Outbreak of fever at opposition to Habima theatre company
This posting has 6 items:
1) J4big reviews the controversy including the response to ‘Nazi’ accusations;
2) Ben White on why and when cultural boycott is justified;
3) Sixty Israeli actors, writers, directors boycott performing at settlement theatres;
4) Four renowned Israeli authors state will not perform at settlement theatres;
5) Interview with Jim Allen about the international boycott of Perdition demanded by Zionists;
6) Arnold Wesker revises his history, plus links to the Perdition controversy;
Artists refute ‘Nazi’ slurs over Israeli theatre protest
A challenge to Shakespeare’s Globe for inviting Israel’s national theatre, Habima, to take part in London’s Cultural Olympiad in May has been met with a flurry of allegations of ‘Nazi era book-burning’ (Arnold Wesker in the Jewish Chronicle) and McCarthyism (Howard Jacobson in the Observer) .
This in turn prompted several of the original 37 signatories to a letter in the Guardian to retaliate, refuting the allegations with a reply published in the Jewish Chronicle on April 12. It is not available on the JC’s website so we reproduce it here:
How sad that Arnold Wesker, Steven Berkoff and Maureen Lipman should suggest that challenging the Israeli national theatre’s fitness to take part in the Olympic Shakespeare Festival at the Globe next month is “tantamount to Nazi-era book-burning” (Theatre ban ‘like Nazi book burning’ say West End stars, April 4).
Can they really have intended to cast this Nazi slur at Mark Rylance, Emma Thompson and the many other theatrical professionals like ourselves who believe that theatre should uphold resistance to injustice, rather than pretend opposition to Israel’s policies while continuing business as usual with an unjust state and its institutions? Doesn’t that cheap insult demean them rather than us?
Our call on colleagues at the Globe to withdraw their invitation to Habima, the Israeli National Theatre, explicitly targets an institution that does the state’s bidding by performing for Israelis illegally settled on occupied Palestinian territory. Habima is directly complicit in human rights abuses, and we think our profession has a responsibility, if not a duty, to speak up on the matter.
We are not targeting individual actors, directors or authors, nor the content of their work, and have no intention of doing so. We are not picking on Israel because it is Jewish, as Berkoff and Lipman allege.
We are responding to a Palestinian call to insist that Israel lives up to the civilised standards it claims to uphold. In the process, we are celebrating and endorsing those brave Israelis, theatre people among them, who have refused to work in the illegal settlements.
Niall Buggy, actor
David Calder, actor
Caryl Churchill, playwright
Michael Darlow, writer, director
John Graham Davies, actor, writer
Trevor Griffiths, playwright
James Ivens, artistic director, Flood Theatre
Roger Lloyd Pack, actor
Miriam Margolyes OBE, actor
Alexei Sayle, comedian, writer
Hilary Westlake, director
Susan Wooldridge, actor, writer
Geoffrey Alderman argued that Israel has every right to settle Jews in the West Bank, so Habima was doing nothing wrong. He was quickly slapped down by Adam Keller, of Gush Shalom.
In Wednesday’s Guardian (April 11), Arnold Wesker and a few friends finally put to rest the habitual insistence of Israel’s apologists that “we must not mix culture and politics” by accusing those who queried the invitation to Habima of ”seeking to delegitimise the state of Israel and its success”.
Wesker’s involvement in this row, invoking the sanctity of art, is ironic given his past involvement in the campaign to ban Jim Allen’s play Perdition, which exposed the collaboration of some Zionist leaders with the Nazis in Hungary. In 1987 the Royal Court Theatre was forced to pull a planned production of the play and it has never been staged in its entirety.
There have been countless items of media coverage since the original Guardian letter appeared on March 30. This commentary from Ben White [below] puts the controversy in context.
Here is a short selection of other coverage, for, against and neutral.
The Habima boycott call is a response to an appeal for support from a people dispossessed and occupied for decades.
By Ben White, New Statesman
A fortnight ago, dozens of actors, playwrights and directors called on The Globe to cancel a planned performance by Israel’s national theatre company Habima, to avoid complicity with “human rights violations and the illegal colonisation of occupied land”.
Along with Emma Thompson, Mike Leigh and Caryl Churchill, opposition to the invitation includes Mark Rylance, founding artistic director of The Globe. The letter follows on from an earlier call by ‘Boycott From Within’, a group of Israelis who support the Palestinians’ Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
Since then, the letter’s critics have responded in an over the top fashion, successfully missed the point. Howard Jacobson reached for absurd clichés (“Kafkaesque”, “McCarthyism”) while Simon Callow and Louise Mensch signed a letter describing the boycott call an example of “the continued persecution of Jews”.
“Theatre ban ‘like Nazi book burning’ say West End stars” ran a headline in The Jewish Chronicle, whose editor Stephen Pollard compared pro-Palestinian protesters at the Proms to “Nazi party members” in “Weimar Germany” (as did Labour MP Denis MacShane who recently linked the murders in Toulouse to Palestine solidarity motions in UK trade unions).
This shameless blustering ignores the specific reasons for the Habima boycott call, namely that the company performs in illegal West Bank settlements – colonies that form a key part of Israel’s apartheid regime – and indeed promised Israel’s Minister of Culture that it would “deal with any problems hindering such performances”.
The wider context is the decision by Palestinians to call for BDS as part of their efforts to secure basic rights and freedoms. That call, endorsed by trade unions, faith groups, political factions, and civil society organisations, includes cultural boycott. Groups like the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) play a critical role in mobilising support for the Palestinian struggle.
Culture does not operate in some special, apolitical space – just like academic institutions in Israel are also not removed from complicity in systematic human rights abuses. As the Habima general manager put it, the invitation by The Globe is an “honourable accomplishment for the State of Israel in general”.
Furthermore, the Israeli government and advocacy groups are deliberately seeking to use culture as a means of ‘rebranding’ a country increasingly linked in the pubic imagination to its crimes against the Palestinians.
In 2008, Israel’s Foreign Ministry hired a British firm to “craft” a “new image” for the country based on “Israel’s scientific and cultural achievements”. After the Gaza massacre in 2009, Israel announced more money for ‘cultural diplomacy’, with an official declaring a plan to “send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits” to “show Israel’s prettier face”.
No surprise then that Israeli artists like Idan Raichel admit how: “We certainly see ourselves as ambassadors of Israel in the world, cultural ambassadors, hasbara ambassadors, also in regards to the political conflict”. Or that a touring Israeli chef is open about the government’s intention to use “artists, singers, painters, filmmakers” to improve Israel’s image “through culture”.
Aside from outright denial of Israel’s violations of international law and systematic racial discrimination, a common objection to cultural boycott (or BDS in general) is some version of ‘Why Israel’s musicians and not China’s?’
But this misses the point. Boycott is a strategy, not a principle. And as such, it’s a response to a call from Palestinian civil society, which is seeking to mobilise international civil society as a way of realising their basic rights. It is a familiar tactic, used to resist local and global injustices. Are Palestinians prohibited from resisting colonial occupation – and looking for allies as they do so?
In summary, the Habima boycott call – a microcosm of the BDS campaign – is a case of institutional complicity in clear human rights abuses, and a response to an appeal for support from a people dispossessed and occupied for decades. That’s it. No wonder the simplicity of it has Israel’s apologists reaching for the most well-worn smear of all.
Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy.
Donald Macintyre, Independent
JERUSALEM—Five leading Israeli theatres were facing a mounting political row yesterday after a pledge by 60 of the country’s most prominent actors, writers and directors to boycott the companies’ planned performances in a Jewish West Bank settlement.
The companies triggered the protest by planning a programme of performances to mark the opening of a new £6.4m cultural centre in the West Bank settlement of Ariel later this year.
The protest – which was condemned by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu – includes Yousef Sweid and Rami Heuberger, two of Israel’s best known actors, as well as its most venerated living playwright, Joshua Sobol, whose Holocaust work Ghetto won the Evening Standard Play of the Year award when Nicolas Hytner directed it at London’s National Theatre in 1989.
Their petition, sent to Israel’s Likud Culture Minister, Limor Livnat, expressed “dismay” at the theatres’ decision to perform in the settlement’s new auditorium and served notice that the artists will refuse to perform in any settlements. Calling on Israeli theatres to “pursue their prolific activity” within the “green line” that marked its border until the 1967 Six Day War, it says that to do otherwise would “strengthen the settlement enterprise.” .
Mr Sobol told the liberal daily Haaretz, which first revealed the theatres’ plans, that he hoped the petition would shake up the Israeli public and promote a change of heart by the theatre managements. “There was a lethargy in recent years,” the playwright said. “People somehow became indifferent to the many existential issues in Israel, and this may revive public debate.”
Ariel, a settlement of around 20,000 people, is deep inside the West Bank and its new cultural centre is close to completion after being built in fits and starts over the past 20 years. The theatre’s manager, Ariel Turgeman, has insisted that the company’s contracts do not allow them to cancel performances in such circumstances.
The settlements will be at the heart of new direct negotiations brokered by US President Barack Obama due to open at the White House this week. They are regarded by most of the international community, including Britain, as illegal under international law.
Mr Netanyahu, who flies to Washington for the talks tomorrow, raised the artists’ protest at the weekly meeting of his cabinet and declared that Israel was facing a campaign from “elements” abroad to “delegitimise” Israel. “The last thing we need at this time, while under such an attack, is an attempt for boycotts from within,” he said. “I don’t want to revoke every artist’s right to a political opinion, but we as a government should not fund boycotts against Israel’s citizens.”
The theatres, which include the Habima and Cameri of Tel Aviv, both of which have international reputations, announced over the weekend that the productions would go ahead, saying that while they respected the views of their actors they will perform in any place where there are theatre-loving Israelis.”
Mr Netanyahu’s remarks followed a chorus of outrage from the political right and more overt threats to revoke state funding for the theatres in respect of any artists’ boycott. Insisting that the performances should go ahead, Ms Livnat said “Culture is a bridge in society, and political disputes should be left outside cultural life and art.”
The Finance Minister, Yuval Steinitz, said the government should withdraw funding from theatres which refuse to perform in Ariel, adding: “The State of Israel invests a lot of money in theatres. The taxes helping those theatres exist are paid by Ariel’s residents as well, and those who are sabotaging this should not be employed in Israel.”
But Yossi Sarid, a leftist columnist and former leader of the Meretz party, wrote in Haaretz that the theatre managements had made a “big mistake” and added: “Artists and actors are not soldiers marching in formation. No one can force them to perform, unless his name is [Andrei] Zhdanov. [the Soviet politician who sought to purge Russia’s leading composers in Stalin’s era]. It’s not the artists who are divisive, but those who decided to build the settlements, including the Culture Minister.”
Prominent authors back actors’ refusal to perform beyond Green Line. ‘If settlers refuse to evacuate, they can stay and become Palestinian citizens,’ Yehoshua says
Boaz Fyler, Ynet news
Ynet learned on Monday that prominent Israeli authors A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, David Grossman and Sami Michael are supporting a long line of actors, playwrights and artists who announced they would refuse to perform in the new culture auditorium in Ariel, which is located outside the Green Line.
“The show does not have to go on,” read a letter drafted by the authors. “We, the signatories, express our support for the people of the theater who refuse to perform in Ariel. The Israeli occupation has recently entered its 43rd year. Legitimizing the settlement enterprise and coming to terms with it severely harm Israel’s chances of reaching a peace agreement with its Palestinian neighbors.”
The letter was also signed by sculptor Danny Caravan, an Israel Prize laureate, as well as other artists and actors.
Yehoshua told Ynet, “I support them (members of the performing arts) because they are protesting against a location, not against people. (Ariel) is a disputed place that does not belong to the State of Israel and may be evacuated soon.
“A strange phenomenon exists in Israel. On the one hand, there is the acceptance of dovish principles, such as two states for two peoples, but on the other hand, anti-Arab sentiments are very strong. Just look at Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s remarks. These are expressions of hatred,” said the author.
“The fear of evacuating settlements is preventing peace. Maybe, just as we have an Arab minority within our midst, they (settlers) can remain as a Jewish minority among the Arabs. They can become Palestinian citizens if they do not want to evacuate.”
Also on Monday, some 150 leftists and artists rallied outside the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv under the banner, “It is not civilized to perform in the territories”.
Knesset members Dov Khenin (Hadash), Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) and Chaim Oron (Meretz) also took part in the rally, which was organized by Peace Now.
Perdition suppressed in Britain
[Perdition dramatises the 1954 trial of Malchiel Gruenwald for libel. He wrote a pamphlet recounting that Rudolf Kastner, head of the Hungarian Jewish Aid and Rescue Committee, who had a good relationship with Eichmann, did a deal whereby 1600 rich or well-known Hungarian Jews could escape, while tens of thousands other Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Kastner failed to warn them that they were heading for extermination, not resettlement. The Israeli government brought the libel suit, but lost and had to resign. The hostility to Perdition differs from the (very hostile Jewish) reaction to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which also dealt with Jewish/Nazi collaboration, in that Kastner was a Zionist who, like Jews already settled in Palestine, was alleged to have put the building of the Zionist state before the rescue of European Jews. ]
Interview with Jim Allen
World Socialist Web Site: Could you tell us about the problems you had with Perdition, your play about Zionist collaboration with Hitler’s Nazis?
“Perdition was a very bad experience. I got my bank statement the other day and my overdraft, the lowest it’s been, is now £3,000 despite the fact that I’ve written about four films in six years. We were £20,000 out of pocket for the libel action and that’s a killer. A publisher was involved and he paid a lot. But it’s very time consuming. I’ve followed this for six years.
“I got an apology from the Telegraph and £5,000, which didn’t cover anything.
“We never got it on the stage except a shortened version at the Edinburgh film festival, where it appeared for one night. The bloke who put it on said, ‘I’ve never ever known such pressure, I’m a nervous wreck. The phone never stopped ringing, from all over the world’. One Zionist leader in London said to Ken Loach, ‘I’ve got six friends who are very powerful, and we’ll stop it going out’.
“A big producer in the West End did agreed to stage it. Within 24 hours he phoned back and said to Ken, ‘I’m sorry, forget it, I’ve had phone calls telling me if I put Perdition on, I will never open again on Broadway. I’m sorry.’
“The campaign they orchestrated with the press was incredible. It was attacked in America. I was sent a 20,000 word article printed in the New Republic. I replied in 1,000 words to make sure I got it in. Three months later I got a letter back saying, ‘You will be given the same liberty as any other writer in our magazine’ – 100 words or something, in our letter column.
“Arising out of that came the libel action. For two years I think my earnings were about £10 a week, plus I was going through a bad time personally because of my wife’s illness-phone calls, abuse. You’ve got no idea what it was like.
“A group of us put it on for a week in London, in some secular society. We showed the shortened version. It was packed, mainly by Jewish people, because this was a chapter of their history they didn’t know, like Land and Freedom for the Spanish people. I am not exaggerating, there were some people crying, old people, because of the facts that came out in the play about the Zionists doing everything they could to disorganise the Jews, in Hungary, etc. I said to Ken, “If ever I win the lottery the first thing I’ll do is hire a theatre and put it on.” Apart from that there is no chance. “
Thus, we see the reason for the plays controversy: it shows how some of the leaders of the Zionist movement in occupied Europe collaborated with the Nazis in the Final Solution of the Jewish people of Hungary. The play is based on an infamous libel trial in Israel during the 1950s, and centres on the head of the Zionist Rescue Committee, Rudolf Kasztner. He sued a pamphleteer for claiming that he helped the Nazis exterminate 500,000 of his own people after admitting to negotiating with the SS war criminal Adolph Eichmann for the safe passage out of Hungary of just 2000 Jews – many of whom were Zionists from his home town in Hungary.
When the play has been shown again in London, the controversy was reawakened. Elliot Levey, the Jewish actor who directed the new production, said: ‘It is not historically inaccurate’. However, Zionists again attempted to apply maximum pressure to have the play stopped. In a letter to The Guardian (April 26th 1999), David Menton of the Union of Jewish Students suggested that the play was both “Holocaust revisionism” and therefore ‘one of the most vicious forms of anti-Semitism’. He also cites the author David Cesarani as condemning the play for its ‘revisionism’.
Neville Nagler, the director general of the Board of Deputies of British Jews claimed in a letter to The Guardian (April 26th 1999), that Perdition was a ‘travesty of reality’ and ‘grossly distorts historical fact’. But does it ? The main argument of the critics, is that Perdition should be banned because they claim that the basis of which the play is based is historically inaccurate, and therefore is ‘holocaust revisionism’.
But l would argue that if the allegations of the play are true – and there is much evidence to support this – then it is the Union of Jewish Students and the Board of Deputies of British Jews who are revising the history of the Holocaust – by claiming that this shameful collaboration with the Nazis never happened. Thus, it is vital in the interest of free speech that people can see Perdition and make their own minds up. Are we to believe that Ken Loach, a respected left-wing film maker would associate himself in any way with a play which was based on events in the holocaust which are untrue or anti-Semitic? There is a story here which the Zionists do not want you to know and l believe they are making allegations – which they cannot back up with evidence – to stop a free and open debate about the role of the Zionist movement in the war and its collaboration with the Nazi regime.
Complete entry on Arnold Wesker’s website of everything he had published in 1987, the year he signed the letter calling for Perdition to be banned.
1987 Programme note about Athol Fugard for Kimura’s production of a Fugard play – ‘Sizwe Banzi Is Dead’. 20 January.
Letter to the editor – requested by Child Poverty Action Group, signed together with Rabbi Julia Neuberger and Glenda Jackson, printed in The Guardian 16 March.
Cosy Cottage Corner – AW took over from restaurant critic, Fay Maschler (who was on holiday) reviewing three London restaurants for the
London Standard, 14 April 1987. Originally title In Lieu of Fay Maschler. Only two were printed. One, The Gay Hussars, which was critically
reviewed was cut out on the instruction of Fay who had recently reviewed it favourably and had become friendly with the owners!
See also : Press comments about Perdition, 1987
Uri Davis’account of the attempts to get a public performance for Perdition
Plus background in previous postings on Habima protest:
Against cultural boycott: Habima visit splits theatre
New protest at invite to Israel’s national theatre to perform at Globe