Challenge and Be Challenged in Return

We will get out of this mess, only by coming to understand better those whom today we understand least.

“Brecht is rolling over in his grave.” So said peace activist and stage director Chen Alon in response to the assertion of Ron Nahman, mayor of Ariel, that “culture has nothing to do with politics” and that, therefore, the actors, directors, writers and professors who recently declared a boycott of his city are out of line. Brecht’s life’s work, Alon continued, was to demonstrate the “weighty moral responsibility of artists and theater people” concerning matters of politics. “Culture and theater are part of what shapes knowledge and power ... and cannot be separated from politics.” This, in Alon’s view and that of his fellow boycotters, is why they cannot perform in Ariel or the rest of the territories.

Alon is right − which is why he is also wrong. Sure, theater is political, and so is literature, and frankly, so is a good deal of what goes on at universities, too. But this is precisely why it is so important that artists and scholars perform, present, lecture, debate, discuss, observe, listen and learn in Ariel.

As people paid, many of us by the state, to make sense of the world, and to mold and explicate our culture, what we artists and academics have to offer is our capacity to bring what we create and discover to the public arena for consideration. And the only chance we have of making proper sense of the world around us is if we see what surrounds us in all its complexity, and if we are alive to voices different from our own. We ought to be in Ariel, then, both for what we can offer the place and for what the place offers us.

The artists and scholars boycotting Ariel do so, obviously, out of commitment to principle − their belief that the occupation is wrong, and must be fought, not just on election day but all the time − and in an effort to live their lives according to what they believe to be true and right. By doing so, a few of the protesters risk their livelihood. This is admirable, but it is also myopic. In this case, as always, there is more than one principle at stake.

Another important principle is that both those who make and absorb art are altered by it, and the same can be said of scholarship. Kafka famously said that art ought to “affect us like a disaster, grieve us deeply, [and] ... be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

Arguably, artists and scholars ought to seek venues in Ariel, and other settlements, and to energetically hunt for opportunities to challenge those who live there and to be challenged in return. If we believe in the power of what we do, we ought doubly to wish to debate it with those who see matters differently.

Which leads to another principle: that we will never find our way out of the political mess we are in by demonizing those with whom we disagree: whether Palestinians, peace activists or settlers. We will get out of this mess only by coming to understand better those whom today we understand least. Which is one reason why we will all gain by having the national theater troupe appear in Ariel, by performing works by settlers in Tzavta in Tel Aviv, by arguing with Grossman in Kiryat Arba and Sternhell in Efrat.

The recent season’s Habima repertoire included a broad burlesque by Ephraim Sidon and B. Michael called “Anxiety Struck,” a lacerating portrayal of Israel’s settlement policy. Those who came to see Yael Ronen’s “Plonter” at the Cameri were interrogated on their way into the hall by faux Palestinian soldiers, in a bit of participatory theater that aims to show a trace of what it might be like to be Palestinians under military rule. Such challenging plays ought to be performed in Ariel, not withheld. Instead of boycotting, the actors and directors could insist that such productions, among others, be brought to Ariel. At the end of each show, they could turn up the house lights and enter into discussion and debate with the audience. Such meetings would be heated, no doubt, but they might help thaw the frozen seas inside those of us who live in Tel Aviv and in Ariel alike.

Bertolt Brecht, who continued to direct in East Berlin until his death, in the hope of challenging his audiences to challenge their government’s policies, would likely agree.

Noah Efron teaches history and philosophy of science at Bar-Ilan University, and is a member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa City Council.