Calm Down, Israeli Theaters Have Always Performed in Periphery – and Settlements

Don’t panic over the drums of revolution — there is no revolution: Miri Regev is simply taking credit for something that started long before she came along

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Culture Minister Miri Regev speaking at the Haaretz Culture Conference, March 6, 2016.
Culture Minister Miri Regev speaks at the Haaretz Culture Conference, Sunday March 6, 2016.Credit: Moti Milrod
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

The drums of revolution have been sounded by the Culture and Sports Ministry with the implementation of the changes that Minister Miri Regev initiated over the criteria for funding the arts. It would seem that something has really changed and these are not just more aggressive ministerial declarations, received with wailing by the cultured, such as myself, over the harm to freedom of expression; no, these are acts of the government through the pockets of its subjects (in this case mostly those involved with the theaters).

“I have been young, and have grown old,” but even before I was born the large theaters operated in Tel Aviv, performed in their home theaters and traveled all over the country, quite a lot. No one forced them to do so; even back then they understood that because Israel was a small country, every new play exhausts its urban audience quite quickly, and in order to pay for the investment in the show they must also perform in the periphery.

It was both a financial calculation and a cultural mission: Under the title of “theater for the ma’abarot (refugee absorption camps)” and later “art for the people,” the left-wing governments also made sure to bring theater to the periphery – true, out of a condescending attitude that tried to “civilize” them in the spirit of Western art, and in Hebrew, which many in the audience did not understand. The theater troupes traveled all over the country and the actors performed in every backwater, in horrible conditions.

Because the whole commotion mostly concerns the large theaters, those in Tel Aviv, all of Regev’s rhetoric, and not just hers, in the government and in public discussion, is intended to incite the periphery against Tel Aviv.

For the first time an element of reward or punishment has been introduced, which as far as I know has never existed and is not acceptable in any other enlightened nation: Theaters could well be punished if they do not perform (and it is not clear whether this means not performing enough, or not performing at all) in the Galilee, Negev and Judea and Samaria. And they will be rewarded, in particular, if they appear only in Judea and Samaria. In other words, it is giving preference to one periphery – a political one, not just geographic – over two other peripheries.

This issue of performing in the settlements is the height of pretension in Regev’s revolution, and to understand it we once again need to go back in time, before the Regev era. A few years ago a cultural center was built in Ariel, and after that a few halls were constructed elsewhere in the West Bank, which, according to international law, is not part of the sovereign territory of Israel, even if Israeli citizens live there and even if the government views the territory as the inheritance of its forefathers. With the building of the center in Ariel, quite a number of theater people made their voices heard and announced they would not perform there for political reasons. The expected uproar arose, from ministers and settlers, who demanded their right to cultural services and cried out against this “boycott.”

After the ruckus died down, reality set in. A lot of performance halls exist in the periphery but very few are capable of hosting the typical offerings of the Tel Aviv theaters. The thing is, the repertory committees of the appropriate halls want to buy the performances from the theaters in the center of the country according to their own tastes. Some theaters would have been happy to perform in the settlements – Gesher, for example – if only they were invited, or invited to perform in the Galilee or Negev. The bottom line is that all the public theaters asked to perform in halls in the West Bank, under conditions that allowed them to do so, performed.

Actors who asked not to perform were replaced by others (except for a few artists who are irreplaceable and could allow themselves the luxury of a political conscience). Some of the actors agreed to appear there against their own inclinations when they understood that if they insisted, their livelihood would be affected. They would be required to share the part with an alternate, even during the shows not in the West Bank, and in future casting decisions it would be taken into consideration that they were “troublemakers.”

In practice, the battle over the formula “the rule for Ariel is the rule for Tel Aviv” was decided a long time ago. But these Cossacks, crying out that they have been robbed when they are favored in the first place, are continuing to cry out, “We are being boycotted.” The new punishments and incentives will not add even a single performance to the performance halls of Judea and Samaria.

What is true, though, is that a lot of noise will be made. Regev can present herself as the savior of the periphery and the shining champion of Judea and Samaria. This is the purpose of the superfluous declaration form, in which cultural institutions were asked to state whether they “abstained” from performing in the West Bank or “did not abstain.”

But the Culture Ministry knows exactly which theaters appeared and where, because it is on this data that it receives from the theaters – and whose veracity it checks – that the ministry bases its budget allocations. The world can continue to turn without the form, but the form enables the continuing pretense that a certain group (Judea and Samaria and the rest of the periphery) is being deprived of its rights, of its white knights fighting on its behalf. It enables the continued presentation of a public that is being threatened by the people of the cultural elite, many of them hot-blooded and sharp-tongued, attacking Regev and throwing oil on the fire – whose flames she is so happy to fan.

In practice, reality dictates more than do ministers and artists. Israeli theater always looked for audiences all over the country, and changed according to the situation and the public’s taste much more than this changed them.

Miri Regev is taking credit for an arrangement that existed even without her, and is simply disturbing the system. There have been good and bad plays, political and entertaining, in the center of the country and periphery, and even in the settlements, before her – and there will be after her too. What I can recommend to the theater people who are scared by Regev’s drums of revolution is to calm down and continue to do what they have done until now: Perform plays. All the rest is public relations.

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