Criticizing Israel's National Theater

Executives of Habima say State Comptroller’s Report on the theater ‘is not grave.’ This causes one to wonder how they define ‘grave.’

'My Fair Lady' at Habima with Shani Cohen (center, right) as Eliza Doolittle.
Daniel Kaminsky

The most remarkable, revealing and incriminating rejoinder – in both the literal and metaphorical sense – in the drama “The State Comptroller on Habima,” is the opening sentence of the theater’s response to the State Comptroller’s Report chapter on the management of the Habima National Theater: “Firstly, it should be noted that the report is not grave and its findings are solely technical.”

But in the summary of the report’s recommendations, it says explicitly: “The State Comptroller’s Office takes a grave view of the behavior of the theater headed by director Ms. Odelia Friedman, and the accompanying controller, accountant Boaz Gazit, in that they did not implement all the clauses of the [financial] recovery agreement … and that they did not make it a priority to transfer funds they’d collected from their workers to their (pension, provident and training) funds, to the Income Tax Authority, to the National Insurance Institute and the workers’ unions. Not transferring funds to these bodies on time constitutes a criminal offense. The court, in a ruling relating to Habima, stated, ‘The [state’s] financial aid could lead to a continuation of failed management, passivity and administrative inefficiency among organizations that are tempted to assume that because of their public importance, the state won’t allow them to collapse.’”

If that isn’t grave, then the executives at our national theater must have an interesting literal new definition for the word “grave.”

The national theater adds in its response, “With all due respect, the employees of the State Comptroller’s Office do not have the expertise or the authority to make judgments regarding anything related to artistic content.” On this issue, I actually tend to agree with the theater people. Indeed, the number of prizes the theater has or has not received is not a reasonable measure for assessing its artistic work, and the qualitative criteria used by the Culture Ministry in distributing budgets to the theater should also be taken with a grain of salt.

But in contrast to the auditors at the State Comptroller’s Office, it is definitely within my realm of expertise to make judgments relating to artistic content, and so I will allow myself to disagree with the theater’s determination in its response that it “leads in the scope and quality of activities.” Its comment that, “As the national theater it is sometimes unable to take commercial considerations into account,” made me laugh out loud. Weren’t “Jacko,” “Norman, is That You?” “A Surfeit of Lovers,” as well as “Evita” and “My Fair Lady,” staged primarily, if not solely, on commercial grounds?

This doesn’t mean that Habima has no good performances, even very good ones, in terms of artistic quality. But it does mean that the professional and artistic nadir that the national theater permits itself to sink to – out of commercial considerations that it absolutely does take into account – is sometimes embarrassing, if not shameful.

The comptroller also notes that there have never been objectives set for Habima as the national theater. Without getting into a detailed discussion, it’s worth noting that in most other enlightened countries no one takes the title “national,” when applied to one theater or another, too seriously, apart from assuming a very general commitment to a country’s cultural and linguistic heritage. Since our current government and its culture and sports minister view Jewish and Israeli “nationality” in a narrow, political, exclusive and exclusionary sense, the last thing we need now is to address that issue. But in most countries the national theater is expected to be the flagship in terms of professional standards and artistic pretentions. From that perspective, Habima had set new levels of “low,” even if good plays are staged there.

Meanwhile, a week before the comptroller’s report was issued, when the publication date and the report’s content were known to Habima’s administration, the theater publicized its repertoire for next year. There are those who might see that as arrogant, if not opportunistic.

In any case, it would be proper to allow those who see themselves fit to run it artistically to apply for the now-vacant job of the theater’s artistic director, and house director Moshe Captan is certainly a worthy candidate. But the comptroller’s report, even based solely on its technical details, certainly undermines the status of Odelia Friedman as having a mandate to determine, with the administration’s approval, who will be the national theater’s next artistic director.