Theater Funding and the Boomerang Effect

Culture Minister Miri Regev’s all-out war on the country’s public theaters may have unintended consequences.

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Norman Issa, far right, and the cast of 'Boomerang.'
Norman Issa, far right, and the cast of 'Boomerang.'Credit: Gerard Allon
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

I apologize, but I intend to deal here not in declarations or opinions, but in facts. Fact No. 1, which I believe should be recorded as a “Basic Fact:” In stark contrast to the situation stemming from Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev’s recent declarations (“I’ll fund this, not that”), Israel’s theatrical artists and publicly funded institutions do not write and present, whether intentionally or otherwise, plays that “disgrace the State of Israel” or “harm the Israel Defense Forces, its soldiers or Israel’s image as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Based on over 40 years of watching everything presented on major and minor stages throughout the country, I can say that the vast majority of subsidized theater in Israel is not overtly or intentionally political. It is predominantly commercial; its primary goal is to draw the largest audiences possible, precisely because it receives only limited state funding. This underlying constraint makes it imperative for Israeli theater, while attempting to be cultured, imaginative and professional, to consider the taste of the general public and to avoid offending it (if not being downright ingratiating).

This fact stands out even more against the history of Israeli theater, whether subsidized or not. Since the late 1980s, political messages have been few and far between. State-funded theaters generally reject plays that have a clear political agenda — for artistic reasons only, of course.

I repeat, in the interest of clarity: Israeli public theater is not political, it is wary of taking a clear stand. It stages plays — whether they are excellent, good, bad or awful — without proposing a particular take on the surrounding reality. If at all, it does so subtly, in a roundabout way, by implication. It mainly deals with the personal, the economic. There are very few Arabs, soldiers or terrorist attacks. It is a distraction from these issues, done well or less well. I wish it were otherwise.

Fact No. 2: Norman Issa and “Boomerang”

Roni Sinai’s “Boomerang,” directed by Nir Erez, was put on by the Haifa Theatre in 2014. One of the actors was Norman Issa, an Israeli Arab whose Hebrew is better than that of most Israeli Jews (including me). Issa is an excellent actor, talented and experienced, whose very presence in a play is an audience draw. He and his wife, the Jewish Israeli Gideona Raz, founded the Elmina children’s theater in the Jaffa port, at which Issa, its director, promotes an agenda of Jewish-Arab coexistence. After a two-year trial, Elmina was to begin receiving funding from the Culture and Sports Ministry.

Several months ago, the Haifa Theatre contracted for the performance of “Boomerang” at a theater in the Jordan Valley. I presume that one of the reasons the play was in demand was Issa’s role in it.

The Jordan Valley, of course, is not located within sovereign Israeli territory. Issa has said he informed the Haifa Theatre four months ago that he would not perform there. Replacing an actor who is unable to perform, for whatever reason, is par for the course in the theater. On the rare occasion that it is for reasons of conscience, theaters generally accept that and find a replacement. But Haifa Theatre did not, or could not. The performance was canceled, and the buck was passed to Issa and his political views.

Regev has never concealed her own views, and when she was appointed culture and sports minister she broadcast her intentions to create a new order. This is the new politics, this is the new elite, this is the right culture now. In marking her territory and flexing her muscles, Regev didn’t bother to check the facts (or simply ignored them). She declared that if Issa refused to perform with the Haifa Theatre in the Jordan Valley, she would cancel Elmina’s not-yet-allocated budget, because you can’t preach coexistence here while preventing it elsewhere.

Issa met with Regev, and disappointed those who, on their own accord, painted him as a staunch opponent of the occupation: He announced that Elmina would be happy to appear in the Jordan Valley. Regev withdrew her threat. If I didn’t know better, I might have thought the whole thing was a stunt by Issa and Raz to promote Elmina and its message of coexistence while emerging victorious from the battle against authority (it’s not some escapist play that Issa will be acting in, in the Jordan Valley) and enjoying the fruits at the same time (guaranteeing public funds to run his theater and spread its the message of Jewish-Arab coexistence in a place where it’s needed. Until then no one had asked it to perform there; now it is sought-after). Miri Regev scored a victory with her community, too. Win-win all around.

Fact No. 3: Al-Midan Theater and “A Parallel Time”

I wrote about this at length two weeks ago, when Haifa announced a budget freeze for Israel’s only Arab theater until the city council ruled on a complaint about “A Parallel Time.” The play, by Bashar Murkus, portrays the life in prison of Walid Daka, the leader of a Hamas terrorist cell that kidnapped, tortured and murdered Moshe Tamam, an Israeli soldier. I wrote then that withholding funding before conducting a review was unprecedented in Israeli theater. Daka, who continues to claim he was not directly involved in the torture and murder, is serving a life term.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett has since decided to remove the play from the list of performances made available to Israeli schools, contravening its approval by a ministerial committee. Regev then halted state funding to the theater — also unprecedented here — until all its funding sources were disclosed. The Culture Ministry certainly appears to be waging war on Israeli theater, claiming — contrary to the facts — that it attacks and maligns the state.

Tamam’s family is involved in the protest against the play, which is funded by the state, even if indirectly. Far be it from me to understand what it is to lose a loved one to terror. But I can empathize with the need for the solace of seeing your kin’s murderer as an inhuman monster, the embodiment of evil.

It’s extremely unfortunate, but nearly all heinous acts are committed by people. And their humanity — however terrible they are, from our perspective, if not that of others — is the terrible mystery of our existence. Art, more precisely theater, is exactly the realm in which we can, and must, confront that human enigma. In any case, the powerful majority will have its view prevail. We have no choice but to continue helplessly watching the play. But I prefer helplessness regarding a play to helplessness against reality. Not that I have a choice.

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