Controversy erupts over Palestinian play

The play is a parable which asks to whom does this country belong.

Palestinian play 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Palestinian play 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Outside Ennis Hall in South Tel Aviv last week, angry demonstrators, apparently from the Whole Israel faction, held up a banner that read in part "The PLFP congratulates the Cameri Theater for encouraging the liberation of Haifa and Jaffa from the Zionist occupation." Inside, the actors were rehearsing The Return to Haifa, a new Cameri production. Cameri spokesperson Efrat Avraham says she got scores of e-mails such as this one: "I love theater, but more than that, I love the Israeli side of the Arab-Jewish dispute. If the play based on Ghassan Kanafani's novel is done at the Cameri which is funded from my money and that of Israelis who are fighting for their lives here, I protest and will boycott the Cameri." And it's Kanafani, or rather his work, that has ignited the firestorm. His 1969 novella Returnee to Haifa is the basis for The Return to Haifa by Israeli journalist/playwright Boaz Gaon that opens at the Cameri on April 21. It's the story of a Palestinian couple who flee in panic from Haifa, leaving behind their infant son. Twenty years later they return to their former home, now occupied by Holocaust survivors and their son. Or is he theirs? And if the Jews adopted this Arab baby, to whom does he really belong? The play is a parable which asks to whom does this country belong: to the people who have lived in it for generations or those who see in it their ancestral home which they have reclaimed to build anew? Kanafani was a Palestinian author who was born in Acre and fled with his parents in 1948. He was also the spokesperson for George Habash's PFLP and was assassinated in Beirut via a car-bomb in July 1973. The attack was attributed to the Mossad, in revenge for the murder of the Israeli athletes by Black September at the Munich Olympics the year before. Kanafani is considered an important literary figure whose work is taught in Israeli high schools to help students better understand "how Israeli-Arab authors express their cultural and national identity," as the educational authorities put it. Boaz Gaon read the novella at the recommendation of Dr. Ami Elad-Bouskila, an Israeli expert on Arab literature whom he'd interviewed in London while a Ma'ariv correspondent there. "He talked about how Jewish and Palestinian identity had played out in Arabic literature over the years," says Gaon, "and told me that one of the most interesting stories in this context is Returnee. He spoke specifically of how the writer was able to deal powerfully and emotionally not only with the Palestinian tragedy, but relate to the Holocaust in the same way, something that he thought was unique, given that the novella was written in 1969, only two years after the 1967 war which the Arabs saw as a total humiliation." Seven years ago, Hed Artzi put out a Hebrew translation of Kanafani's work that included the novella. Gaon based his play on this translation. He'd anticipated a reaction, he says, but was surprised by its intensity. "What frightens them so much in this human drama of two families drawn together by history, fighting over the same child?" he asks somewhat rhetorically. "It's frustrating to discover that some parts of Israeli society still behave as though we were back in the 1970s, [rejecting] that both sides have basically gone through a process in which each recognizes the other as human. This play is pro-human."