Sunday, April 8, 2012

Artistic Boycotts In The UK: Habima at Shakespeare's Globe

In recent months, part of my "beat" as a contributor to The Arts Fuse has been reporting on Israeli Stage, a Boston-based company devoted to presenting Israeli plays to an American audience, writing commentary on the work on Israeli playwrights Savyon Liebrecht and Motti Lerner as well as conducting an interview with Israeli Stage's Producing Artistic Director, Guy Ben-Aharon. Despite the the fact that I am new to the subject, this recent work has placed me in a position where I now have to pay greater attention to new developments.

On Thursday, March 29, 2012, The Guardian published an open letter signed by 37 British artists associated with film and theatre protesting Shakespeare's Globe's decision to invite the Israeli state theatre Habima (who were mentioned in the Ben-Aharon interview) to participate in an international Shakespeare festival in May. The text of the letter is as follows:

We notice with dismay and regret that Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London has invited Israel's National Theatre, Habima, to perform The Merchant of Venice in its Globe to Globe festival this coming May. The general manager of Habima has declared the invitation "an honourable accomplishment for the State of Israel". But Habima has a shameful record of involvement with illegal Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory. Last year, two large Israeli settlements established "halls of culture" and asked Israeli theatre groups to perform there. A number of Israeli theatre professionals – actors, stage directors, playwrights – declared they would not take part.

Habima, however, accepted the invitation with alacrity, and promised the Israeli minister of culture that it would "deal with any problems hindering such performances". By inviting Habima, Shakespeare's Globe is undermining the conscientious Israeli actors and playwrights who have refused to break international law.

The Globe says it wants to "include" the Hebrew language in its festival – we have no problem with that. "Inclusiveness" is a core value of arts policy in Britain, and we support it. But by inviting Habima, the Globe is associating itself with policies of exclusion practised by the Israeli state and endorsed by its national theatre company. We ask the Globe to withdraw the invitation so that the festival is not complicit with human rights violations and the illegal colonisation of occupied land.

The March 29 letter is a restatement of the position taken in undated letter which (based on the date of the Ynet article that cites it) was published sometime prior to January 2, 2012. Boycott From Within, the organization that issued the letter, appears to be primarily made up of Israeli citizens who support the Boycott, Devestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that was initiated by a coalition of Palestinian NGOs in early 2005, several months after the Ariel Sharon-led Israeli government announced plans to withdraw the Gaza settlements, a plan that was accomplished in August of 2005, quite without the assistance of BDS. Indeed, it becomes hard to identify any concrete accomplishment of the BDS movement beyond providing a rallying cry for anti-Israel activists in the west; they certainly have not advanced the goal of a two-state solution, nor can they claim responsibility for any of the small victories of recent years, like Israel's dismantling of checkpoints within the West Bank or the Palestinian Authority's own crack down on militant groups in areas which it controls.

The Boycott From Within document, unlike the March 29 letter, specifically names the two West Bank settlements:
Ariel and Kiryat Arba, like most settlements, are surrounded by walls and fences, closely guarded by soldiers and their own armed security personnel. A theatrical performance in a settlement is by definition a performance to an exclusively Israeli audience, with Palestinians living even in the nearest village being physically excluded from any chance of attending.

[...]on this issue the management of Habima has taken a position which is remote from any kind of social engagement. Claiming to be "non-political", the management has reiterated its decision to perform in West Bank settlements, "like everywhere else". Moreover, the management specifically promised Limor Livnat, Minister of Culture in the Netanyahu Government, to "deal with any problems hindering such performances", i.e. to pressure recalcitrant actors into taking part in them, even against the dictates of their conscience. And it must be pointed out that for several months, Habima has indeed sent out its actors to hold theatrical performances in West Bank settlements, on a regular basis.
The first point that should be made, of course, is that while Ariel and Kiryat Arba are controversial, they are not, strictly speaking, illegal. While there are illegal settlements, of course, such as Migron (which the Israeli Supreme Court recently ordered the Israeli government to demolish), under the 1993 Oslo Accords, the status of settlements like Ariel and Kiryat Arba are pending final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. They might end up as part of a land-swap between the two states, they might be evacuated, or they might become an example of Jewish residents within the future Palestinian state much as there are Arab citizens in Israel (though that possibility is less likely, given recent statements by Mahmoud Abbas and his government.) So whether or not the settlements' establishment was legal (there are differing interpretations on whether the Fourth Geneva Convention applies) the Oslo Accords essentially table it as a legal issue, turning it into a political issue.

The question about the security measures around Ariel and Kiryat Arba are very simple: they exist under a different jurisdiction than the surrounding areas; the authorities on each side of the fences having not finalized a peace treaty. Despite efforts by the Palestinian Authority to crack down on militant groups operating in its own jurisdiction, recent examples such as the Itamar attack of March 11, 2011 in which five members of the Fogel family were murdered in their beds by terrorists, or an August 31, 2010 killing of four settlers in a drive-by shooting outside of Kiryat Arba make these security measures understandable, even if they result in audiences not being drawn from geographically adjacent areas. It should also be noted that under the Oslo Accords, Israeli citizens are essentially required to stay on their side of the fence as well (one of the ways by which Israeli courts determine if a settlement is legal or illegal.) This separation is thusly one that has been agreed upon by the governments representing the two peoples: whether these governments' leaders proceed wisely and courageously or foolishly and fearfully, the status of these settlements made the transition from legal matter to political matter 19 years ago.

Of course, both the March 29th letter and its undated antecedent read politics into Habima's performances in Ariel and Kiryat Arba. According to Haaretz Ilan Ronen, Habima's artistic director, responded thusly:
The attempt to portray Habima as a mouthpiece of this or that policy wrongs the creators, the actors, and anyone who is a part of our endeavor.

Performing in all of Israel is not the initiative of Habima, as the letter presents, by is a result of state law, to which all public cultural institutes are subject.
More recently, in The Guardian, Ronen further explained Habima's position:
It's a disgrace. We don't see ourselves as collaborators with the Israeli government over its West Bank policy. We don't remember artists boycotting other artists.

[...]It is important to emphasise, we express our political views in many of our projects. But like other theatre companies and dance companies in Israel, we are state-financed, and financially supported to perform all over the country. This is the law. We have no choice. We have to go, otherwise there is no financial support.

[...]Artists should create bridges where there is conflict; the issue of Israel and the Palestinians is an area in which European dialogue can be very helpful in creating a better atmosphere. To boycott us prevents any artistic dialogue.
Habima falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture and Sport which can mandate that Habima perform anywhere under Israeli jurisdiction much as the Israel Postal Company is mandated to deliver the mail. Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat is a Likud member and generally considered to be rather sympathetic to the Israeli settler movement, and since her post in the Netayahu cabinet is a fairly minor one, there is little she can do for her political constituency but mandate that companies that receive state funding perform in West Bank settlements. Perhaps Habima would not be so mandated were the Ministry controlled by a more left-leaning or centrist party. Theatre artists who are not affiliated with the state are free to be politically engaged and choose to participate in a boycott or politically engaged and oppose a boycott. However, Ronen, according to the April 7th article in The Guardian, states that Habima-affiliated artists who had moral or political objections to performing in the settlements were able to opt-out without fear of retribution. The charge that Habima is somehow violating a principle of being "non-political" accepting its mandate while simultaneously allowing individual artists to opt out of this mandate is nonsensical.

Months before the March 29th letter, Shakespeare's Globe had already issued a response to Boycott From Within's letter on their Facebook page on January 6th, which also anticipates the position of March 29th letter:
[...W]e deliberated long and hard about the issue of inclusion and exclusion of companies – programming such a comprehensive festival requires a huge amount of such consideration, in order to ensure that it is truly an international event. We came to the conclusion that active exclusion was a profoundly problematic stance to take – because the question of which nations deserve inclusion or exclusion is necessarily subjective. Where does one start in such an endeavour? Clearly for you with Israel, but for many others, it would be with a host of different states. And more pertinently, where does one stop?

Rather, we wished to celebrate the huge variety of languages and cultures which have encountered, learnt from and extended the reach of Shakespeare’s work, and as such we were determined to reflect as wide and as comprehensive a variety of languages as possible. In creating our programme, we have tried our best to balance that universality with the infinite variety shown in Shakespeare’s works. Our commitment to universality is reflected in the fact that the Ashtar Theatre from Ramallah, who have done more than any other theatre group to highlight the nature of life in the Gaza Strip with their
Gaza Monologues, are performing Shakespeare’s Richard II at Globe to Globe.

[...]Habima are the most well-known and respected Hebrew-language theatre company in the world, and are a natural choice to any programmer wishing to host a dramatic production in Hebrew. They are committed, publicly, to providing an ongoing arena for sensible dialogue between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.

[...I]t remains our contention, and we think a suitable one for a Shakespearean theatre, that people meeting and talking and exchanging views is preferable to isolation and silence. For that reason, and for the others above, we remain convinced that it is right to work with all the companies we have chosen for the Globe to Globe Festival.
Several of the companies participating in the festival hail from countries undergoing protracted conflict or having recently emerged from conflict: there are companies not just from Israel and Palestine, but South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The People's Republic of China has a notorious human rights record, and is well known for its suppression of both the Tibetan and Uyghur peoples and political dissidents in general, yet the same figures urging a boycott of Habima are silent on the National Theatre of China's presentation of Richard III.

It is also apparent from even the most cursory investigation of the English language version of the Habima webiste, that the company not only employs and trains both Jewish and Arab artists, but also to performs to both Jewish and Arab audiences, which is as much part of their mandate to perform "in all of Israel" as performing in the settlements.

The great irony, of course, is that both Boycott From Within and the 37 British artists are protesting Habima's performance The Merchant of Venice, perhaps the single literary work that most defined the manner in which Jews are portrayed in British literature. Indeed, Habima's plan to perform The Merchant of Venice was received criticism in Israel, including from people involved with the theatre. Many have noted that the character of Shylock is the template from which the vulgar anti-Semitic stereotypes of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, T.S. Eliot's Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar, and Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children are cut (Churchill, not surprisingly, signed March 29th letter calling for the Globe to revoke Habima's invitation.) Ronen defended his choice to direct The Merchant of Venice this past December:
Dozens of the best Jewish actors, including Antony Sher and Dustin Hoffman, alongside other acting legends, have played the role of Shylock knowing that the play actually deals with the persecution of the Jew and xenophobia.
While it has become the fashion over the past few decades to represent The Merchant of Venice as an anti-anti-Semitic narrative, and see Shakespeare as a critic of prejudice (as the case with the acclaimed Dark Tresnjak-helmed production that had F. Murray Abraham in the role of Shylock) The anti-anti-Semitic reading frequently hinges on ignoring major themes and recurring motifs in the play, such as the theological grounding in medieval and early-modern anti-Judaic polemics, or the thematic linkage between Jews and the Devil that were part of that era's folklore as much as the bond of the pound of flesh. While I am certainly not privy to Ronen's take on the play, I would suggest that to make a truly anti-anti-Semitic statement with The Merchant of Venice one should deliberately horrify the audience by unapologetically playing up every anti-Semitic trope in the play, especially the ones normally ignored in modern productions.

What would banning Habima from performing accomplish when even Israeli governments that have been less friendly with the settler movement than the current one have not been able to reach a mutually agreeable peace with their Palestinian counterparts? Ultimately, the 37 theatre artists who put their names to the March 29th letter to The Guardian are not merely artists urging a boycott of other artists but British artists attacking Jewish artists interpreting the representation of Jews in English literature, which only underlines the anti-Semitic subtext of the "inclusiveness" that the signatories claim to support.


Anonymous said...

As a retired Jewish teacher of Shakespeare in public school classrooms and as a frequenter of Old Globe productions while in England, I am appalled at this uncivilized behavior from British actors. Can it be that the Brits will never view Jews as human? Can it be,really, that their hatred runs so deep that they ignore and rewrite history(Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967-remember?) in order to fit their bias into?
If Arabs and Jews want to watch Shakespeare in any venue of Israel--including its Samaria and Judea, then they should be blessed in so doing. So farewell Leicester Square and the Criterion. We will watch our Shakespeare in NYC, Boston, and the West Bank.

Ian Thal said...

To be fair, Shakespeare's Globe has been steadfast in defending their original decision to invite Habima-- so there are plenty of British theatre artists who will defend artistic freedom anywhere. There have also been a number of notables of both the British stage and British letters who have spoken out against this boycott call. Perhaps I should write a follow-up.