Opinion |

Culture Wars: Hamilton Cast Fires First Shot in Conflict Israel Knows Only Too Well

Donald Trump should take a look at Israeli minister Miri Regev to see how to really threaten artists and dictate a national cultural agenda.

Don Futterman
Don Futterman
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Actor Brandon Victor Dixon speaks from the stage after the curtain call in 'Hamilton' in New York, November 18, 2016.
Actor Brandon Victor Dixon speaks from the stage after the curtain call in 'Hamilton' in New York, November 18, 2016.Credit: Hamilton LLC via AP
Don Futterman
Don Futterman

The power – and profitability – of the musical Hamilton results from the perfect meeting up of subject, artistic excellence and clever and fortuitous marketing and timing. In finding a new musical language to tell the story of America’s Founding Fathers, focusing on the one non-white non-landowning man among them, Alexander Hamilton, it is a production with even greater timeliness and resonance as the age of Donald Trump begins.

When the cast of Hamilton broke the fourth wall and addressed VP-elect Mike Pence at the end of Friday’s performance, asking his assurance that the new administration would defend and uphold Americans' inalienable rights and values and "work on behalf of all of us. All of us." President-elect Trump responded with critical tweets declaring the cast had attacked and harassed Pence, "a good man."

We don’t know if Pence got the message, if he himself liked the show. He hasn’t spoken out. Maybe he was moved to tears by Hamilton and went home to adopt an immigrant family.

It’s tempting to imagine the audience, cast and Trump and Pence’s responses had the VP-elect gone to see another play with a message that fits the times. Maybe Les Miserables, about how the justice system screws poor people, or Evita, apparently a Trump favorite, about a woman who seduced a nation before her downfall – or maybe Shakespeare’s Richard II, or Richard III about how the throne is usurped by force, or by violence, the crown taken from incapable hands.

Not all theater needs to be political in an overt way. Agitprop political theater is often bad theater and an ineffective way of doing politics. But obviously a hip-hop musical about the founding fathers in which not only Hamilton (who was a person of color) but all the fathers are played by people of color, is making a sharp political statement.

A protester holds a placard as he waits for VP-elect Mike Pence to leave after a performance of 'Hamilton' in New York, on November 18, 2016.Credit: Andres Kudacki, AP

Civility and protest – what gives?

So should the cast have put Pence on the spot? I think it was justified. Will it have the effect the cast intended? That’s still to be seen, but if the Israeli experience of theater with a political message provoking antagonism from those in power has any lessons, it’s that such protests have the benefit of rallying your own camp, a call to arms which is critically important, or raising questions for the undecided, but is signally unsuccessful in persuading the actual target of the protest.

Real theater is meant to challenge, to make you think, to make you uncomfortable. It revels in complexity. It exposes the manifold defense mechanisms and masks and self-deceptions and justifications we deploy to avoid facing unpleasant truths.

Even a good comedy exposes our own foibles and ridicules them. Think of Sayed Kashua’s Arab Labor, or All in the Family, or any decent comedy ever. Hanoch Levin does it mercilessly, with a sledgehammer. But even Neil Simon or Alan Ayckbourn or Noel Coward or Tom Stoppard are exposing something profound about the absurdity of human behavior; if they didn’t strike a deep chord, we would forget their plays immediately.

Pence is silent, Trump shouts

Was it childish or rude to address the VP-elect from the stage during the curtain call? It's a problematic precedent as some theater professionals have already pointed out. But it wasn’t obnoxious, or aggressive or threatening, despite Trump’s use of the word “harassing.” It caught a man not used to being put on the spot when he is not in front of an adoring campaign crowd off guard. In his defense, he is said to have listened to the appeal in full in the foyer of the theater even after he had walked out.

Does it matter if it was rude to call him out that way? Yes, because we do want some level of civility in our discourse – and Pence is not by nature rude in his daily behavior the way Trump is.

And what about their message? This was a genuine cry of pain and concern of some of the 60+ million voters who chose Hillary Clinton, communicated by the cast and creators of one of the great performance works of our day.

Might Pence have responded differently? He might have said something diplomatic and non-committal, like, I hear your concerns and appreciate your sharing them with me. He might have said, No, we’re not racist or sexist or out to destroy the planet. And I intend to be the VP of all the people, not just of my voters. Or, I don’t agree with your diatribe or the play’s message. He might have said, I think you’re being rude.

The Jewish idea of tokekha – the way to rebuke someone – is that you offer criticism so someone is able to hear it. Constructive criticism yes, but the listener also needs to be ready and able to at least hear and possibly accept the criticism, or it will accomplish little.

When they protest, Israel's performers have more to lose

In Israel, our cultural conflicts tend to be linked to government funding of the arts, because many of the country’s cultural institutions would have trouble surviving without it. This of course gives government the potential power to influence cultural policy, though governments until now have shied away from dictating it. (It’s worth remembering that an education minister kept the Beatles from appearing in Israel, because he feared they would "corrupt our youths’ morals.")

This is more similar to Europe, where governments invest heavily in the performing arts, but are also deeply committed to freedom of expression, and less like the U.S., where government support for the arts is marginal.

Today, our culture minister, the Likud’s Miri Regev, has taken a much more radically proactive stance, trying to dictate or at least impact what culture should be about when supported by government funds.

Culture Minister Miriam Regev arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on October 9, 2016. Credit: Gali Tibbon, Pool via AP

>> Profile: Meet Miri Regev, Israel's Trump in high heels

Arts institutions are in a bind, because of their financial dependence, but they are used to having total freedom of expression. But Regev opposes government funding artistic expression that is critical of Zionism, and her government goes ballistic whenever an Arab citizen challenges the Zionist narrative, at least on her government’s nickel, conveniently forgetting that same nickel is our nickel, our taxes, paid by voters for all parties, not just of the Likud, and including Arab voters and taxpayers.

Regev's fury and populism give Trump a run for his money

She was furious at the Ophir Awards that a poem by a Palestinian poet was sung, because she believes that Mahmoud Darwish’s voice should never be heard at a government-funded function. She was outraged just this weekend at the Fringe Festival when an actor spoke out against the defamation suit lodged against Mohammed Bakri, director of the controversial documentary "Jenin, Jenin," and the refusal of some audience members to sing the national anthem.

A bigger problem for the more liberal arts establishment is that Regev’s view does reflect what a lot of Israeli Jews think, which means she can co-opt popular opinion, leaving the minority more vulnerable. Over the past few years the idea of freedom of expression has been eroded in various spheres, from the media to political expression, and it doesn’t benefit from deep grassroots support as a foundational idea of democracy from all Israelis, the way it does in the U.S. and western Europe (although even there, it is being challenged).

But she has also used her fiscal control to pressure artists to act counter to their conscience, forcing them to participate in her government’s normalization of the settlements and the occupation: she has declared an ultimatum for actors that they must perform in settlements or have their institutions’ budgets slashed. Because of the explicit risk to their survival, and some institutions’ and performers’ vocal denigration of Regev in turn, no real conversation can take place about artistic freedom and its limits in Israel.

It’s not the first time politics and funding have exploded in Israel. When the Haifa Theater staged Yehoshua Sobol’s Jerusalem Syndrome back in the 1980s, which compared the occupation to the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, the theater was threatened with closure and the artistic directors, Sobol and Gedalia Besser, resigned to avert the threat and keep it open.

Regev has other agendas; she wants more funding and exposure for Mizrahi culture, a legitimate balancing when many cultural productions have been skewed toward the Ashkenazi experience.

Ronald Reagan famously gave the National Medal of Freedom to Louis L’Amour, a writer of pulp westerns, who cranked them out by the bushel, but whose books touched Reagan. L’Amour was good at his genre fiction, and there is more appreciation today of low culture as opposed to high culture, but no one serious about literature thinks L’Amour was a great writer. But this controversial and almost comical award raised the question about the tastes of the educated elite or the literati vs. the taste of the masses, a question that still rankles in a marketplace that would seem to have plenty of room for both.

Art in the service of a one-dimensional Zionism

There’s an element of this in Regev’s populist rants: she wants her personal tastes – and her personal friends – to be celebrated by the cultural establishment. So much so that the real issue, that some segments of our society are underrepresented in the output of our leading artistic institutions, gets lost in her populist self-promotion. But the message Regev constantly hammers home is that the arts should trumpet her version of Zionism: one committed to a Jewish, right-wing narrative, dismissive of any parallel Arab narrative, and a tool to blur disctinctions between Israel proper and the Israeli-controlled West Bank.

Was Trump’s Hamilton tweetstorm indicative of the offense he takes at the movement of an inherent political message to an overt criticism? But the overt message was there in the musical: the cast took it straight from its context. Perhaps Trump would like theater to be reassuring, to recycle platitudes, his platitudes? Indeed, propagandists like simple messages that brook no criticism. That was the style of his campaign, of his social media presence, a direction that has only been strengthened since his now chief adviser, Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, began his active role in Trump’s campaign.

A limited audience for liberal, multicultural values?

But there is another dimension to all this, that hit home most painfully in the American election: the liberal multicultural values represented as normative in much of mainstream pop and high culture are not the values of all Americans, just as they are not the values of all Israelis. Our artistic expressions reflect back to us our culture, but only segments of it, and we don’t by any means hear all the voices.

The genius of Hamilton is that it is presenting a voice not often heard: that people of color were part of founding America, shaping America, building America, making America great to begin with. That is the message the cast of this musical feared the president-elect and his VP-elect might not be hearing sufficiently clearly through the show. They might have trusted their brilliant musical a little more, but they did not feel they could pass up the chance to make the message explicit.

If Israel’s experience has anything to offer, it’s that the relative power and commitment of the liberal arts establishment, and in America’s case, its private financial backers, is about to enter a period where it and its values will be sorely tested.

Don Futterman is the program director, Israel, of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation which supports civil and human rights in Israel, and works to strengthen Israeli democracy and civil society. He can also be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @DonFutterman

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