Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev is setting up a committee that will investigate the status of Habima as Israel’s national theater, based on findings by the state comptroller, which will only be published next month.
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Habima’s designation as the national theater is based on a cabinet decision taken in 1958, which determined that the institution should produce high-quality performances rather being concerned primarily with profit. This decision granted the Tel Aviv-based theater a unique status, which translated into hefty financial support by the Education Ministry and later by the Culture and Sports Ministry, relative to other theater companies.
Thus, for example, in 2014 Habima received 14 million shekels ($3.6 million) from the Culture Ministry while the Cameri Theater received only 12.8 million shekels.
Regev’s announcement on Monday stated that her decision was influenced by the state comptroller’s report, which “relates both to the continued financial difficulties the theater finds itself in and to its status as the national theater.”
She has appointed Yigal Amedi, chairman of the National Council for Culture and the Arts, to head the new panel, whose members will include other council members, academics, jurists and officials from the Culture Ministry. The committee is tasked with examining the definitions of a national theater and will submit its recommendations to Regev.
The theater division of the culture and arts council has been debating Habima’s status for the last few months, and to that end held discussions with directors Yossi Yizraeli and Ilan Ronen, the theater's former and current artistic directors (the latter has just announced his resignation, to take effect in August). Council members say that Ronen presented his vision regarding the role of a national theater, and assembled a small team to look into this issue; the team compiled a document that was presented to the Culture Ministry. At Amedi's request, however, the theater-related members of the council were asked to desist from dealing with this question.
“The question is how these things are implemented, since every vision is linked to resources,” says a member of the team. “For Habima to fulfill its vision, it needs resources and that’s where the dilemma lies. Anything that is described as relating to vision and values will not be implemented without financial backing, and someone has to guarantee the theater’s survival so that it isn’t dependent on consumers. A financial infrastructure needs to be established, upon which artistic plans can be based.”
For here part, Regev commented that, “Habima is important and must be protected. Nevertheless, the question remains as to how being a national theater is expressed. In light of the comptroller’s report, I saw fit to set up a committee that will look into this issue, with the intent of strengthening and empowering the national theater, with all that this entails.”
People in the culture and arts council's theater division say that cancelling Habima’s status is not under Regev’s jurisdiction. “She didn’t bestow this status and she can’t take it away, not from a public perspective," they say. "One can demand that the theater present a certain repertoire but not come to it in this manner, referring to its historic role and the benefits it enjoyed in the past.”
In an interview to the daily Yedioth Ahronoth last month, Regev said she intended to set up a body that would look at the entire theater scene in Israel, to determine if it would be possible to merge some of the companies involved. However, the panel investigating Habima and its role is apparently not related to that one.
In response to a query by Haaretz relating to the possibility that another theater might be designated as the national theater, officials at the Culture and Sports Ministry said they could not answer that question since the new panel, whose members have not even been formally selected, has yet to meet.
Habima responded by stating that, “the national theater will be marking the 100th anniversary of its establishment next year. It attained its title due to its successes and high standards over the years, both in Israel and abroad. We welcome the committee set up by the ministry and the statement by the minister, in which she expressed her wish to strengthen and empower the national theater. Habima was, is and will remain Israel’s national theater for all time.”