It was a short spell Friday night: the period between the end of the fringe theater awards at Tel Aviv’s Tmuna Theater and the end of the musical “Hamilton” at New York’s Richard Rodgers Theater. But that spell proves that when it comes to artists’ freedom of expression, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Culture Minister Miri Regev are toeing the same line.
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In Tel Aviv, the flap was over the playing of the national anthem at the Golden Hedgehog fringe theater awards, an event attended by industry insiders that normally receives little press coverage.
At the end of the ceremony, actress Einat Weitzman asked to comment from the stage on a defamation complaint filed last week by a reserve Israeli officer against Mohammad Bakri, the director of the controversial documentary “Jenin, Jenin.”
Then the host told the audience: “For the singing of ‘Hatikva,’ the audience is asked, yes, you know.” The anthem’s lyrics were projected on a screen, but some people in the audience filed out.
In New York, the flap was a statement expressed from the stage of a blockbuster Broadway musical with national and historical themes. Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was at the show, heard how the Trump administration might not respect American values.
It was amazing how both protests were planned with great courage and carried out in a show of patriotism and respect for the setting and the politicians at whom they were directed.
At “Hamilton,” the actor Brandon Victor Dixon even began his remarks by saying: “There’s nothing to boo here. We’re all here sharing a story of love.”
But in both cases, the comments from the stage were misinterpreted by both Trump and Regev. With Trump on Twitter and Regev on Facebook, they excoriated their interlocutors as only they can.
Regev took aim at that “handful of artists” who need to understand that they “do not run the country that they despise.” Trump, meanwhile, tweeted that his vice president had been “harassed” at the theater by a cast “very rude” to him.
With the Israeli context in mind, another tweet by Trump is interesting. He said “the theater must always be a safe and special place.” Regev’s speeches have become the warm-up act for premieres at the Habima national theater. And even at the fringe theater awards, the head of her ministry’s culture authority, Galit Wahba-Shasho, was in the front row.
It was Waaba-Shasho who at Regev’s request less than two months ago approved the play “Palestine, Year Zero” by Einat Weitzman. The work was a contestant at the Acre festival amid allegations that it was inflammatory.
During Friday’s ceremony, the hosts humorously commented about this commissar’s strange responsibilities. For example, Avraham Horovitz appeared seated next to a trash can and was asked to read and rip up inappropriate plays.
Inspired by Trump’s tweet, one might ask whether Israeli theater is a protected space. When it comes to protection from the government, the answer is apparently not compared to the American counterpart.
People in the Israeli theater are much less secure than in the past. Every minor remark beyond the consensus – both on and off stage – unleashes responses that make even the most political of performances at the Acre festival look like a Hanukkah musical for children.
According to one ranking last year, the most highly attended plays included five comedies and two musicals. So the theater in Israel is clearly a place to put your cares aside.
At this year’s ceremony, prize chairman Erez Hasson noted something particularly cogent. The Golden Hedgehog features actors and creators who realized a theatrical vision in the geographic and cultural hinterlands long before Regev was appointed to the Culture Ministry and became the standard-bearer for the outlying areas.
The Yadit Theater in Pardes Hannah, the fringe theater in Be’er Sheva, the Shlomi center for alternative theater, the Dimona Theater and the Notzar Theater of Bat Yam were all prize contenders this year. Their people attended Friday’s ceremony in large numbers.
Do these artists, who work on a shoestring and fight for the future of fringe theater all over the country, deserve to have their annual day of celebration skewered by Regev? Do they deserve to hear comments like “freedom of expression doesn’t mean freedom to show contempt”?
And over what? Over the fact that the national anthem wasn’t sung respectfully at the end of the night because some people began filing out after a long event?
And in no less a show of patriotism in New York, the audience received a quick and exciting lesson on American history at “Hamilton,” which tells the story of one of the country’s greatest statesmen and a drafter of the Constitution.
At the end of an exhausting performance, did the cast of this successful play really need to be subjected to a demand by Trump for an apology? Did they need this only because they had sought to convey a frank message to the vice president-elect and express the hope that the play would inspire him regarding values?
Yes, this was a Friday evening that brought two disproportionate assaults on talented artists who had opened their mouths mostly to sing.