Israeli Arab Theaters Under Fire for Terrorism Play, Refusing to Perform in West Bank Settlements

Bennett orders play removed from the list of performances made available to schoolchildren, known as the 'culture basket.'

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Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, Oct. 26, 2014.
Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, Oct. 26, 2014. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

Two of the government’s most right-wing members, Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, on Tuesday threatened to sanction two Israeli Arab theaters, one because its artistic director refuses to perform in a West Bank settlement, the other because it is staging a play taken from the life story of a Palestinian who murdered an Israeli soldier.

Regev said she is considering cutting government funding to the Elmina Theater in Jaffa after its leader Norman Issa refused to perform in the Haifa Theater’s play “Boomerang” in a Jordan Valley settlement.

Bennett, meanwhile, ordered the immediate removal of the “A Parallel Time,” performed by the Al-Midan Theater in Haifa, from the list of performances made available to schoolchildren, known as the “culture basket.” He gave the order even though the Education Ministry’s Repertoire Committee, which determines which performances go into the basket, decided on Monday against removing the play. Since it was approved in April 2014, “A Parallel Time” has been seen by more than 900 11th and 12th graders.

Regarding Issa’s decision, Regev wrote on her Facebook page, “If Norman does not change his mind, I intend to reexame my ministry’s support for the Elmina Theater, which operates under his management.”

Regev later released an announcement saying, “The Elmina Theater and the values of coexistence it promotes are important to me, but as I see importance in coexistence, and support and aid all the shades and voices of coexistence, so I expect from those who believe in coexistence to show it in practice.” Regev’s bureau said she will invite Issa to her office to discuss the matter. Issa said the pressure on him to perform in the Jordan Valley “borders on extortion.”

“This is not a new issue, and the problem was solved years ago in all Israeli theaters, when it was decided that shows would be performed everywhere and if an actor, Jewish or Arab, is not prepared to perform there for ideological reasons, they will be replaced by another actor.”

Issa said he advised the Haifa Theater of his wishes four months ago, but that the theater has not yet found a substitute for the Jordan Valley shows.

“I am an Arab Israeli, married to a Jewish woman and raising a wonderful family. My wife and I devote all our lives to fulfilling co-existence between Jews and Arabs and it was to that end that we established the Jaffa theater. You cannot expect me to go against my conscience and agree to perform in controversial places. Don’t force me to act against my will just for the sake of removing this threat.”

Bennett, in a press release, said of “A Parallel Time” at the Al-Midan Theater, “As of now, the play is no longer included in the [culture] basket. I want to be very clear: The citizens of Israel will not pay out of their pockets for plays that accept the murders of soldiers. Moreover, the committee that approves a play that turns the murderer of a soldier into a hero, is a committee whose morals require examination. I am the minister of education, and this play, which represents tolerance of the murder of soldiers who defend me, is not education.”

The repertoire committee’s decision to keep the play in the culture basket was unanimous. Committee chairwoman Dr. Bilha Blum stated, “We stand with this decision since we have not found in the play (which in the meantime has been translated into Hebrew) or in the performance anything offensive, insulting or inciteful ...”

Written and directed by Bashar Murkus, “A Parallel Time” has been running at the theater for a year. It tells of a security prisoner who tries to build an oud in prison as he prepares for his wedding, and was inspired by the story of Walid Daka. A member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Daka was convicted of the kidnapping and killing of soldier Moshe Tamam in 1984 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

When the play was staged on April 25 to mark the end of Palestinian Prisoners Day, there was a confrontation between some of the actors and Tamam’s family at the entrance to the theater. Last week Bennett said he wanted the play reevaluated, “given that when it was approved, it wasn’t made clear to the professionals that it was an autobiographical story of a terrorist murderer who is serving a sentence for his role in the torture and murder of Moshe Tamam. I believe in the committee’s professionalism and in freedom of expression, but there are things we cannot accept.” Bennett also wrote on his Facebook page last week that “if the members of the Repertoire Committee did not remove the play from the culture basket, I will do so myself.”

“I am not surprised that Bennett acted in such a fashion,” said the director of the Al Midan Theater, Adnan Tarabash. “All his decisions are an attempt to gain popularity so he can reinforce the hatred between Arabs and Jews. Without seeing the play, against all the experts, he has moved to shut [people] up.”

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