Head of Iconic Israeli Theater Festival Unfazed by Pressure to Quit Over Banned Play About Palestinian Prisoners

Director Moni Yosef has been called a Nazi for taking over the Acre Fringe Theater Festival after the play ‘Prisoners of the Occupation’ was banned. He tells Haaretz why he's sticking to his guns

Director Moni Yosef, the head of the Acre Theater Center, September 2017.
Abdullah Shama

The sight of the famous lawn at the Festival Gardens in Acre, which was totally silent one morning this month, tugged at your heartstrings. While the place is normally the site where the winners of the annual Acre Fringe Theater Festival are announced, that won’t happen this year. The festival will take place, but the new management canceled the competition after the artists and directors quit following the disqualification of the play “Prisoners of the Occupation.”

The war over Acre looks like one with no winners. The offices of the festival producer, like the facility’s halls, are locked and empty. It’s hard not to ponder the incident and its repercussions when people are talking about “the thought police” of the Ottoman governor of the north of the country in the 18th century. That official, Ahmad Al-Jazzar, would jail regime opponents in the basement of Acre’s crusader castle – a space used today for plays in the festival.

One of the facades of the garden complex is the Acre Theater Center, where the institution’s chief, director Moni Yosef, has been preparing the event. He was appointed in June to be the festival’s artistic director in place of Avi Gibson Bar-El, who quit. Despite the uproar, the festival will run with a new repertoire from October 7 to 10. Yosef, who broke ranks with festival artists and directors who quit, has been slandered by artists and trade unions. 

Still, he says he has no regrets. He has written off the extremist trend in the cultural conversation as reflecting Israeli society, which has become more violent, and he doesn’t blame the government’s culture chiefs. Nor does he attribute much importance to fears of growing cultural fascism following incidents concerning the Arab-language Al-Midan Theater in Haifa and the Jaffa Theater.

Yosef is a co-founder of the Acre Theater Center along with Dudi Mayan, Smadar Yaaron and Khaled Abu Ali. He has run the organization for 19 years. Yosef, 60, graduated from the Beit Zvi School for the Performing Arts. For years he directed plays at the center like “Diwan” and “Strong Women,” and he played major roles, among them in Mayan’s work “Arbeit Macht Frei von Teutland Europa,” the 1991 Acre Festival prizewinner and a landmark in Israeli independent theater.

Yosef was also the artistic director of the Acre Festival from 2009 to 2012 with Yaaron. The two, loyal to the Acre Theater’s values as a critical, political and radical institution, produced four festivals full of socially and politically explosive content. It’s doubtful if those versions of the festival would fly under the regime’s radar today.

“There were very radical plays in the festivals we ran, and no one gave us problems because things were managed wisely,” says Yosef, who declines to define “wise.” “Things were done sensitively, and we didn’t take artistic shortcuts. We put on the hardest, most critical things that push the boundaries and touch the kishkes of Israeli society – and no one censored us or interfered. No one from the festival’s steering committee interfered with my work even once.”

Yosef says he seriously considered the current steering committee’s offer, which meant breaking ranks with the solidarity declared by the three artists’ organizations and the artists and directors who quit. “You have to be crazy to go and put together a festival in a month and a half or two months, considering the price you’re paying,” he says. “I took into account all the risks and decided I had to do it as a private individual, not as the Acre Theater.”

From 'Until We Find a Place,' one play at the 2017 Acre Fringe Festival.
Sarah Dayan

Many people aren’t convinced by Yosef’s arguments. “Holding the Acre Festival isn’t a value in and of itself, and you have to remember that disqualifying ‘Prisoners of the Occupation’ was a matter of political persecution based solely on the play’s subject and the political opinions of artist Einat Weizman,” says director Ari Remez. “Who would believe that of all people, an artist who took part in bold and critical works in the past would be the one to volunteer to lend a hand to a process of silencing that befits nondemocratic regimes?”

Immediately after you were appointed you told me in an interview: “If I keep the festival going, I’m willing to take all the mud they sling at me.” Two and a half months have passed, and indeed enormous amounts of mud have been slung at you. Was it worth it?

“Today I’m even more certain about what I did. I’m from Acre, and that’s the first thing. To be from Acre is a broad concept. If someone drinks Acre’s water – that’s it, he’s hooked. The Acre Festival is Acre, and I said from the start that I wouldn’t let the festival be taken away from Acre. I wasn’t sorry about my decision even at the toughest moments.”

Yosef says he has been called many things, including a Nazi. “The question is what’s more important – do you go with your truth and know you’re at peace with the price and sleep better at night, or do you toe the line, go against your personal truth and follow the herd,” he says. “Everyone must make his own decision.”

But it was a rare moment in which the theaters and the organizations that had been silent about the closing of the Al-Midan Theater suddenly acted in solidarity.

“Why, because it’s Acre? Why not yell about Al-Midan? This is a very beautiful moment, very moving, really, but when a mistake is made I don’t follow the herd like a fool.”

‘Military governor’

When he started the job, Yosef still tried to bridge the gaps between the municipality and the organizations, and the nine groups of artists who were chosen by Gibson Bar-El. He tried to reach a compromise that would make it possible to stage the original festival repertoire. For him the factor that made him drop his bridging attempts was a Hebrew-language article in Haaretz by Palestinian actress Lamis Ammar. The Acre native was supposed to stage a play at the original festival.

As Ammar wrote: “It’s unconscionable for someone whose salary depends on the mayor and the culture minister to act in their name and in the name of populist ideology against the entire artistic community, and expect us to believe that his activity for the benefit of Acre is in good faith.”

Addressing Yosef she wrote, referring to Israel’s Military Administration in Arab areas until 1966: “It’s truly moving that you came to work in Acre and to contribute to the culture here, but you should have come with humility, not like the enlightened governor during the Military Administration who believes that we, the Arabs of Acre, will relinquish our artistic rights in order to sell hummus to cultured Jews.”

From 'On the Way to the Festival Stop in Bulgaria,' one play at the 2017 Acre Fringe Festival.
Yohan Segev

Yosef saw this as nothing less than incitement against him. “I live in a house here in Acre and the people are my family,” he says. “The moment that someone writes that I’m a military governor, that’s a kind of incitement to violence. They tried to come between me and the residents of the Old City, and I wasn’t ready for that under any circumstances. I took it badly because they crossed a line here. I said ‘Thank you very much, release me from that.’”

For her part, Ammar says: “In a country where a Palestinian poet sits in prison for her poems, and the theater that tries to defend her rights is accused of incitement, in an apartheid state where the occupier claims to be a victim when he throws the natives out of their homes in order to settle in them, in such a country it’s only logical that I, a Palestinian artist and Acre native who stands in solidarity with a Jewish artist, should be considered the inciter. In the meantime, an aggressive Jewish man who came to live in my city as part of the gentrification of my people will be the whining victim.”

To put together the new Israeli program for the festival, Yosef appointed a new artistic committee with the participation of theater people who have cooperated with him in the past or present: the co-artistic director of the Acre Theater Khaled Abu-Ali, directors Josh Sagi and Erez Hasson, and playwright Roi Rashkes. Despite the calls of the artists’ organizations not to take part in the upcoming festival, some groups of artists responded to the new manifesto.

But the publication of the new repertoire chosen by the committee stirred disdain on social networks and was accompanied by calls not to attend the festival. Yosef protests: “An injustice was done here to the artists participating in the festival. They are being depicted as amateurs, as religious people. They’re being put in all the places of pure racism. The fact that a person wears a kippa doesn’t mean he isn’t an artist.”

On the other hand, some people described the artists who quit and the organizations as leftists, and reviled them.

“That’s racism too. What you’re saying now is that ‘They’re racists so we’re allowed to be racists too.’ I’m against both. I’m against racism and I don’t boycott anyone.”

Despite Yosef’s enthusiastic explanations about the repertoire that was chosen, and an explanation of the circumstances surrounding it – the little time for getting organized and the boycott still in place – it’s hard to put a finger on the content that will turn the 2017 Acre Festival into a fringe theater festival. At the press conference held by Mayor Shimon Lankri and Culture Minister Miri Regev in early June, after the resignation of the artists and the artistic management, all the communities allegedly neglected in the festival’s original repertoire were mentioned: “Women, settlers, new immigrants, religious people, the needy, the country’s outskirts.”

From 'City of Luck,' one play at the 2017 Acre Fringe Festival.
Chai Afik

And in fact, the new repertoire seems to fulfill the mayor’s vision. For example, the plays will include Asaf Friedman’s “City of Luck” directed by Amihai Azar, performed by a theater group from the settlement of Tekoa, and “WoMan” by the Matara Theater from the settlement of Ariel, written by Leon Agulansky and directed by Alexander Kaplan.

Another production is “The Midnight Rite” by Amihai Hazan, about a conflict between a father and son regarding the evacuation of a settlement. (“It’s groundbreaking, and they don’t have much time to work,” Yosef says.) There’s also the dance performance “Thisability,” created by Nicole Mahler, with disabled dancers in wheelchairs. (“It’s one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen,” Yosef says.) There’s also “LOrCA,” a work by Barak Ben David about society’s attitude toward gay people, using characters from Federico García Lorca’s plays, with actors from Greece.

Despite the variety, it’s hard not to notice that with the exception of actor Ayhab Heskiya, who is described as a “guest actor” in the play “Material for Discussion,” the new repertoire includes no Palestinian works, artists or actors.

“There was no offer by Arab artists this time, for various reasons of their own. On the other hand, a week after the Acre Festival there will be an entire festival in Arabic here, the Masrahid Theater Festival” – also an annual event.

Shot by both sides

Yosef’s take on the integration of Palestinian artists, particularly in a festival taking place in a Jewish-Arab city, is similar to that of previous artistic managers of the event. During some years the festival didn’t include plays in Arabic.

“When Smadar and I directed the festivals there were years without a play in Arabic because the distorted idea that there has to be a slot for an Arab minister in the government, or for the writer of a play at the festival, is a repulsive elitist idea that regards Arab artists condescendingly,” Yosef says. “We said in advance: If there’s a good play – any play, Arabic or not – that speaks our artistic language, it will get in.”

The current situation is unrelated to Miri Regev’s assertion, on Army Radio and in Acre, that there’s no place for the Palestinian narrative at the Acre Festival?

“God forbid! Ask her that. She doesn’t interfere in my content.”

What’s your opinion of her statement?

“I didn’t hear her say it and I don’t deal with the minister, I deal with the festival. I’m not the minister’s employee.”

Apparently many theater people and theater lovers who would attend the festival during its 37 years won’t enter the Knights’ Halls in Acre this year, as a protest. If an artist or the director of a cultural institution makes a decision and works against the herd, that will have consequences, won’t it?

“But why should you be afraid if you have faith? Where’s your faith? You say ‘He went against the herd and now he should be afraid.’ Of what? Should I be afraid of fascism?”

Is there cultural fascism in Israel?

“Yes. You see the fascism around us on the part of the far rightists and far leftists who don’t let each other speak. There’s the Shadow [right-wing rapper] gang and its members, as well as other people, and you read on the social networks that you have to kill someone or other. That’s cultural fascism, which says ‘you’re not allowed to say that.’ I’ve experienced that from both sides.”

What about the persecution of institutions and artists?

“I don’t feel any persecution due to my artistic faith here in the theater as an artist. Maybe it will come someday, but I haven’t felt it.”

And what’s your opinion of the “freedom of funding” that Regev wants to introduce, which means the government reserves the right not to fund works that harm the government’s image or that of Israeli soldiers?

“I know what the minister said at the meeting of the theater directors about two years ago: that the moment there’s a criminal offense, it has to be addressed. If that is used to prevent expressing an opposing opinion, of course I’ll be opposed. But if it’s a criminal offense, it’s the police’s job to handle it. We have to discuss the question of whether it’s criminal.

"If I were to stage a play – and I wouldn’t – in which they show Baruch Goldstein [the settler who massacred Arab worshippers in Hebron in 1995], and it implies that his path was just, I think I would have to be handled the same way. I won’t stage a play about Goldstein. I have arguments with myself about what would happen if an artist came to me proposing a play presenting Baruch Goldstein’s side of the story. My first instinct would be that I’m not willing, but I have thoughts about that, I’m not a robot. Should I prevent his freedom of expression? Yes, on this issue, I wouldn’t allow it to be staged.”

How do you deal with cultural fascism at the Acre Theater and at the festival?

“I want to explain to you about reverse fascism: Artists in 2017 are afraid to express their opinion against the herd, for fear of being hurt. That’s one of the saddest moments I’ve had in this entire story. I receive messages of encouragement and support from veteran artists over the phone, and I tell them: ‘Guys, express it on the social networks.’ They say they’re afraid, and that’s sad. Why should an artist be afraid of artists?”

Even when Yosef is spoken to about the latest affairs regarding the battle for freedom of expression – led by the withdrawal of support from the Al-Midan Theater and complaints by the Culture Ministry to the Finance Ministry against the Jaffa Theater – he remains unruffled. Despite the extensive coverage of these incidents, he claims, perhaps with a certain false naivete, that he’s not very familiar with the details, or that he doesn’t want to get involved.

And if there’s a complaint submitted in future about an Acre Theater production?

“We won’t stage a production here that incites to violence and terror. I’m opposed to violence and terror. We’ll do plays that touch on all the Israeli issues, and they’re radical, but I don’t see any criminal offense in them.

“If I commit a crime then we’re a democratic country and democracy doesn’t go in one direction only. As long as you stand behind your art there’s no censorship, and that’s a law in the Acre Theater. In a meeting with the theater directors two years ago, Minister Regev said that ‘if there’s a criminal offense, there will be consequences.’ I agree with her.”

Many artists were harmed not only by the rejection of Weizman’s play but also by the festival’s attitude toward them afterward. They felt that this organization spat in their faces after they were involved with it for so many years. So how can the relationship be repaired?

“The slander was reciprocal and there are no saints in this story. I think that now is the time to think for a moment and say: ‘Okay, guys, let’s examine where we are here. What’s my part in all this?’ I’m sure that I’ll do that with myself a minute after the festival. Where I erred and where I didn’t. The fact that I didn’t respond to anyone on Facebook was the right thing. I don’t know why I agreed to talk to you today.”