Booker Winner Defends Israeli Theater's London Show

Ido Balas
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Ido Balas

Booker Prize-winning British author Howard Jacobson on Sunday came out against calls to ban Habima Theater from performing at the Globe in London next month, saying that censoring art "is to tear out its very heart."

Jacobson, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2010 for his comic novel "The Finkler Question," was responding to a letter published in The Guardian last month that was signed by 37 leading actors, directors, producers and writers. The letter had called for the invitation to Habima to be withdrawn because the theater company had performed in settlements.

British Jewish author Howard JacobsonCredit: AP

Habima is scheduled to perform "The Merchant of Venice" in Hebrew as part of Globe to Globe, a six-week festival featuring 37 Shakespeare plays, each performed in a different language.

"We ask the Globe to withdraw the invitation so that the festival is not complicit with human rights violations and the illegal colonization of occupied land," states the letter, whose signatories include Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson, and writer and director Mike Leigh. "By inviting Habima, the Globe is associating itself with policies of exclusion preached by the Israeli state and endorsed by its national theater company."

Jacobson was one of several artists to come out against banning Habima.

Writing in Sunday newspaper The Observer, he said that censoring art "in the name of a political or religious conviction, no matter how sincerely held, is to tear out its very heart."

"With last week's letter to the Guardian," he added, "McCarthyism came to Britain."

The playwright Sir Arnold Wesker and the actors Simon Callow ("Shakespeare in Love" ), Steven Berkoff ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" ) and Maureen Lipman ("The Pianist" ) have expressed support for Habima's participation in the festival. In an interview with Britain's Jewish Chronicle, the artists said they wondered whether Emma Thompson and the other signatories to the Guardian letter had also objected to the participation of theater companies from countries like China, Zimbabwe or Pakistan, over the human rights records in those countries.

"Depriving an audience of an artistic experience is like the Nazis burning the books of the finest minds and talents of Europe," Wesker - who wrote a play called "The Merchant" from Shylock's perspective - told the Chronicle.

The Globe's management said it was standing by its decision to have Habima perform. The festival will also include a performance of "Richard II" in Arabic, by the Palestinian theater company Ashtar.