Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch should have learned from Mitt Romney’s mistake in his first debate with Barack Obama, when he promised to stop funding PBS even though he liked Big Bird: you don’t mess with puppets.
Romney’s statement drew a flood of Internet memes about the big yellow resident of Sesame Street. Here, actors, puppeteers and supporters were photographed with puppets protesting Aharonovitch’s decision to shut down the puppet festival of the Hakawati Palestinian National Theatre in East Jerusalem on the grounds that it was funded by the Palestinian Authority in violation of the Oslo Accords.
The protest started with a video made by Ariel Doron, a puppeteer whose credits includes Elmo of Rehov Sumsum, Israel’s version of Sesame Street (but who wants to make clear that his activity has nothing to do with the popular children’s program). In this simplistic video, a plastic toy hammer usually used as an Independence Day decoration chases a puppet, which later ends up blindfolded and tied to a tree. On the way, the hammer kills puppets in the form of a camel, a tiger and a dove of peace. Doron sent the video to the actor Yousef Sweid, whom he knows from his work at Rehov Sumsum. Sweid gave the video to his partner, the director Yaeli Ronen, who came up with the puppet meme.
“Many people feel in their guts that an injustice was done here, but they don’t know how to express it. Either that, or they’re feeling pessimistic that they’ve had to put up with things like this again and again,” Ronen told Haaretz. “We thought of an act that would have an element of play, of fun, an appropriate way for artists to express themselves in protest. There’s another dangerous milestone every time. This isn’t the worst thing that’s happened here recently. The bricks in the wall of democracy are starting to fall out one by one, and at some point we have to show solidarity, set a boundary, and when it gets absurd, to say that it can’t be taken lying down.”
“I don’t usually start things like this, but it bothered me because it’s children, and also because I’m a puppeteer for Rehov Sumsum and for the HOP! Channel,” said Sweid. “This issue also annoyed Yaeli a lot, and she said, ‘Let’s do something very simple.’ Like children, we all connect to puppets. I saw that people were connecting to it. We started with our photos and said that anyone who was in favor of this protest should upload photos too.”
The protesters have their photos taken with puppets and with handwritten posters that read “I’m a security risk!” or “I’m actually right-wing (and I still think this is despicable).” The photographs are published on the protest movement’s Facebook page, Puppets4All, under the hashtag #puppets4all. Among the protesters are people from Israel and abroad and well-known people such as Mira Awad, Idit Teperson, Dovale Glickman, Michael Moshonov, Idan Alterman, Rani Blair and Tomer Sharon.
“My participation in the protest is the most natural thing for me,” says Libby Ran. “Besides being a puppeteer who is around puppets all the time and knows how they make kids happy, I believe with all my heart that every girl and boy deserves culture. The festival is a Palestinian initiative, and these children didn’t choose to be born Palestinian. Even in the places hit hardest by poverty, hunger and war, there’s puppet theater. It has therapeutic power.”
“One of the things it’s done is let the public know what the issue really is,” Sweid says about the chance of the protest changing the situation. “Most of the time, Haaretz is the only one to report about it. The public isn’t interested. People in the government do things like that and say, ‘Yes. We’ll do as we please, since is a field where we can do everything.” Nobody cares about the Palestinians, so we can be big heroes. The moment you raise public awareness about it, it becomes much harder to pull the trigger. It’s like asking me how much theater changes public opinion. I don’t know. But it does raise awareness. At least next year they’ll think twice before doing this. Our goal is to have them bring it back, even though the festival surely lost a lot of money because it was cancelled at the last moment and there were many participants from abroad. At least they’re raising public awareness that it’s not right to do things like this just because you feel like it, because you’re a bully who wants to flex your muscles at weaker people.”
Doron, the puppeteer who made the video, says, “It sounds incredible to me that they’re keeping Palestinian children from seeing puppet shows. It seems ridiculous and cruel and sad and completely unnecessary, and hypocritical too. When an Israeli artist attends a festival abroad and is boycotted because he gets Israeli funding, Israel speaks against it, and now it’s saying the same thing. I visited the theater. The people are wonderful and very sweet and not political. They want to make the children happy. That’s obvious. The festival has no political content.”
He says, “The puppeteer community in Israel has been looking for a way to do something about this for a week.” He talks about petitions that were written and demonstrations that were held, but admits, “Being photographed with a puppet definitely works best and has the strongest effect. Everyone is invited to take a photo with a puppet and upload it. Every boy and girl has the right to see puppet shows, and nobody has the right to take that away from them. It seems to me that the whole Internet is calling on Aharonovitch to lift the ban on holding the festival.”