Habima: the debate by letter
The dates given at the top of the letters come from their online publication. Print publication is the following day.
20th April 2012
We notice with dismay that dozens of prominent members of the UK theatre and film industry are calling for a boycott of Israel’s national theatre, Habima, in London’s Globe to Globe festival, on the grounds that Habima have performed in established cultural halls in two large Israeli settlements (Letters, 30 March). It is widely accepted that any peace accord is likely to result in the larger settlement blocs, on land close to the 1967 line, becoming part of Israel, through a process of land swaps; a concept that has already been endorsed and reiterated by international leaders.
In any case, Habima’s cultural contribution to the festival ought to be celebrated and enjoyed away from the politics of the region. We commend the Globe’s management for honouring the invitation to Habima. They rightly state that “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.”
We oppose any boycott of Israel. This sort of activity gives a green light to those who wish to promote the delegitimisation of Israel. It does nothing to help the Middle East peace process which will be solved when leaders on both sides can reach agreement on a two-state solution. It is unfortunate, due to the seriousness of the accusations levied against this non-government affiliated theatre group, that crucial facts have been overlooked. We call on the signatories of the letter to withdraw their remarks and become part of a more constructive debate on the future of the peace process.
John Whittingdale MP Chairman, Commons culture, media and sport select committee, Louise Mensch MP, Philip Davies MP, Damian Collins MP Members, CMS committee
[All members Conservative Party]
22 April 2012
Today, 23 April, is Shakespeare’s birthday and marks the launch of the World (Review, 21 April). Yet what should be an unabashed celebration of Shakespeare’s continued relevance to our world has been sullied by the fact that the festival is sponsored by BP. While the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon spill continues to devastate ecosystems and communities, and the highly polluting extraction of tar sands oil brings us rapidly closer to the point of no return from climate change, we feel that BP has no place in arts sponsorship.
We, as individuals involved in theatre and the arts, are deeply concerned that the RSC – like other much-cherished cultural institutions – is allowing itself to be used by BP to obscure the destructive reality of its activities. We would like to see an end to oil sponsorship of the arts and are committed to finding more responsible ways to finance this country’s cultural life, for our own and future generations.
Mark Rylance Actor, writer and playwright
Moira Buffini Playwright
Van Badham Playwright
Jo Tyabji Director and actor
Rod Dixon Red Ladder Theatre Company
James Bolam Actor
Sue Jameson Actor
Lisa Wesley Artist and theatre-maker
Arabella Lawson Actor
Harry Giles Environment officer, Festivals Edinburgh
Professor Stephen Bottoms Chair of drama and theatre studies and director of the Workshop Theatre, University of Leeds
Andy Field Co-director, Forest Fringe
Daniel Balla Producer, Gaia Theatre Collective; director, Coexists Events Space
Tom Worth Producer of the Globe’s Hamlet on Tour documentary
Lucy Jameson Gaia Theatre
Simon Lys Gaia Theatre
Leo-Marcus Wan Actor
Tim Jeeves Artist and writer
Phil Maxwell Director
Hazuan Hasheem Director
Sue Palmer Contemporary performance maker and artist
Stephen Duncombe Associate Professor, New York University, Gallatin School of Media, Culture & Communications, Center For Artistic Activism
Kenny Young Songwriter, musician, founder of Artists Project Earth
Ana Betancour Professor, architect, artist
John Volynchook Photographer
Leila Galloway Artist and senior lecturer
Dr Wallace Heim Academic and former set designer
Tracey Dunn Film-maker and community tv broadcaster
• The four MPs who criticise the call for a boycott of Israel’s National Theatre were poorly briefed (Letters, 21 April). To say that Habima is a “non-government affiliated theatre group” is an odd claim, given it is state-financed and has received £10,000 from Israel’s foreign ministry specifically for the planned performance at the Globe. It meets perfectly the criteria for boycott, following the Palestinians’ call for international support in achieving decolonisation.
Geography, international law and the Habima Theatre
Monday 23 April 2012
So Conservative MPs from the select committee for culture, media and Sport don’t dispute the fact that the Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land are illegal (Letters, April 21). Yet they think it’s acceptable for theatre companies to tour there, because they feel sure that they will be part of Israel one day. Their letter perfectly illustrates why the last-resort measure of a boycott of complicit Israeli cultural institutions is necessary.
Israel creates what it calls “facts on the ground” – settlements and their infrastructure – and expects these to be legitimised at a future date by the Palestinians, in a widely discredited “peace” process in which the powerful are confident they will eventually impose their will upon the dispossessed. The call by Palestinian civil society for boycott aims to achieve basic human rights and the implementation of international law. It is the weapon of the weak in a situation of decades-long oppression. We should all support it.
Miranda Pennell and John Smith
• The MPs’ letter is undermined by its geographical inaccuracy. They assert that the West Bank settlements where the Habima Theatre has been performing are “close to the 1967 line”, and more or less bound to become part of legitimate Israel in land swaps as part of a peace agreement. This somehow, it seems, makes Habima performing in illegal settlements OK. It is illegal at the moment but may not be later, so there is nothing to worry about? In any case, geography demolishes the argument. Ariel is 17km beyond the green line. This is a small country – another 34km gets you to the Jordanian border. Kiryat Arba, the other settlement where Habima performs, is almost half-way to the West Bank’s border with Jordan.
There is no way these settlements could be gifted to Israel in exchange for land elsewhere and still leave a viable Palestine state. This is, in any case, a non-argument. Israel has no intention of making peace and has successfully thwarted the “peace process” for 20 years. Habima has chosen to do the Israeli government’s bidding by performing in these settlements. It should be told – and by the Globe Theatre – that actions have consequences.
• A simple look at any map reveals Ariel lies in the middle of the West Bank. However, the writers’ ignorance pales in comparison to their moral failure: namely their attempt to legitimise Israel’s brutal colonisation project and hand Israel what is not theirs to hand.
• Ben White’s pitiful argument (Letters, 23 April) that because Habima receives financial aid from the Israeli government it should be banned from performing is hypocritical and irrelevant. Should the RSC be banned from performing in the US because the Irish-American lobby objects? Or British cultural events abroad be boycotted because some people object to British troops protecting us in Afghanistan? All national arts institutions receive aid from their government. Will White be objecting to the Chinese, Iranian, Turkish and Zimbabwe performers, from nations with appalling human rights records? Or is it just Jews who bother him? Only philistines boycott visiting arts groups from democratic nations and it is clearly racist to ban Habima just because they are Israeli actors.
Hackney-Haifa Friendship Association
• My friend, the great actor Miriam Karlin, grew up in a strongly Zionist family, rejoicing at the establishment of the state of Israel. Later she became a fierce critic of Israel’s behaviour towards the Palestinians. When, towards the end of her life, I asked what attention she had paid to the Palestinians at Israel’s birth, she responded unhesitatingly: “I am ashamed to say I never thought about them at all.”
The same phenomenon, but lacking the shame, is evident among supporters of the Globe’s invitation to Israel’s Habima Theatre, as they fling unevidenced accusations of anti-Semitism, delegitimising of Israel, exclusion of Jewish actors and worse at those who want Habima to be uninvited.
Habima’s critics – including many eminent Jewish theatre professionals – simply point to the company’s enthusiastic agreement to perform in the illegal settlements, on Palestinian territory from which the Palestinians have been driven. Meanwhile, most Habima defenders don’t acknowledge the Palestinians’ interest in this matter at all. Even those asserting opposition to the occupation (David Edgar, Howard Brenton), are silent about the elephant in the room – that Habima’s settlement audiences are exclusively Jewish. No Palestinians can get within miles of a settlement theatre, much less buy tickets.
The only anti-Semitism I perceive in this debate is among those refusing to hold Israel and its institutions to the same human rights, multicultural and anti-segregation standards we apply everywhere else in the world.
A long standing Jewish Friend of the Globe Theatre
• So, according to the Guardian style guide, Jerusalem, the parliamentary and administrative centre of Israel is not the capital city, while Tel Aviv, the commercial centre, is. I trust that from now on Sydney will be the capital of Australia and not Canberra, and New York the capital of the USA and not Washington. CP Scott, a firm supporter of zionism, who said that “facts are sacred”, must be spinning in his grave.
Dr Tom Weinberger
Ben White, electronic intifada
The planned performance by Israel’s national theatre company Habima at The Globe in London is being funded by the country’s Foreign Ministry to the tune of £10,000, it emerged today.
As divulged by The Jewish Chronicle, the appearance of Habima at The Globe – already a target of a public boycott call in the context of the Palestinian BDS campaign – is being subsidised by the Israeli government following a funding shortfall. The paper reports:
Habima has been reticent about making any comments over the call for a boycott, or any public appeal regarding the funding shortfall, fearing further negative publicity.
But after initial reluctance, the Israeli Foreign Ministry, informed by the JC about the shortfall in Habima’s funding, has promised to make sure that any financial difficulties are covered to make sure the company is able to perform in London.
A spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in London said that the Foreign Ministry was the “biggest exporter of Israeli culture to the world” and would ensure that the performance went ahead.
As I wrote on the New Statesman website, dozens of British actors, playwrights and directors have already urged The Globe to cancel Habima’s performance, due to the company’s complicity with “human rights violations and the illegal colonisation of occupied land”.
Those – like Ken Loach – who view the presence of Habima at The Globe’s festival as unacceptable, do so for clear reasons. The company performs in illegal West Bank settlements, and, in the context of its direct link with the state, sees the invitation by The Globe as an “honourable accomplishment for the State of Israel in general”.
Now we know that the specific performance at The Globe is only being made possible through the financial support of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. It is unlikely to be the last development in this story.
Habima, Israeli Theater Company, Comes Under Scrutiny In London’s Cultural Olympiad
Lucas Kavner, Huffingtom Post
When Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London invited the prominent Israeli theater company Habima to perform at their nonpartisan festival in advance of the 2012 Olympic Games, they likely weren’t expecting such an intense backlash.
Tapped to present “The Merchant of Venice” at the bilingual festival, which also features 37 other productions of Shakespeare performed by companies around the world — part of the UK’s “Cultural Olympiad” — Habima has recently come under scrutiny for some of its past performances in disputed West Bank settlements.
On March 29, a group of prominent writers, actors, and directors, including Emma Thompson, Mike Leigh, Mark Rylance, and other prominent members of the UK’s artistic community, called attention to Habima’s inclusion in the festival. They authored a letter, published in the Guardian and elsewhere, calling on the Globe to withdraw their invitation to the Israeli company.
The artists’ objection to Habima, the letter states, stems from the Israeli company’s past performances at “halls of culture” in “illegal Israeli settlements” along the disputed West Bank.
“The Globe says it wants to ‘include’ the Hebrew language in its festival – we have no problem with that,” the letter stated. “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.”
Many artists responded negatively to the letter, including the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Howard Jacobson, who authored a much cited piece in the Sunday Observer (not published online), lamenting the content of the letter as an affront to art in general.
“With last week’s letter to the Guardian, McCarthyism came to Britain,” he wrote. “You can hear the minds of people in whom we vest our sense of creative freedom snapping shut.”
The Habima company has a long and storied history, dating back to its founding in Moscow in the early 1900s. Early incarnations of the company performed extensively in the Soviet Union and toured Western countries before becoming the national theater of Israel in 1958. Its main theater center is now located in Tel Aviv.
Habima’s website states that the company’s mission is to give “the Israeli public, from anywhere at any age, the opportunity to participate in theater – Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, young and old, from the central region to the periphery.”
The company’s artistic director Ilan Ronen was not available for comment, but he recently told the Guardian that he thought the letter was a “disgrace,” and that a proposed boycott hinders “artistic dialogue” between European companies.
“We don’t see ourselves as collaborators with the Israeli government over its West Bank policy,” Ronen said. “We don’t remember artists boycotting other artists.”
Ronen noted that Habima is financially supported to perform all over the country, similar to other state-supported dance and theater companies. If the company didn’t perform where it was asked to perform, Ronen said, it would be breaking the law. “We have to go, otherwise there is no financial support.”
Out of 1,500 performances the company participates in every year, Ronen told the Guardian, only “four or five” were given in the disputed West Bank settlement. He added that company members who preferred not to perform in those productions were excused.
James Ivens, a theater artist and artistic director of the Flood Theatre in England, was one of the 37 signatories to the letter against Habima. Ivens said that Habima did not need to perform in the “occupied Palestinian territory” if the company chose not to do so. Other Israeli artists have refused paychecks and opportunities rather than perform in disputed settlements, he said, and it is “cant” for the company’s artistic director to say that Habima “had no choice in the matter.”
“That’s absolutely spineless,” he said. “The company accepting money from the government, if anything, is more damning. People find ways of funding theater otherwise. No amount of money is acceptable recompense.”
Ivens said that he and others will continue fighting to boycott Habima, no matter how heated the dialogue becomes. “We’re not about to let it drop,” he said.
“The Globe’s position is that if you boycott one company, then where would the boycotts stop? Would you boycott American companies because they launched a war in Iraq?” he noted. “But this [Habima] situation is different, being part of a company from a country whose government is complicit in these atrocities and becoming an instrument specifically of Israeli foreign policy.”
The South Korean company Yohangza is also a part of the festival. One wonders what the international response would be to a North Korean theater company participating in the festival, if such a touring company existed. Despite disagreements with its home country’s politics, would we be curious to see what kind of art they’d put out into the world?
Ivens suggested a comparison like that is false. “There is much more freedom in Israel than there is in North Korea,” he said. “If North Koreans didn’t participate they might be put in a prison camp. In Israel it’s a different situation.”
Ironically, “The Merchant of Venice,” which Habima is set to perform at the festival, is considered by some to be anti-semitic. Writing in the Telegraph in 2008, Daniel Hannan suggested that the character of Shylock is “the most dangerous archetype of the malevolent Jew ever created.”
“I feel awkward every time I watch the play, as many gentiles do,” he wrote then. “I can only imagine how much more uneasy I would feel if I were Jewish.”
Other notable performances at the festival include a production of “King Lear” from the Belarus Free Theatre — an acclaimed underground company banned in its home country — and a production of “A Comedy of Errors” from a troupe out of Kabul, Afghanistan. Another young company out of South Sudan wrote a 20-page pitch letter outlining how much Shakespeare meant to those involved in the Sudanese civil war. That company will present its version of “Cymbeline.”
On May 4 and 5, the Palestinian Ashtar Theatre troupe will perform its “Richard II” in Arabic.