Members of the Belgian building conservation group Monumentenwacht rappelling down Habima Theater in Tel Aviv on March 14, 2016 at the second annual Building Conservation Exhibition..
(photo credit: LIONEL DERMON)
While Israel wages its ongoing battle against the assault on Jewish history and culture in the United Nations, in the smaller arena of local politics the struggle over the control of the arts has once again erupted regarding an upcoming performance of Habimah, the national theater, before the Jewish community of Kiryat Arba.
In this prequel to the West Bank’s November debut performance of the stage adaptation of S.Y. Agnon’s novel A Simple Story, the cast includes Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, and assorted academic and political luminaries of the Right and Left – all playing before a generally bewildered, if not already bored, audience of Israeli citizens.
The latest tempest was set off by a Ben-Gurion University lecturer on Hebrew literature, Haim Weiss, who called on Facebook for the show not to go on, because it was to take place in “one of the occupation’s most violent and racist strongholds.” He also accused Habimah of cravenly yielding to threats by Regev to withhold funds from artists who decline to perform in the territories for political reasons.
His attack was unfounded for several reasons, not the least of which was its welcome reception by the BDS effort to delegitimize Israel in all contexts, not merely cultural. Unlike previous clashes between Regev and artists whose government subsidies she threatened to slash for refusing to perform in the territories, Habimah’s entire budget is provided by the government.
This is why Israel’s national theater performs in Israeli communities wherever they may be found, as Habimah general manager Odelia Friedman pointed out to the media. When personnel at other theater companies, such as the Cameri and the Haifa Theater, declared personal boycotts against performing over the Green Line, their managements permitted them to do so and performances went on with substitute artists.
One such incident provoked a bitter showdown in June, when Regev threatened the Haifa Theater’s Israeli Arab actor Norman Issa with defunding his Elmina youth theater due to his refusal to perform in Jordan Valley settlements. The situation was eventually resolved when Issa accepted an offer he could not refuse and agreed to have Elmina perform in the Jordan Valley “in the name of coexistence.”
The incident served as a minor setback for the dark forces of BDS, which oppose Israeli culture per se and “normalization” in the territories in particular. The tentacles of this antisemitic movement extend beyond Israel, such as in London in 2012, when dozens of British cultural figures protested Habimah’s performance at a Shakespeare festival. Ironically, they demanded the cancellation of Habimah’s The Merchant of Venice starring Israeli Arab actor Makram Khoury as Shylock.
Regev’s heavy handed promotion of Israeli culture is not confined to West Bank settlements, but is part of an ethnic-political hybrid that drives her to spread the arts to the country’s long-deprived periphery. A native of the development town of Kiryat Gat and a proud bearer of Sephardi traditions, she has staked out a battle against what she considers the dominance of Ashkenazi culture.
In the words of a recent profile in The New York Times, “Regev has done just about everything she can to alienate and enrage those she considers the elites, or the “cultural junta,” of Israel. Leftists. Secularists. Tel Avivians.
Ashkenazim – Jews of European origin. People who, as she told me recently, think that “classical music is better than the Andalusian music” of Morocco, or that “Chekhov is more important than Maimonides.”
While Regev’s statements and actions might seem aggressive at times, we believe that all Israeli towns, no matter where they are located, should be eligible to enjoy the arts.
An Israeli in Kiryat Arba is no different than an Israeli in Tel Aviv when it comes to the arts. This is the case as long as the government decides that Israelis can live in Kiryat Arba. Israelis continue to live in West Bank settlements with government consent, state funding and IDF security. Until the government changes its policy there is no reason to discriminate against any Israeli when it comes to the arts, just because she or he might live over the Green Line.