Saturday, October 31, 2020

Israeli National Theatre makes controversial debut in hard-line settlement

By Matt Matthews - November 14, 2016
Section: [Main News] [Culture] [BDS] [Features]
Tags: [BDS] [settlements] [culture]

Kiryat Arba settlement boasts a number of visitor attractions. There’s the grave of mass murderer Baruch Goldstein, preserved as a shrine; the park named after serial bomber and convicted racist Meir Kahane; and a gleaming new Culture Centre, which on Thursday 10 November played host to the Israeli National Theatre.

Inside the swish surroundings of the theatre there was a small-town atmosphere. A father bounced a griping baby in a papoose: a youth in Israeli Forces uniform, holstered gun at his hip and rifle swinging behind him, shouldered out to take a call. Many civilian audience members carried side-arms, and most women were conservatively dressed, though there were bare female heads dotted through the crowd.

The production itself, an adaptation of Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon’s novella “A Simple Story”, was a playful, fairy-tale affair. Theatre-goers tittered at a skit featuring Orthodox Jews, draped in tallit shawls and head-bobbing at prayer. A scattered hand-clap broke out to the soundtrack, which mingled traditional klezmer music with a house bassline, and quickly died away.
Habima, as the National Theatre is known, has performed in illegal settlements before, but the Kiryat Arba gig is a new departure. Founded in a former military base in 1970 by members of the Messianic Gush Emunim movement, its leaders have promulgated extreme views ever since.
Jewish Underground militants lived, trained and stockpiled explosives in Kiryat Arba, while in recent years community leaders have endorsed the murder of non-Jews and described the Isis-linked Paris bombings of 2015 as “deserved” punishment for the West. One convicted Zionist terrorist, who masterminded an attack on a Muslim college that left three students dead and 33 wounded, now tends a tranquil vineyard in the settlement.
These tendencies are embodied in Baruch Goldstein’s grave. Inscribed with the epitaph “he gave his life for the people of Israel, its Torah and its land” and scattered with stones left by well-wishers and mourners, it records no trace of the 29 Muslims slaughtered by Kiryat Arba’s most famous son in the 1994 Ibrahimi mosque massacre. To this day, the 8000 settlers in the enclave maintain their reputation for anti-Palestinian aggression – often targeting school-children.
The culture centre, and its 400-seat theatre, opened in 2011. At that time, Kiryat Arba MayorMalachi Levinger described the centre as an egalitarian space for “secular Jews, religious Jews, new immigrants and veteran residents”.
But he also vowed the centre would “give culture its rightful place… in all of Judea”, using a loaded Israeli term for the region and thus denying Palestinian claims to a state.  
On Thursday night, hard-line Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev echoed the mayor’s words, to applause from a capacity crowd. “I promise you many other nights like these in Judea and Samaria,” the former Israeli forces spokesperson said.
“I am always excited to come here to Kiryat-Arba-Hebron, the city of my ancestors,” continued Ms. Regev, who has previously described African migrants to Israel as “a cancer” and imposed harsh modesty laws on cultural events.  She added: “I am happy that actors who did not surrender to pressure from Breaking The Silence will perform here.”
Israeli NGO Breaking The Silence, made up of former Israeli soldiers who now speak out against the occupation, here represented a wave of criticism from rights activists following the announcement of the Kiryat Arba show.
Habima’s settlement appearance came amidst torrid debate around a cultural boycott of Israel, with artists from Pink Floyd to Arundhati Roy refusing to appear in Israel on the grounds that “business-as-usual” normalises the occupation and legitimises state violence. An open letter, signed by hundreds of boycotting artists, specifically condemned Israeli theatre companies performing before settler audiences one day and acting as “cultural diplomats in support of Brand Israel” the next.
At least one Habima actor, Shlomi Bertonov, was replaced by an understudy after refusing to participate in the Kiryat Arba production. Speaking to Haaretz, he said: “There is too much fascism in that [idea]. I don’t play that game”.
Other sceptics among the company toured Hebron’s oppressive H2 area with Breaking the Silence activists, in a visit later broadcast on Israeli TV. They walked through streets left ghostly by the collapse of local businesses following the imposition of martial law, where extrajudicial killings by soldiers and murderous settler violence are omnipresent threats. As well as experiencing settler harassment themselves, the actors saw two Palestinian children being arrested by the Israeli Forces.
Ultimately, though, the Habima company toed the line and took to the Kiryat Arba stage. Under Ms. Regev’s Culture Ministry, arts bodies refusing to perform in illegal settlements can have their budgets slashed by a third, while those that acquiesce will enjoy a 10% annual bonus. Theatres putting on plays sympathetic to the Palestinian cause have had their funding frozen altogether.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the play’s author S.Y. Agnon quoted Zionist scripture: “They shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant… they, and their children, and their children’s children, forever.”


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