The Arty Semite

Of Settlements, Boycotts and Political Theater

By Ethan Pack

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Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
A new cultural center in the West Bank settlement of Ariel has drawn the ire of Israel’s theater community.

Watching an actor burst into tears during a monologue, Hamlet marvels at how the performer inhabits the scene so deeply — if only he could evoke such dramatic feelings in real life, Hamlet reasons, he might save his kingdom. Thus inspired, Shakespeare’s hero rewrites the script of a play that dramatizes what’s wrong with his country, and presents it at the royal theater. Hamlet believes he can use the stage to shake-up the state; Israel’s actors seem to have taken the cue.

On August 25, a group of nearly 60 actors, directors, writers and theater professionals released a letter saying that they will refuse to perform in Ariel, a large West Bank settlement which is set to open a cultural center in November. The center, which took twenty years to build and cost about $10.5 million, will be the first space in the West Bank that is large enough to host Israel’s six major theater repertories. At least eight shows have already been scheduled, and the first set of memberships to the center sold out quickly, according to Ariel mayor Ron Nachman.

Among those refusing to perform in Ariel, many have insisted on their willingness to appear there once an agreement has been reached on final borders with the Palestinians; others have said they will come to Ariel to engage in political discussions, but not to entertain. “It is unreasonable for people to come and laugh and enjoy the plays of [Israeli writer Shmuel] Hasfari and Moliere, while ignoring the fact that all around people live under curfews and closures,” the statement read.

While any progress in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will sooner or later require that Israel take on its significant settler population and their supporters, few might have predicted this particular culture war. But in bringing the problematic status of the settlements back into the public discourse, Israel’s theater community has rejuvenated what was once a vocal sphere of opposition to Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians.

In the decades leading up to the Oslo Accords, the stage was one of the most daring platforms for bringing the occupation home to the Israeli conscience. One of Israel’s most revered dramatists, the late Hanoch Levin, frequently fought off censorship of his work for this very reason. Levin’s graphic plays portray the occupation in its most absurd — and unsavory — manifestations, including sexual violence and torture.

Critics of the Ariel boycott have also framed their argument in terms of human rights. Opponents of the actors’ statement, from the Left and the Right, emphasize that boycotts are a blunt instrument that do not distinguish between the individuals they affect. Ariel’s mayor Nachman has been particularly vocal: “What, is culture only for Tel Aviv? Do the inhabitants of Ariel have no right to culture?” he asked in an interview with Israeli news site Ynet. Nachman said he hopes the cultural center will also serve Palestinians throughout the Samaria region of the West Bank.

At issue, however, is not only who has the right to culture, but what culture has the right — and the ability — to do. In a country where much of the arts are government funded, can artists withdraw their work from an enterprise in which the state has invested billions of dollars, decades of resources, and even its view of Israel’s legitimacy? And when most arts institutions depend on some public funds, can artists separate their work from aspects of the state that they oppose?

Echoing Culture Minister Limor Livnat, Ariel’s mayor insisted that “culture has nothing to do with politics.” In Israel, of all places, this statement seems unlikely to find an audience. And in Ariel, the actors may be able to use the stage as a platform simply by refusing to perform upon it.

Previously in the Forward:

Boycotted, Bothered and Bewildered

Israeli Actors Boycott West Bank Cultural Center


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