.

People are “free” to speak their minds in the Palestinian territories, too, but given the latest spate of arrests of journalists by the Palestinian Authority, it takes a great deal more courage than someone like Emma Thompson putting her name on a letter in the Guardian.

Peace-loving protesters and BDS supporters would undoubtedly reject any suggestion that they have something in common with the terrorists who try to shoot down peace and coexistence. But, as I have noted before, such attacks are an inevitable result of the delegitimization process.

Attacks begin with “settlers” – who are barely considered real people, not worthy even of a theater – but they do not stop there. They have a way of developing into attacks that reach the very heart of the country, or anywhere where Jews can be found.

I wonder if the petition signers really understand their lines, or are simply repeating what they have been taught to declaim. Perhaps they just like being in the limelight, and bashing Israel is an easy way to grab headlines. (Though, Heaven knows, being demonstrably anti-Israel is hardly news.)

Ironically, in London, Habimah is scheduled to perform The Merchant of Venice, leading me to wonder, to paraphrase Shylock: If you prick a settler, will he not bleed?

How absurd this latest drama is can be seen in who are the most vocal local proponents of the “Israel is an apartheid state” myth. Possibly those who have the best stage are the Arab Knesset members such as Deputy Speaker Ahmed Tibi and Haneen Zoabi, whose very presence in the Israeli parliament says something.

Lately, I have also seen a large number of stories about Omar Barghouti, who is pursuing his doctoral studies at Tel Aviv University while continuing to call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, and even the very establishment where he is learning.

Shakespeare might not have had a word for it, but I call it “chutzpah.”

And for the actress at the center of the London protests, I have one four-word question: Et tu, Emma Thompson?

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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