In the past week there were two news items which dealt with ministerial attempts to curtail the activities of two Arab theaters.
The one had to do with the call by Education Minister Naftali Bennett to remove the play A Parallel Time, which is on the repertoire of the Arabic Al Midan theater in Haifa, from the “cultural basket” – an arrangement under which various cultural activities, including theater, are recommended for school children and youths, and financed by the government through the local authorities and community centers.
The second had to do with the threat of Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev to stop supporting the multicultural (Jewish- Arab) Children and Youth theater Almina in Jaffa, because its founder – Christian Arab actor Norman Issa, best known to the Israeli public from his performance in the sitcom Avodah Aravit (Arab labor) on Channel 2 – announced that he refused to appear in a performance of a play by the Haifa Theater, in which he plays the lead role, in the Jordan Valley, which is outside the Green Line – i.e. “occupied territories.”
At first glimpse these two events seem to be part of a single phenomenon – an attempt to impose censorship and a modus operandi on Arab theater and actors. In fact, they are quite different, though both certainly reflect a certain zeitgeist, involving an attempt by the Right to reduce the power of the liberal Left in the cultural field.
Of the two events, the second is the more disturbing and the least justifiable. The refusal of various Israeli actors to perform in Judea and Samaria, under the pretext that these territories are occupied territories which are not part of the sovereign territory of the State of Israel, and in which Palestinian are denied basic human and political rights, might annoy the Right, but cannot be considered a punishable offense, as long as the future of the territories remains unresolved.
This issue first emerged in the summer of 2010, when a group of actors and theater directors announced that they refuse to perform in the new auditorium opened in Ariel. At the time culture and sport minister Limor Livnat stated that she would consider conditioning financial support of theaters on their willingness to perform everywhere.
Livnat didn’t make good on her threat, and to the best of my knowledge, to the present day the only body authorized to decide on the issue of financial support for theaters is the Subsidies Committee of the Cultural Administration of the Culture and Sport Ministry – not the minister in charge. However, the practice that was established is that all the theaters have agreed to appear wherever invited, but individual actors have the right to refuse to appear in the territories, as long as they inform their theater of the fact in advance, so that the theater is able to replace them.
Thus, Norman Issa – who is anything but a “troublemaker” – acted according to the accepted rules, and Regev had no concrete excuse to “punish” him, and certainly not at the expense of a theatrical enterprise whose main purpose is inculcating coexistence among Jewish and Arab children and youths. Regev was not only criticized by Left-wingers, but also by her colleague, Minister for Gender and Minority Equality Gila Gamliel, who stated that Regev’s threat was unworthy: “We as the government are committed to all the streams in the society, and even if it was made merely to indicate a direction, without any intention to act, it is a stain which should be removed from the public discourse.”
According to the most recent reports, Regev retracted her threat after Issa agreed that the Almina theater would appear in the Jordan Valley. However, the bitter taste remains.
Regev certainly has the right to implement a policy which corresponds with her ideological views, as long as it is backed by the government and follows the accepted procedures. However, her claim, in a meeting with the heads of the Israel art institutions last Thursday, that she is free to set criteria for supporting culture in Israel, and that anyone who has a problem with these criteria is free to turn to the High Court of Justice – is outrageous, while her statement that on principle “the government is not obliged to support culture,” simply does not tally with the accepted principles in the civilized, democratic world.
The case of Naftali Bennett and the Al Midan theater is different, though it too is troubling, because neither Bennett, nor most of the other persons who have participated in the argument actually saw the controversial play, and because the theater itself, and the play’s author Bashar Murkus, were not given a fair chance to state their case. A further disturbing fact is that Bennett took his decision after the relevant committee had decided on two occasions that the play was worthy of funding.
In other words, Bennett, like Regev, believes he is above the formal procedures.
However, the fact that Bennett has announced that he intends to continue with a five-year plan which favors the Arab sector in the field of education financing, and this due to the weakness of the Arab education system, certainly puts him in a different category than Miri Regev, who doesn’t seem to care about the needs of the Arab sector.
The problem with the play Parallel Time is not its content, which deals with security prisoners who have been sentenced to life, and their attempts to go on living, but the fact that the play was inspired by the life story of Walid Daka, who in 1984 was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and participated in the abduction and murder of the soldier Moshe Tamam. Daka was given a life sentence, and all his attempts to have his sentence commuted have been denied.
The play deals neither with terrorists and terrorism, nor with Tamam’s specific case as a terrorist more than 30 years ago, but with the desire of a security prisoner to construct an Oud (an Arab musical instrument) toward his wedding.
The reason that demands were suddenly raised to deny the theater state financial support because of this play were reports that on Palestinian Television the 22-year-old playwright, who also directed the play, stated that Daka was a great man and a hero. It should be noted that he also said in the interview that Daka had demonstrated weaknesses and had made mistakes. Daka himself has on numerous occasions claimed that since 1984 he has undergone an ideological transformation.
Unlike the case of Miri Regev and Norman Issa, the issue is not clear-cut. problematic if an Israeli theater were to put on a play discussing the lives of prisoners serving life sentences based on the story of Yigal Amir, even if not a word were mentioned about the fact that Amir had assassinated Yitzhak Rabin and there was no overt or covert justification of his act.
However, denying Al Midan theater public financing might constitute a death sentence for it, and the statement that “no one is touching the theaters’ freedom of speech, but the state doesn’t have to finance it” might be meaningless, because theaters like Al Midan have no alternative source of financing in Israel, and the state would certainly not react favorably to its receiving foreign financing.
In this day and age, when Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians in general and its own Arab population in particular are under growing international scrutiny, it seems to be contrary to Israel’s interests to let this happen. Hopefully, Bennett will reconsider.
The writer is a political scientist and a retired Knesset employee.