Only weeks into the term of Israel’s new government, its conservative character is showing in the latest clash between politics and art in twin attempts to sanction Arab Israeli theaters.
Both moves were decried by critics as undemocratic censorship while the officials defended them as safeguarding public morality.
In one case, Education Minister Naftali Bennett ordered the play “A Parallel Time” removed from the so-called culture basket, the state-funded arts package for school pupils.
Written by young Arab Israeli playwright Bashar Murkus, the work was inspired in part by the story of Walid Daka, an Arab citizen serving a life sentence for his role in abducting and killing Israeli soldier Moshe Tamam in 1984.
For over a year, the play has run at the Al-Midan. The Arab theater in the mixed northern city of Haifa receives municipal funding that now is threatened after a city council member complained that the work glorified a killer.
Murkus encountered Daka’s story during research for his theater project and corresponded with him to learn more about his life in prison. According to Murkus, the play doesn’t discuss the murder at all but deals more with the passing of time in prison.
A panel of educators appointed by the ministry reviewed the play and twice recommended it for students. However, Bennett announced he was using his authority to drop the play, saying Israeli pupils would not attend a performance that shows tolerance toward the killing of soldiers.
“Not in my school,” Bennett told reporters.
The second controversy began when Arab Israeli actor Norman Issa asked to be allowed to not perform in the Jordan Valley area of the West Bank, where a play in which he appears was scheduled to run. The West Bank was seized by Israel during the 1967 Middle East War and its control has been internationally disputed ever since.
The play, a midlife comedy called “Boomerang” from the repertoire of the Haifa Theater, is not about politics at all. However, Issa's flagship theater may pay for his personal politics.
Angered by Issa’s objection to performing in the West Bank, Culture Minister Miri Regev said she is reconsidering her recommendation that the ministry support the Elmina theater in Jaffa, founded by Issa several years ago as a multicultural venue for Arab and Jewish youth in the mixed community.
Regev told Israel Radio on Wednesday she was initially enthusiastic about government funding for Elmina because of its work toward coexistence. However, she said, “coexistence doesn’t begin and end in Jaffa” and pluralism should extend everywhere.
“If he doesn’t adhere to coexistence in the Jordan Valley, I will rethink the coexistence in his theater,” said Regev.
In the past, Jewish actors have also followed their political conscience and asked not to perform in venues over the 1967 lines, such as the boycott of the theater in the settlement city of Ariel in 2010.
The actor, known to most Israelis for his role as Amjad, the Arab antihero eager to fit in with Jewish Israelis on the popular television series “Arab Labor,” practices pluralism and coexistence both on stage and off.
Issa’s wife is Jewish. Marriage between Arabs and Jews is not common and relations are often heavily burdened by criticism from both societies.
“My wife and I dedicate our lives to realizing the joint existence of Jews and Arabs. This is how we raised our children, this is why we established the theater in Jaffa and poured our lives into it,” he wrote on Facebook.
“As an Arab Israeli, you cannot expect me to go against my conscience and perform in disputed places,” he continued, noting that similar requests of conscience were respected and the Jewish or Arab actors were replaced with a substitute. He had asked for a replacement several months ago, Issa said.
Faced with the threat of losing government funding for his children’s theater, Issa said pressure on him bordered on extortion and was unfair.
“Please, do not force me to act against my conscience only to remove this threat,” he wrote. “I still believe in this country and its laws, and the opportunity it gives to all to express their opinions and act in keeping with their conscience.”
For her part, Regev stressed she supports freedom of expression in Israel. However, she said, at a time Israel is facing calls for international boycotts, the government doesn’t have to support similar voices coming from within.
Addressing a film festival in the town of Sderot on Tuesday, Regev stressed her commitment to pluralism that expresses diverse positions but does not “blacken” Israel.
The minister promised to fight for increased budgets for arts and culture. But when Israel is engaged in a diplomatic front, “one must do whatever is needed to stop those supplying our enemies with ammunition.”
Media accounts said the minister was booed.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.