Israeli Artists, Academics Protest National Theater Performance in West Bank

Habima is due to perform in Kiryat Arba next month, sparking a war played out on Facebook.

A performance by Habima of S.Y. Agnon's "A Simple Story," April 2016.
Gerard Allon

A number of artists and academics want the Habima national theater to cancel a performance next month in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba.

The November 10 performance of “A Simple Story,” based on a Hebrew short novel by 1966 Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon, is due to take place at a community center in Kiryat Arba near Hebron.

This would be the first time Habima stages a production in the settlement, a town of about 7,000 people. A performance of the same work, directed by Shir Goldberg based on an adaptation of the novel by Shahar Pinchas, is slated for March 8 in the West Bank city of Ariel.

In general, the country’s major repertory theaters have performed wherever they have been invited, including in West Bank settlements, despite declarations by some artists that they will not perform there.

Hebron is overwhelmingly Palestinian but has a small Jewish community in addition to the Jews in Kiryat Arba. The area has been a site of tension over the decades between the settlers and Palestinians.

The controversy over Habima’s performance in Kiryat Arba was sparked by two recent Facebook posts by Haim Weiss, a senior lecturer in Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

In his first post, Weiss alluded to the incentives and penalties introduced this year in the Culture and Sports Ministry’s criteria for financial support. Cultural institutions that appear in the settlements receive a 10-percent bonus, while those that stay away see ministry support cut by about a third.

Habima is likely to benefit from the new criteria, but the rules have been challenged by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel in a petition to the High Court of Justice. In a reference to the culture minister, Weiss wrote on Facebook: “It turns out that the spirit of the commander is working and the fear of Miri Regev’s open or concealed threats are doing the trick.”

The post was featured next to a picture of a fence with a poster advertising the Habima performance in Kiryat Arba.

“The willingness of the theater, its employees and actors to take part in the process of normalizing the occupation and turning Kiryat Arba into just another city where they’re performing is very disturbing,” Weiss wrote.

“Are the theater’s economic difficulties and the hope that a performance in Hebron will encourage the culture minister and other ministers to help the theater what’s leading to the performance in Kiryat Arba-Hebron?”

As of Monday, Habima had not responded for this article.

In a later post, Weiss wrote about what he considered the significance of the theater's performance.

“When Habima, with its canonic (and complicated) standing in the Zionist and Israeli discourse, chooses to appear in a city that symbolizes more than any other the violence and racism of the settlement enterprise, it’s taking a step of major significance,” he wrote.

As Weiss put it, “The Habima Theater is conferring validity, significance and legitimization upon the settlement enterprise, especially its most extreme and violent representation. Kiryat Arba’s residents understand this symbolic significance very well and are therefore very pleased about the theater performance in their city.”

Weiss told Haaretz that Facebook users, in response to his posts, threatened to ask Ben-Gurion University to fire him. He also received criticism from people who said they had bought tickets for the Kiryat Arba show.

But Weiss drew support from academics and artists in various fields. “A curfew will be imposed on Hebron on November 10 (as if only then), because the theater is coming to town,” film director Dina Zvi Riklis wrote. “Remind me how many Jews live in Kiryat Arba. Also remind me how many soldiers lose their human form there. And it’s not their fault.”

Musician Shosh Reisman wrote: “It’s not at all a simple story to perform in Hebron. How do you manage?”

Theater director Ari Remez added: “Few performing-arts centers in Israel have attractions in the area as Kiryat Arba, where it’s the lot of the actors in ‘A Simple Story’ to be performing soon. Before the performance they could enjoy a visit to Rabbi Kahane Park or at the monument in memory of Baruch Goldstein, may the Lord avenge his blood.”

Kahane was the founder of the far-right Kach party that was barred from the Knesset. Baruch Goldstein was an American immigrant who killed 29 Palestinians at Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994.