Who Can Speak For Me?  Israeli Theatre Assays the Palestinian Conflict, Acting As a Moral Conscience

Who Can Speak For Me? Israeli Theatre Assays the Palestinian Conflict, Acting As a Moral Conscience

We compound our suffering by victimizing each other. -Athol Fugard

It seemed at first that Nurith Yaari had bent over backwards to demonstrate that Israel’s theatre scene is not shy about self-reflection, self-criticism and, perhaps, even self-flagellation, based upon the plays she selected for inclusion in IsraDrama 2007.

Surprisingly, half of the plays staged in this November-December showcase in Tel Aviv were political dramas taking dead aim at Israeli-Palestinian relations in ways that often reflect less-than-flattering images of Israel’s official policies and the attitudes of many of its citizenry. Yaari is a professor of theatre at Tel Aviv University and artistic director of IsraDrama, sponsored by the Institute of Israeli Drama and designed to encourage production of and scholarly attention to the work of Israeli dramatists.

Despite its relative youth as a modern nation, celebrating its 60th anniversary on May 8, Israel has an immensely vibrant theatre scene, with among the world’s highest per-capita attendance. According to Gad Kaynar, another professor of theatre at the university and head of Israel’s branch of the International Theatre Institute, “The data is rather astonishing: On any given evening one can watch in Tel Aviv alone, with its population of more than 350,000, no less than 40 theatre performances in mainstream theatres as well as on fringe and festival stages.”

Some might see this phenomenon as making up for lost time. “Drama’s origins in pagan myth, its growth within Greek culture and its development within Christianity have ensured the hostility of the Jewish religious authorities to theatrical manifestations throughout the ages,” former Oxford University scholar Glenda Abramson has written.

In fact, Kaynar points out that this historical antipathy took a new turn when several modern Israeli theatres started pushing boundaries, beginning with Hanoch Levin’s 1970 play The Queen of the Bathtub, which “dared to question the moral stance of a power-drunk Israeli society following victory in the Six-Day War (1967),” a production that provoked “massive demonstrations.” The role of theatre also reached Israel’s national parliament, the Knesset. In 1986, the Israeli

Censorship Board decided “to ban the staging of Shmuel Hasfari’s The Last Secular Jew, a satirical cabaret depicting the apocalyptic vision of Israel as the tyrannical theocracy of Judea,” says Kaynar. A public outcry led the Knesset to abolish play censorship. In 1988, Kaynar reports, playwright Joshua Sobol was accused “of ‘self-hatred’ and ‘destruction of national and religious morals,’ following the violent interruption by right-wing fanatics of the premiere of his 1988 The Jerusalem Syndrome, which compares the devastation of the Second Temple and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.”

Israel’s contemporary theatre clearly serves as a national moral conscience, though that fact is little known elsewhere. So it made great sense for Yaari to expose 63 theatre practitioners from
21 countries to a strong dose of drama that, according to Kaynar, is “a ritual of existential

These were works produced not only by low-budget fringe theatres; included among their creators were Israel’s two largest theatres, the Habima National Theatre and Tel Aviv’s municipal theatre, Cameri, major companies with significant government subsidies, large audiences and strong philanthropic support. And since IsraDrama was funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, raising the curtain on these unvarnished depictions of life in Israel today received an official imprimatur as well.

The first reaction of many attendees was that it is commendable for Israeli theatres to be unafraid to tackle head-on the most explosive political issue dividing their country today. Some of these visiting theatre professionals, including Americans, quietly lamented a lack of similar courage in their own nations’ theatres.

Yet there was also something a little self-congratulatory about this demonstration.

In their desire to prove themselves free and outspoken in a proudly democratic society, the organizers of the event were unable to conceal the fact that these provocative works still represent just one side’s perspective. Regardless of their honorable intentions, what’s disturbing is not just the ironic point that Israeli theatre artists are attempting to serve as mouthpieces for the Palestinian people. It’s that Palestinian theatre artists are largely unable-or unwilling-to speak for themselves.

There was a brief moment in time when things were different.

In 1989, during the first Palestinian intifada (uprising), Israeli director Eran Baniel conceived what he believes has been the only official Palestinian-Israeli co-production ever to take place: an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Baniel, who had served as director of the Akko Festival in Acre, Israel, and became artistic director of Jerusalem’s Khan Theatre, spent the next several years bringing this to fruition.

Baniel teamed with George Ibrahim, general director of the Palestinian al-Kasaba Theatre in Ramallah. The Montagues were played by Palestinian and Israeli-Arab actors contracted by al-Kasaba and directed by Fuad Awad, the Capulets by Israeli actors under Baniel’s supervision, and the shared scenes were directed by both of them.

The production debuted in Jerusalem in 1994, almost a year after the signing of the Oslo Accords (the first direct, face-to-face agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which affirmed the former’s right to exist and the latter’s right of self-government).

“This was the most powerful experience of my life in theatre and was something that only now can be fully grasped,” says Baniel.

“The initial thought was to situate the play during the British Mandate days-the period when it all started to go wrong. But having analyzed the parallels that could be drawn-who would represent the British? would their role as creators of the Jewish state be interpreted as positive or negative? how would one answer the question, ‘Who started the shooting?’-the Palestinians rejected the idea. Finally the decision was made to stay as close to “our truths” as possible: The show started and ended with the two companies presenting their shared interpretation of the classic play, leaving it up to audiences to draw the equivalents. Rehearsals were a reflection of the situation: The Hebron massacre of 1994 (in which the Israeli Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinian worshippers), the terror acts that followed, the repeated closures of the checkpoints, the constant opposition to the production by extremists on both sides, all had a direct daily impact on the work. Performances ended a short time prior to [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin’s assassination.”

Today, after more failed peace talks, a second intifada and the construction of a physical wall of separation, there is an almost unbridgeable chasm between the two theatre communities, and any Palestinian theatre artist who considers crossing the line risks being branded a collaborator and targeted by militants among his own people. Twelve years after Romeo and Juliet, according to Baniel, its Palestinian set designer fled Gaza in fear of Hamas retribution, and al-Kasaba Theatre no longer displays a photo from that production in its public gallery.

The closest thing to an authentic Palestinian voice taking the stage in Israel today is In Spitting Distance, a play by Taher Najib, a Palestinian actor, staged by Ofira Henig, an Israeli Jewish director, and shared with IsraDrama participants. This subtly political monodrama, given a tour-de-force performance by Khalifa Natour, an Israeli-Arab member of the Cameri Theatre’s acting company (who played Romeo in the above-mentioned co-production), is about a sensitive and observant Palestinian actor living in Ramallah who is buckling under the oppressive atmosphere there.

He’s an everyman figure who seems so immediately endearing that we begin to laugh with him over the ironies of his daily humiliations under Israeli occupation-and to share his exhilaration when a holiday trip makes him a free man in Paris. There he also finds romance and is urged to remain by the woman he’s made love to, but in the choice between a foreign Eden and a Hell at home, he opts for the latter.

As fate would have it, he realizes he will be flying from Paris to Tel Aviv on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attack. Instead of surrendering himself to the fear and loathing of this absurd situation, he resolves to make himself as obvious as possible and to take pride in who he is. Miraculously, he is spared the grueling interrogations, searches and detentions he has routinely experienced during previous travels.

The title of the piece emerges in the opening moments of the play when the protagonist spews out an engaging seriocomic monologue about how Palestinian men in Ramallah spit-when they spit, how they spit, where they spit. Why they spit, of course, is the very real underlying subject of this play, and it becomes a chilling metaphor.

In Spitting Distance has kept its own distance from the Israeli theatre establishment-it is an independent production by Project Rukab-because of fears that the taint of such an association might not only be exploited publicly as a saccharine placebo of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, but might endanger author Najib and other Arabs connected to it. This has necessarily limited its exposure to only a handful of low-profile performances at neutral venues within Israel, while at the same time it’s receiving considerable interest from presenters abroad (including the Barbican Centre in London, where it appeared May 7-17, 2008). But on Israeli stages today, this is the only play written by and from the perspective of a Palestinian.

Two productions in IsraDrama, Winter at Qalandia and Plonter, created by mixed ensembles of Israeli-Arab and Jewish actors, offer additional insight into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even if they cannot be considered authentically Palestinian. Although most Israeli-Arab citizens are descended from inhabitants of pre-Israel Palestine, today they are quite different culturally from the Palestinians living in the occupied territories.

Most speak Hebrew fluently and work among Jews in what has become a prosperous Western-style nation with a high standard of living. They also enjoy freedom of speech, press and active political representation in the Knesset. Arguably, the lives of Israel’s Arab citizens may cause them some discomfort, perhaps even some discrimination. But it’s certain that they don’t experience the deprivations and indignities of Palestinians who live in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Whether Israeli Arabs can truly speak for the people in Ramallah or Khan Yunis or be trusted by them to speak on their behalf-any more passionately or with greater veracity than those Jewish artists who have taken up their cause-is questionable.

Winter at Qalandia was offered by Jaffa’s Arab-Hebrew Theatre, comprised of a Jewish theatre company and an Israeli-Arab theatre company committed to building bridges together through multicultural productions. It’s situated in a stone building-a 500-yearold Ottoman Empire court-on a sea-view promontory in this ancient section of what is now Tel Aviv. Directed and adapted by Nola Chilton from a book by Lia Nirgad, Winter at Qalandia is noteworthy because it attempts to replicate in some detail the observed behavior of Israeli soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint.

It is fairly one-sided in portraying the Israelis as erratic and insensitive, even brutal at times, while always portraying the Palestinians as innocent victims. This is a young group of artists, and the company is making an earnest statement, but it’s one that is of more sociological than aesthetic interest.

The other notable example of a politically themed work created by a joint Jewish-Arab ensemble is the Cameri Theatre’s Plonter, which means “tangle,” a play that purports to demonstrate how inextricably linked are the histories and destinies of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples, for better and for worse. Plonter begins with a pathetically funny misguided attempt at political correctness by a liberal Israeli housewife, who decides to invite to dinner her husband’s Arab coworker and his wife. Her every seemingly well intentioned comment insults her guests, demonstrates how shockingly ignorant she is (she refers to them as Palestinians and Muslims when they are Israeli Arabs and Christians) and, ultimately, reveals that her motivation has more to do with how fashionable it has become for left-leaning Israelis like her to pretend they aren’t racist than any sincere desire to befriend these people.

Under Yael Ronen’s direction, the ensemble-written Plonter’s next 18 scenes expose the fears of Palestinians and Jews and how they motivate absurd behavior by both. An Israeli bus driver is advised by a rider that she fears another passenger, an Arab, may be a suicide bomber. Reluctantly questioning the Arab passenger, who is insulted, the driver insists that he lift his shirt to prove he is not belted with explosives. Outraged by this degrading demand, the rider drops his trousers and then offers to pull down his underpants as well.

In another scene, the Israeli government extends its “separation wall” through the center of one Arab family’s home, dividing their living quarters from their bathroom and requiring them to be processed through a checkpoint to move between the halves of their apartment.

Children figure prominently in this play as murdered victims of both a Palestinian family and an Israeli settler family, whose stories are central to the piece. In one of the most frightening scenes, a group of Palestinian youngsters at play pretend to form their own terrorist cell and demonstrate how they will detonate themselves as suicide “martyrs”-with all the innocence, joy and abandon one might expect to see in a game of hide-and-go-seek.

Theatregoers arriving to see Plonter are put through a “checkpoint” staffed by actors dressed as soldiers, asking for identification papers, turning away those without any and interrogating others.

Stylistically, the play features its Jewish and Arab actors mixing up their ethnicities on stage and performing in both Hebrew and Arabic, underscoring the “tangled” lives-and fates-of the two peoples. The play eschews easy invite-an-Arab-or-a-Jew-to-dinner solutions to this tangle. Many festivalgoers believed that the play was harsher on Israelis than Palestinians, but Noam Semel, director general of the Cameri, claims that Plonter has succeeded in offending equally the Arab and Jewish audiences who’ve attended it.

If there’s safety in numbers, the Habima and Cameri theatres’ decision to join forces in a rare co-production of the controversial play Hebron was a calculated risk. The work, by Israeli poet Tamir Greenberg, is an attempt to express the futility of killings by Israelis and Palestinians in the historic West Bank city of Hebron that is revered by both as the burial place of their shared patriarch Abraham. Director Oded Kotler has shaped the play into an uneasy mix of verisimilitude and fantasy, using fable-like elements to depict some gruesome events and unfortunate truths.

An Israeli commander who lives with his Orthodox Jewish family in Hebron, and is in charge of governing the city, suffers the tragedy of his little boy being shot to death in his arms, the bullet having been intended for him, the military leader, not the child. A series of revenge killings back and forth between Palestinians and Jews leads to mass bloodshed, and “Mother Earth” vomits out the bodies both sides are trying to bury because of her disgust at their desecration.

A slightly hopeful note is struck at the end when a young daughter of the Israeli commander and a young son of the main Palestinian family in the play leave Hebron together to find a place where their children can live without bombs and death. If Hebron sounds heavy-handed-and it is-its themes emerge from the sincere revulsion of its creators at the endless cycle of violence that dominates their world, and the play laboriously attempts to show that both Palestinians and Israelis are guilty of perpetuating that cycle in violation of God, nature, history and the land.

A satirical treatment of the subject is offered in the Khan Theatre’s Fighting for Home. Like the Arab-Hebrew Theatre in Jaffa, Jerusalem’s Khan is located in an old stone building of the Turkish era, converted from a stable to a factory and now to a theatre-complete with historic archways obstructing some views of the stage. Fighting for Home is an ensemble-created piece, though credited also to Ilan Hatsor, the Israeli writer whose play Masked, about three Palestinian brothers, enjoyed a successful run at New York City’s DR2 Theatre last year. The play is set in the year 2012, when Israel is engaged in yet another war-this time against Iran.

Israeli government officials are mercilessly lampooned in the piece, which possesses the rough-hewn qualities one finds in hastily executed sketches on “Saturday Night Live,” as power brokers install a fishmonger to be their puppet prime minister while Israeli generals sing and dance a chorus line.

Although political works clearly took center stage in IsraDrama, Yaari made certain that participants could also witness the breadth of contemporary Israeli drama that takes on subject matter beyond the Palestinian issue. Included were two works by the Beckett-like Hanoch Levin: Requiem, based on three Chekhov stories, which has been playing for many years in the Cameri Theatre’s repertoire and was directed by Levin before his death in 1999; and Yakish & Poupché, a dark comedy about ugly newlyweds unable to consummate their marriage, offered by the Russian émigré Gesher Theatre in Jaffa.

Opening night of the festival featured the work of another of Israel’s best-respected dramatists, Shmuel Hasfari: The Master of the House, depicting the cognitive dissonance of a married couple five years after their child died in a suicide bomb attack. Hasfari’s play doesn’t wear its politics on its sleeve, but this couple’s inability to share the same space peacefully hints at the larger issue of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.

A potpourri of scenes by various writers was showcased at Tel Aviv’s popular multistage fringe venue, Tmuna Theatre, and conversations with dramaturgs, critics and playwrights were accompanied by a plethora of archival video selections. IsraDrama attendees saw works about Hiroshima, Israel’s problematic diplomatic foray into Uganda in the 1970s, the culture of women frequenting a Jewish ritual bathhouse, a solo piece about a woman struggling to free herself from having been sexually abused as a child, and more.

Athol Fugard once said about his life as a playwright in apartheid South Africa, “There was a smoldering resentment that a white man had the impertinence to speak for black people. But I wasn’t speaking for anybody. I was telling goddamn stories!” While the Israeli stage is not exclusively focused upon the Palestinian situation, the abundance and variety of stories that explore the relationship between the two battling cultures underscores the obligation Israel’s theatre community feels toward giving those on the other side a voice-even when they know they cannot truly speak for them.