Politics: Caught in a culture war cross fire

Tel Aviv’s Habimah Theater causes a stir with a planned performance in the West Bank.

The Habima Theater in Tel Aviv (photo credit: WWW.HABIMA.CO.IL)
The Habima Theater in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: WWW.HABIMA.CO.IL)
‘When I hear the word ‘culture,’ that’s when I reach for my pistol!’’ – so goes the infamous line by pro-Nazi playwright Hanns Johst that is often mistakenly attributed to Hermann Goring. While the confluence of art and politics is usually not quite that violent, the line aptly illustrates the potential combustibility of the combination.
That’s certainly been the case in this country in recent years, due to two factors: the determination of Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev to use the power of her office to influence the local arts scene along her own political lines, and the targeting of Israeli artists and cultural bodies by the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for ideological purposes that run directly counter to Regev’s agenda.
No Israeli arts institution has been caught in that culture war cross fire more than Tel Aviv’s Habimah National Theater, which this week kicked up a storm over an upcoming performance of its stage adaption of S.Y. Agnon’s novel A Simple Story set to play in Kiryat Arba on November 10. Though it will not be the first performance by Habimah in an Israeli community over the Green Line, the selection of Kiryat Arba just outside Hebron, home to some of the more extreme elements of the settler movement, has proven a red flag to many in Israel’s cultural community.
The ball got rolling with a Facebook post by Haim Weiss, a lecturer on Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, calling for a public campaign to pressure Habimah to cancel its planned performance at what he called “one of the occupation’s most violent and racist strongholds.’’ His stand against Habimah has found support from several fellow academics and members of the arts community, including some who have worked on past productions at the theater. Weiss also accused Habimah, which is entirely dependent on government funding and frequently runs deficits, of scheduling a Kiryat Arba performance as a craven response to the threat of financial pressure from Regev.
The culture minister has made no secret of her desire to see more government-sponsored artists and art institutions perform in West Bank settlements, as well as in periphery communities in the Galilee and Negev. The ministry is offering a 10% budgetary bonus for those who perform over the Green Line, and has threatened to slash funding of those who don’t, by as much as a third. Regev herself was quick to take credit for Habimah’s Kiryat Arba date, writing in a Facebook post about it: “This is how it appears when a vision becomes a reality; this is how a national theater needs to act.’’ Habimah general manager Odelia Friedman stoutly denies that the theater is bowing to Regev’s diktat, pointing out that it has a standing policy to perform in all Israeli communities, including over the Green Line. Other government-funded theaters follow suit, and while there have been individual boycotts of settlement performances by some actors and crew members in other companies such as the Cameri and the Haifa Theater, management agreed in those cases to grant individual exemptions.
That policy drew Regev’s wrath last June when Israeli- Arab actor Norman Issa initially said he would not take part in a Haifa Theater production for settlements in the Jordan Valley, and led to her threatening to defund Issa’s Elmina youth theater in Jaffa. The two managed to resolve the issue between them, with Issa agreeing to have the Elmina perform in the Jordan Valley in the name of coexistence.
Appearances over the Green Line have provided ammunition for BDS activists targeting Israeli artists and cultural institutions performing abroad, especially Habimah. In 2012, Habimah’s participation in a London Shakespeare festival spurred a protest by dozens of British cultural figures, including actress Emma Thompson, who demanded its cancellation by citing the theater’s government funding and its performances in settlements such as Ariel. All too fittingly, that very selective British outrage – which somehow bypassed other government-funded productions from repressive countries such as Russia, China and Turkey – was directed at a production of The Merchant of Venice starring Israeli-Arab actor Makram Khoury as Shylock.
This September, a group of Norwegian theatrical artists released a video purporting to speak in the name of that country’s national theater, declaring a boycott of Habimah for its role in “normalizing the occupation.’’ The video was eventually revealed to be the work of individual performers without the backing of the Norway National Theater, but not before Israel demanded and received a clarification from the Norwegian government.
Even in Kiryat Arba, not everyone is ready to applaud Habimah for performing there. Far-right Jewish activist Baruch Marzel, on Channel 2, slammed the theater’s scheduled performance of A Simple Story as an unwelcome intrusion of “decadent Tel Aviv culture’’ into the settlement – a particularly unapt description for a production set entirely in the pious Jewish shtetl world of Agnon’s original work.
At least one compensation for Habimah is the old adage that when it comes to entertainment, no publicity is bad publicity. The theater reported this week that ticket sales for A Simple Story, already sold out in Kiryat Arba, spiked up this week for other performances in the wake of the controversy.
Habimah was founded in czarist Russia in 1912 as an expression of Jewish cultural pride in the face of state-sponsored antisemitism. Initially embraced by the new Soviet government, the theater found itself increasingly under pressure by Stalin’s cultural commissars for not bowing to the ideals of socialist realism.
In 1928, several of the company’s leading figures, including legendary actress Hanna Rovina, decamped for Mandatory Palestine and reestablished the theater in Tel Aviv, where it has been ever since.
Today, a century after its founding, Habimah again finds itself caught in the pull of conflicting political tides. Its current leadership may find that navigating those currents – maintaining crucial support from government, without taking steps that alienate its more progressive audience and earn it pariahdom in the international arts community – will prove to be a far from simple story.