Against cultural boycott: Habima visit splits theatre

For those opposing the invitation to Habima: New protest at invite to Israel’s national theatre to perform at Globe

Theatre ban ‘like Nazi book burning’ say West End stars

Actors clash over calls to stop Israeli company coming to Globe

By Jennifer Lipman, Jewish Chronicle

Leading figures of the British stage have strongly denounced calls for Israel’s national theatre company, Habima, to be removed from the line-up of the Globe to Globe Shakespeare Festival for political reasons.

Playwright Sir Arnold Wesker, and actors Steven Berkoff and Maureen Lipman, have suggested that the attempt to block Israeli actors from performing The Merchant of Venice for the Cultural Olympiad is tantamount to Nazi-era book-burning.

Actor Simon Callow said: “I am strongly opposed to any attempt to ban the work of any artist, especially artists with the distinguished record for challenging and fearlessly exploratory work of the Habima company, whose work we have not seen for far too long. If there is to be confrontation, it must be done through the agreed channels of discussion and debate. Let us see what Habima has to tell us about human life, before we try to silence them.”

Their criticism follows the publication of a letter in the Guardian, signed by 37 actors and directors including Emma Thompson, Richard Wilson, Miriam Margolyes and Mark Rylance which stated that by hosting Habima after it had performed in settlements, the Globe was “associating itself with policies of exclusion practised by the Israeli state”.

The letter added: “We ask the Globe to withdraw the invitation so that the festival is not complicit with human rights violations.”

In total, 37 plays will be staged in 37 languages during the six-week event. In addition to the Israelis taking on Shylock in Hebrew, the Palestinian Ashtar Theatre company will perform Richard II.

The call for a boycott of Habima, which was founded by Jews in Moscow in 1905, was condemned by Sir Arnold, who said that “depriving an audience of an artistic experience is like the Nazis burning the books of the finest minds and talents of Europe”.

Sir Arnold, who wrote his own play, The Merchant, from Shylock’s perspective, said that artists who demanded boycotts of the arts “seem not to understand the nature of their profession.

“If the arts help deepen our awareness of human pain, and help sharpen sensitive thought, why should we wish to deprive such tools from those we think need to be aware of the pain and insensitivity in which they are participating?” he asked.

Mr Berkoff, who wrote a play dedicated to “Shakespeare’s Villains”, called the letter “dangerous rubbish to identify artists with the policies of a government”. Having worked in Israel, he said he was aware that most Israeli actors, like him, opposed the policies of the current Israeli

“This has a kind of stench to it which reminds me of the hundreds of other times when Jews were excluded for whatever reason, as writers, actors and painters, from the Russian tsar to Hitler onwards.”

“There is a shadow that is from antisemitism that casts itself over the Jewish topic and particularly Israel, which stops people seeing clearly,” he added. “It’s nasty to ban actors, – they are the messengers of drama and literature, they are the messengers of the light and philosophy of a nation.”

Both he and Maureen Lipman questioned whether the letter’s signatories had voiced their opposition to the involvement of groups from countries including Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Russia and China, given their respective human rights records.

Mr Berkoff called it hypocritical and “wonky thinking”.

“They should be ashamed of themselves, the people of the book are banning the book,” said Ms Lipman. “It’s disgusting. It’s totally simplistic to think that by banning a group of actors you are making a world statement.

“I don’t notice them trying to ban Israeli inventions which are changing the world,” she added. She said that the signatories were neither helping their cause nor the cause of art. “Let them have a voice, and when Habima get here, have a debate like mature people.”

The Globe has said it has no intention of withdrawing the invitation, although there are concerns about disruption during the show, in the manner of the protest during the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s Proms performance last September.

Booker winner attacks bid to ban Israeli national theatre company from Globe

Stars of theatre and literature split over invitation to Israeli company to stage Merchant of Venice in London

Maggie Brown, Observer/,
08/07 .04.12

Author Howard Jacobson has weighed into a debate over whether Israel’s national theatre company, Habima, should be banned from performing at the Globe in London as part of next month’s Cultural Olympiad event, saying art should never be censored.

Habima was invited to perform The Merchant of Venice in Hebrew as part of an ambitious programme to stage 37 Shakespeare plays, each in a different language, during the six-week festival. Yet a letter signed by 37 leading actors, directors, producers and writers – including Emma Thompson, Mike Leigh and Mark Rylance – published in the Guardian last week, called for the invitation to be withdrawn because Habima had performed in Israeli settlements.

The letter, also signed by Miriam Margolyes, Richard Wilson and Jonathan Miller, said: “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. By inviting Habima, the Globe is associating itself with policies of exclusion preached by the Israeli state and endorsed by its national theatre company.”

But now there has been an equally passionate counter-attack. Jacobson, winner of the 2010 Man Booker prize for his comic novel The Finkler Question, about what it means to be Jewish, said artistic critics were wrong. Writing for the Observer, below, he said: “If there is one justification for art… it is that it proceeds from, and addresses, our unaligned humanity. Whoever would go to art with a mind made up on any subject misses the point of what art is for.

“So to censor it in the name of political or religious conviction… is to tear out its very heart. For artists themselves to do such a thing to art is not only treasonable, it is an act of self-harm.

“With last week’s letter to the Guardian, McCarthyism came to Britain. You can hear the minds of people in whom we vest our sense of creative freedom snapping shut.”

Jacobson’s comments follow a letter from actors Simon Callow, Steven Berkoff and Maureen Lipman, and the playwright Arnold Wesker, which said that an attempt to ban Habima was tantamount to Nazi-era book burning.

The Globe theatre’s management said that it was standing by its decision, and that the Habima performance was a key part of its eclectic Cultural Olympiad, running from 21 April to 9 June.

A spokeswoman for Dominic Dromgoole, the Globe’s artistic director, said: “We have not changed our position. We thought long and hard about it. We, as an institution, are welcoming everybody to the festival.” Ashtar theatre, a Palestinian company, is performing Richard II in Arabic on 4 and 5 May.

Ilan Ronen, Habima’s artistic director, said his company was offended by the original letter. “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.

“They don’t know the true facts about our theatre activity. Somehow, they have been manipulated, they are getting it wrong. 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. It is not easy. We have to be pragmatic.” Of the 1,500 performances given by the company every year, he said that about “four or five” were in the Ariel settlement in the West Bank. “It is a little bit out of proportion to represent us this way.

“We are supported by the state, but not representing it. We are completely independent, artistically and politically.”

He said that company members who asked not to perform were not required to, and they were not pressured or demoted, rather they were protected and consciences were respected. “It is a difficult situation, not ideal,” he said, declining to say how many of the company refused to work in the West Bank.

“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.”

‘For artists … it is an act of self-harm’
Howard Jacobson, Observer

If there is one justification for art – for its creation and its performance – it is that art proceeds from and addresses our unaligned humanity. Whoever would go to art with a mind already made up, on any subject, misses what art is for. So to censor it in the name of a political or religious conviction, no matter how sincerely held, is to tear out its very heart.

For artists themselves to do such a thing to art is not only treasonable; it is an act of self-harm. One could almost laugh about it, so Kafkaesque is the reasoning: The Merchant of Venice, acted in Hebrew, a troubling work of great moral complexity (and therefore one that we should welcome every new interpretation of), to be banned not by virtue of itself, but because of where the theatre company performing it had also performed.

But the laughter dies in our throats. With last week’s letter to the Guardian, McCarthyism came to Britain. You could hear the minds of people in whom we vest our sense of creative freedom snapping shut. And now we might all be guilty by association: of being in the wrong place or talking to the wrong people or reading the wrong book. Thus does an idée fixe make dangerous fools of the best of us.

© Copyright JFJFP 2017