The cultural center in the settlement of Ariel.
The cultural center in the settlement of Ariel. Photo by Alon Ron
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Reuters
Director and writer Peter Brook poses during the photocall of the movie "The Tightrope" at the 69th Venice Film Festival in Venice September 5, 2012. Photo by Reuters

It's tough being an Israeli repertory theater, subsisting on public funds. Take the Cameri Theater. It has to maintain lively activity in auditoriums around the country; satisfy the artistic needs of its actors, directors and playwrights; discover new talent; fill the house night in and night out; sell tickets in regional auditoriums, as well as new season subscriptions - and, after all that, put out work that is both profitable and culturally up to snuff (and also please this guy named Handelzalts, who has truly odd artistic tastes ).

The Cameri has to do all this with public financing, and while public financing is always assured, it is never a sure thing. It far from covers even a third of the budget, and is in any case constantly in danger of being cut for some reason or another. What's more, the Cameri has to compete for this financing with two other theaters operating more or less along the same lines (Habima and Beit Lessin ), not to mention competing with them for largely the same audience, and at times also for the same playwrights, directors and actors. But you put your nose to the grindstone and manage to survive without a current debt despite these difficult economic times (though not without any cutbacks, of course ). You can even take pride in some artistic successes. And you dearly wish to broaden your horizons and host an international theater festival.

And then, along comes one Peter Brook - a director with a truly impressive international reputation, who already agreed to appear in Tel Aviv at the Cameri with his own theater, who has spoken out against artistic boycotts in the past, and who now has decided to cancel his theater's appearance for one reason and one reason only: "Ariel."

What's OK for Itay Tiran

"Ariel" became a factor in Israeli theater more than two years ago. The settlement of Ariel, in the heart of Samaria, has been around since 1978, and it became a city in 1998. For some 30 years, the residents of Ariel lived without a cultural center, and I assume that to see a performance they traveled to the theater halls in Kfar Sava and Ra'anana. I assume that the real theater aficionados from time to time also went - like Kfar Sava and Ra'anana residents - to see plays in Tel Aviv.

Lest I be accused of bias, I am now going to copy the definition of Ariel's political status from the English-language version of Wikipedia, as it is careful to present balanced definitions that won't annoy any side of the Israeli political argument: "Like other settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories, Ariel is considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this. A series of Israeli governments has insisted that Ariel be included within Israel's future borders under any future peace treaty. ... Palestinian representatives have opposed the incorporation of Ariel into Israel in any future settlement, arguing that the Ariel 'finger' would interrupt the territorial integrity of a Palestinian state and includes a major aquifer. Ariel's future is thus not clear: 'as well as an obstacle to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, it could also serve as a crucial trade-off for negotiators hammering out a final deal.'"

Although the place is in dispute, life in the city throughout its existence nevertheless has been routine, as if Ariel were no different from any other place in Israel. I assume that building a cultural center there was part of the same approach: Let the politicians argue about its status, but in the meantime the city's existence will shape consciousness. There are residents; there's communal life; there's a college about to become a university, come hell or high water; and there's also a cultural center - everything for the sake of the appearance of normality, even when circumstances are in dispute and not at all normal.

To oppose that state of mind, a group of theater people (including Vardit Shalfi, Avi Oz, Doron Tavory and others ) got together in 2010 to remind their colleagues, the theater-makers in Israel, that Ariel is a settlement located in an internationally disputed area. And they called on them to do the little a theater person can do in such situations: not perform there. A letter to that effect was circulated among artists, and it was signed by quite a few.

Their call was answered with a sharp attack by Ariel residents, of course, who claimed that they are entitled to theater services just as they are entitled to health and education services - and also by government representatives (ministers who said that anyone who refuses to perform in Ariel would risk losing public funding ).

Now, it's one thing to call on theater people not to perform in Ariel, a personal decision based on conscience and conviction, and another thing altogether to actually follow through. Theater is a group effort. Theatrical productions in the Ariel auditorium (and everywhere else in Israel ) can be done only by publicly funded theaters (there being no private theaters in Israel ), receiving government support, employing playwrights, directors and actors.

Business as usual

In Ariel, people aren't interested in one-man shows. They want public, brand-name theaters. It is part of the desire to show that, settlement or not, normal life not only goes on but flourishes.

Given that their enterprises are publicly funded, theater managers immediately declared that they would have to perform wherever they were asked to go, provided the auditorium could afford to pay their costs, and that therefore they would perform in Ariel.

No one considered even saying they had no choice in the matter. They were too afraid of losing public funding. There were clarifications, muttered under their breath, that no one was going to force actors to perform there, and that replacements would be found should the need arise. Nonetheless, not long after the letter opposing performances in Ariel was published, some people changed their minds. I assume they were told that if they refused to participate in a play in which they were cast, that replacements would be found for them for the Ariel performances, but that this would be taken into account the next time a play was cast.

Actors that companies can't do without - Itay Tiran, for example - can therefore remain true to their principles, but actors who depend on a role to support their families can't afford the luxury of protest.

In the meantime, a cultural center was also opened in Kiryat Arba. But unlike Ariel, which successfully creates the illusion of being a "settlement-lite," and that life there is normal, Kiryat Arba is a symbol of the Israeli occupation and all its worst manifestations.

Cameri Theater actor Rami Baruch refused to allow his play "The Leopard" to be performed there. But other than that, in the last two years, plays by the Cameri, Habima and Beit Lessin theaters have all been put on as scheduled in Ariel, and Beit Lessin has also appeared in Kiryat Arba.

On this matter, Wikipedia says: "The state-funded Ariel Center for the Performing Arts opened on November 8, 2010, with a performance of 'Piaf' by the Be'er Sheva Theater company. These performances were boycotted by 60 Israeli actors, writers and directors, including Joshua Sobol, who refused to perform in settlements."

The Hebrew-language Wikipedia entry says: "The controversy over the refusal of some artists to appear in Ariel's auditorium, and the debate about how to respond to them, died down after plays by the various theater companies, as well as performances by singers and comedians, were put on as planned, including plays directed by individuals who had originally signed the letter boycotting Ariel."

Two playwrights and directors who were firmly opposed to performances in Ariel - Shmuel Hasfari and Sobol - failed to prevent their plays and productions ("Havdalah" and "The Ideal Husband" ) from being performed in Ariel. Hasfari severed his connections with the Cameri.

Scream until you're blue in the face

But here's the rub: Whatever died down in Israel and in the occupied territories didn't necessarily die down in the world. The fact that Habima appeared in Ariel (with "Track to Damascus" by Hillel Mittelpunkt, who has made no statement either in favor of or against performing in Ariel ) was the stated reason for the protests against its performance of "The Merchant of Venice" at the International Shakespeare Festival at the Globe Theater in London, and the interruptions during the performance itself.

And now there's the matter of Peter Brook's theater.

In the context of this specific affair, it could very well be that Brook and his theater might have saved themselves, the Cameri and all of us a lot of confusion and headache by not agreeing to come here in the first place. It is certainly possible that the Cameri can sue Brook's theater for breach of contract, and maybe even win.

I assume that Brook and his people were aware of this possibility and made their decision anyway. I'm willing to bet that Brook was not aware of the story of Ariel until he was informed of the facts. It is also possible that, given the constant Israeli turmoil, the facts don't seem all that important here. But Ariel - what it is and where it is - is still a fact. The fact that we treat it as ours doesn't make it so.

And it is also worth mentioning that the astonishment expressed by Noam Semel, the general manager of the Cameri, over Peter Brook not refusing to receive the Dan David Prize (and its $1 million purse ) at Tel Aviv University, constructed on top of what was once the Arab village of Sheikh Munis, is tasteless demagoguery, best left unheard. But the very fact that such a statement was made in this argument shows that Semel and the Israeli establishment, including the theater, don't understand the severity of the effect that the issue of Ariel has had on international relations and the Israeli theater.

For many Israelis, this is self-evident: The theater gets money from the state; the state supports settlements and wants to show that the world keeps turning, that it's business as usual, normality at its best - theater for the Jews and occupation for the Palestinians. Yes, it's true, every once in a while there's some blood-letting and stories about the oppression of Palestinians and their living conditions, but they started it all by refusing the 1947 United Nations partition plan, and besides, there's terrorism.

The Cameri can scream until it's blue in the face and say: Look, we also put on plays against the occupation ("Return to Haifa," based on a story by Ghassan Kanafani, which recently garnered a great deal of enthusiasm in Washington, including a nomination for a prestigious prize for actress Rosina Kambus, and we put on "Cabaret," which in addition to being entertaining also delivered a clear anti-racism message.

They can also complain of having been responsive to every one of Brook's requests - to appear in Ramallah and Haifa and to cut ticket prices for students. They can also repeat that, given their situation, they have no choice but to appear in Ariel, and they can show that performances in Ariel are a drop in the bucket compared to their performances elsewhere.

All of this could also be used to argue for a penalty. If one looks at the role played by Israeli theater, willingly or not, in the Israeli occupation, the determining factor when it comes to the question of collaboration or non-collaboration with the occupation is: Did the theater perform in an auditorium located in an internationally disputed area?

Since Ariel is in fact located in an internationally disputed area, performances by an Israeli theater there are liable from this point onward - and certainly for as long as they continue - to serve as a cause (or pretext, if you prefer ) for action directed against Israeli theaters internationally.

Therefore, it could well be that the hearts of Israeli theater people are in the right place. It could well be that as publicly funded institutions they have no choice. But they should know that performing in Ariel (or Kiryat Arba, or any other auditorium ever built in the occupied territories ) comes with a price. The uproar at the London Globe and the cancellation by Brook's theater company are that price. It could be that it's worth our while to pay. But maybe not. As they say in such cases: Time will tell.