Oded Kotler Returns to the Battlefield

The theater director made the headlines recently with his ‘herd of beasts’ reference to Likud voters. Now he's tackling a sacred cow – the IDF.

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Oded Kotler, during rehearsals for his next play, 'The Divide.'
Oded Kotler, during rehearsals for his next play, 'The Divide.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yair Ashkenazi
Yair Ashkenazi

Actor-director Oded Kotler found himself at the heart of a media storm last month when he compared Likud voters to “a herd of beasts chewing straw and munching on cud.” He had been responding to comments by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, but it was his quote that left the deepest mark.

Nearly a month after becoming headline news, Kotler has had time to reflect on his experience. “Except for the typical abusive comments like ‘Disgrace!’ and ‘Traitor!,’ I was surprised by the amount of support I received,” Kotler tells Haaretz.

“There are a lot of people not in the public eye who are in favor of the naked truth coming out, without use of terms such as delegitimization – as if the criticism of a different political position means delegitimization. I hope the panic will end soon and the battle will be about things worth fighting for. The purpose of my criticism was to clear the field of all sorts of bad things, but the opposition to it testifies to a fear of the truth,” he says.

The Cameri Theater’s production of “Dear Brother,” written by Gadi Inbar and directed by Kotler, had just opened when the media controversy erupted. Mirroring reality, the play – set in 1974 – deals with the desire to uncover the truth.

A young man, Uri, returns from New York and heads to his parents’ kibbutz, for the one-year memorial marking the death of his brother Ofer during the Yom Kippur War.

While the family, and father Yehoshua in particular, believe the heroic story they have heard from the army about Ofer’s death, Uri meets a kibbutz member who reveals the true circumstances of his brother’s death.

The conflict between the family’s pain and their solace from the heroic tale, and the army’s desire to cover things up – which even includes a medal of valor for the deceased brother – grows sharper during the play, which is based on Inbar’s own experiences.

In an earlier conversation with Kotler in May, he said the 1973 war was a turning point in Israel, after which the country stopped getting excited by wars. “In Operation Protective Edge, 73 Israelis were killed,” he says. “It’s a big lie that no civilians were killed in the Gaza Strip as we tried to preserve the ‘purity of arms.’ But beyond that, we achieved nothing: Civilians were killed, houses destroyed and Hamas armed itself again. It’s no longer surprising – there are a few sirens, and we go and sit in the safe room.”

Even though mistakes from Operation Protective Edge are emerging, you chose to deal with the failures of the Yom Kippur War. How come?

“It seems as if it’s still the same country ... there’s nothing to be done. We don’t believe in the prime minister; we’re being incited by a man who should be a symbol of balance between the will of the people and the ability of the country, and between the need for peace, education and knowledge. We get an unbalanced man, and many people followed him and acted like idiots. It’s something in our DNA,” he said back in May.

“There’s no doubt,” he continued, “that everything comes from our growing pains, which still haven’t ended. We were born in sin, under this horrible pressure, with frightened people suffering from a feeling of persecution but who also persecuted others. One of the big difficulties original Israeli theater has is that the reality sometimes exceeds it. The drama, farce, insane comedy that happens here – ‘Catch-22’ is appropriate for us, also ‘M*A*S*H.’ The country invented the term ‘purity of arms’ [“Tohar haneshek”] and is proud of it – but there’s no such thing. Weapons are not pure. Weapons come to kill, not to stand in parades.”

The “bravery in combat” ideal was also deeply rooted in plays during the state’s formative decades.

“That’s true. When I managed the Haifa Theater during the 1970s, we started with the sacred cow known as the Israel Defense Forces. We staged plays like ‘The Monkey’ by Hillel Mittelpunkt and ‘The Joker’ by Joshua Sobol. People said, ‘You, from Haifa, the ‘Mapainiks,’ are going to touch the IDF?’ But why not? They will accept a woman named Medea who suffocates her two children, but they won’t accept needless killing by soldiers, since they’re Jews and these are our children. Even recently, it wasn’t known that many [military] citations were given to cover asses.”

Kotler is currently working on “The Divide,” at Jerusalem’s Khan Theater. The play, by Einat Yakir, deals with the relationship between a landlord and the couple renting his apartment.

In the run-up to the play, which opens next month, Kotler mourns the engine he believes drive most modern repertory theaters.

“They are trying in every way possible to squeeze money out of people who don’t come to the theater – including a repertoire of musicals that may be worth something on Broadway, but not here,” he complains.

“When they stage a foreign playwright [in Israel], who do they choose? There is no place in the world where Arthur Miller’s salesman has died as many times! He refuses to die!”

Kotler believes Israel lacks a cultural policy, but instead has “a dubious and stuttering response to the dynamics in the field.”

Further, the bureaucratic and professional mechanisms don’t permit the identification of new cultural trends.

“It would be one thing if they [the government] were pouring money into theater here, but no.” Kotler says. “The people at the Finance Ministry told me there are vast financial reserves. So what’s the problem with showing concern for true security – not just for rifles, but for the spirit?”

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