Flag of Israel.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Local city officials in New Zealand apologized on Monday after an uproar surrounding an upcoming children’s production that censored out the word “Israel.”
Schoolchildren in Wellington, the country’s capital, are beginning rehearsals now for the Artsplash Festival, the largest student arts festival in the city, which runs in September.
They were set to perform several songs from the popular musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, until one mother realized that the lyrics in the song Close Every Door had been edited to turn “Children of Israel” into “Children of kindness.”
Kate Dowling posted the edited song sheet on Twitter last week, writing “Why opt to do a Jewish-themed song, then remove the Jewish-themed lyric?” She went on to ask if the organizers had lyricist Tim Rice’s permission to make the change.
Rice replied on Twitter that the change was “totally unauthorized” and a “terribly drippy and meaningless alteration,” and pledged to be in contact with Artsplash, which is funded by the Wellington City Council.
At first the organizers decided to drop all the songs from Joseph, but, when that only garnered further outcry, agreed to reinstate them with all the original lyrics.
“Either don’t do the show or do all of it as written,” Rice wrote on Twitter. The Twitter account for the Wellington City Council rushed on Sunday to assure the award-winning lyricist that “we’ve told the organizers today that the original songs must go back in the program. This will happen!”
“This was an unintentional and innocent error on the part of one of my team, and I apologize for it,” Mary Prichard, the coordinator of Artsplash, told The Jerusalem Post. “The person concerned, and myself for that matter, are religious people and would never consider intentionally doing anything racist or anti any religion.”
But according to Stuff.co.nz, New Zealand’s largest news website, Prichard originally said organizers made the decision to remove the word “Israel” to “keep life simple” for the schoolchildren. She then said they would remove the songs entirely, because “It’s not worth looking for trouble.”
Following the uproar, Prichard told the Post that “action has been taken over the weekend to ensure that the original song words are all reinstated, with immediate effect.”
Richard MacLean, spokesman for the City Council, stressed that “the organizers are not council employees – they are independent,” he told the Post. “Notwithstanding that, we discussed the issue with them over the weekend and convinced them to change the lyrics back to the Tim Rice version. We fully agree that the decision to originally change the lyrics was not a good one.”
MacLean said he could only “speculate” about “the motivations of the event organizers.”
But, he stressed, “we will be talking to the organizers further with a view to preventing this kind of rewrite happening again in the future. The controversy has rightly caused anger and distress in Wellington and further afield.”
Indeed Simon Woolf, a Wellington city councilor, said he was “not happy with what occurred.”
“It is far from typical as to our city and its approach to all race, religious and cultures...
The organizers of Artsplash made a series of errors. They have apologized and reverted the lyrics of the Joseph songs to how they were intended. My being proudly Jewish and the son of a Holocaust survivor has meant this whole episode has been even more unfortunate in how it has all been handled.”
The local Jewish community was not pleased with the course of events either.
David Zwartz, of the Wellington Regional Jewish Council, told the local J-Wire news site that the move was “an attempt to censor without explanation an event in Jewish history that took place about three-and-ahalf thousand years ago... As a Wellingtonian, I don’t want our city to be branded as a place that refused to perform this popular adaptation of Jewish history.”
In an editorial on the Shalom.Kiwi website, one writer called the decision “cultural cleansing in the name of diversity.”
“It is a preemptive move to expunge that which apparently could cause offense,” they wrote. “This emboldens the minority who believe that society’s values and practices must be shaped around theirs and that freedom of expression must be sacrificed to protect their feelings. It is tolerance of intolerance. That is fascism, not freedom.”