Israel's State-run Lottery Succeeds in Pressuring Arab-Israeli Town to Cancel Anti-occupation Play

Mayor says he thought cancellation request was 'a technical matter'

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A performance of the play 'Palestine, Year Zero' in 2017.
A performance of the play 'Palestine, Year Zero' in 2017.Credit: David Kaplan
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

The head of Israel's state-run national lottery has successfully pressured the mayor of the Arab-Israeli town in northern Israel to cancel a play whose plot involves the demolition of Palestinian homes, according to the play’s director, Einat Weizman.

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Performances of “Palestine, Year Zero” were canceled a few days before the play was to have opened in a local theater, Weizman said. 

Weizman said Mifal Hapayis chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki asked the mayor of Kabul, Salah Rhian, to cancel the play. Rhian confirmed this, and said that the town council is considering obtaining funding for the play from outside sources.

The money earned by Mifal Hapayis funds the construction of sports halls, theaters and cultural endeavors throughout the country.

The play was to have opened Thursday when Yitzhaki’s request reached Weizman by chance, she said. “I called our liaison in Kabul to check on a technical issue and to my surprise he told me the play and been canceled and instead they had received two plays for children,” Weizman told Haaretz.

In response to an Haaretz query, Rhian said: “I was abroad and I didn’t know anything about the content of the play. Yitzhaki called me and asked that the play be canceled and to get two plays for children instead. I didn’t really understand why and I didn’t go into the details too much. I thought it was a technical matter.”

According to Rhian, he was approached on the matter by the head of Injaz, the Center for Professional Arab Local Governance in Israel, Shawki Khatib.

Khatib said in response that he had not intervened at all in the decision, but that the chairman of Mifal Hapayis had indeed approached him about it. “Yitzhaki asked me to help him vis-a-vis [Rhian] because he couldn’t reach him, and that’s what I did. I was just the link between them and I have no information about the play and its content.”

“Palestine, Year Zero” first made headlines in 2016, when it was to have been presented at the fringe theater festival in Acre. Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev instructed ministry officials to attend rehearsals to see whether the play contained messages of incitement, as reported in Haaretz at the time. Regev’s instruction was harshly criticized by artists, and the play was eventually approved, even receiving the ministry's support.

Mifal Hapayis assisted in production of the play as part of the Acre festival and also supported it in a festival devoted to plays in Arabic.

The play, described as a documentary comedy, is about a real estate adjustor tasked with assessing damage to Palestinian homes after an Israel Defense Forces operation in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. The cast features the head of the Al Kasabah Theater in Ramallah, George Ibrahim as well as Khawla Ibrahim, Issa Ashkar and Amjad Bader.

“Although the cultural loyalty bill did not pass in the Knesset, the intimidation, silencing and cooperation of Mifal Hapayis as well as the mayor is very troubling,” Weizman said. She added that despite efforts to shut down the play in the last two years, “Palestine, Year Zero" continues to be performed in Israel and abroad. “Neither I nor the cast have any intention to stop making our voices heard,” she said.

Cancellation of the play was criticized in Kabul, where many residents asked Rhian to change his decision. Seif Khatib, who represents the opposition Balad party on the town council,  said the council was surprised by the cancellation, and were told about it only a few days ago.

“If this is really a matter of political pressure by some official or other, this is very serious. I and my fellow council members approached the council and the theater head with a demand to show the play and if not, we will see that it is shown in a different theater. We will not accept this dictate,” he said.

Over the weekend, Adalah, a watchdog group for minority rights, is examining the matter from a legal standpoint. Adalah also worked at the time against the Culture and Sports Ministry’s efforts to interfere in the play's content when it was shown at the Acre festival.

A statement from the Adalah said: “The chairman of Mifal Hapayis is using wrongful political censorship, contrary to the decision of the artistic committee operating under his direction. It seems that even without the cultural loyalty bill becoming law, its dangerous messages have already been inculcated by those who are not even under the authority of the culture minister. The Adalah center will continue to work in the legal realm against increasing manifestations of the suppression and silencing of art involving the Palestinian narrative.”

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