Upstaged by Chronic Ills

Concerns about Habima Theater's ability to repay its heavy debts casts a pall over the festive reopening of the new Tel Aviv theater.

A pall was cast over the festive reopening of Tel Aviv's Habima Theater last night. As has become routine in past years, concerns about the theater's ability to repay its heavy debts marred Sunday's activities; and in keeping with this routine, the state will be asked to cover these debts as part of a recovery plan agreement. Meanwhile, artists and theater service suppliers wait for their payments - in vain.

Beginning in the early 1970s, Israel's national theater has witnessed frequent crises and budget woes. Then, as later, the problems stemmed from faulty, wasteful management.

Habima Theater
Moti Milrod

A 1993 report that examined the management of Israel's theater repertoires pointed to serious problems at Habima, particularly with regard to its decision-making processes. The report noted that a searing assessment of Habima compiled by the Culture Ministry had been filed away. This concealed ministry report exposed mishandling of wage and benefit payments, faulty dealings with bank accounts and other ills.

And Habima's internal management was not the only deficient element. Its relations with the Culture Ministry yielded a series of problematic appointments that aggravated the theater's woes. Damaging disputes flared between the theater's management and a roster of playwrights, directors and actors; the general atmosphere became ugly; the theater's coffers emptied out and its debts swelled; and, against the backdrop of these problems, a wide gap opened up between what appeared to be the government's preferential policy toward Habima and its allocations to other repertoire theaters.

Apart from the period in which Yaakov Agmon served as Habima's director, the national theater has been badly managed, and the NIS 42 million debt it has accumulated impairs its relations with theater professionals. Various recovery plans have also failed to extricate the theater from the mire.

A recovery plan signed in October 2011 has not been implemented due to the lack of bank authorization for a loan. The debts have yet to be paid. Compounding these problems, criticism has been leveled against the new facility, the establishment of which took four years and cost about NIS 100 million. A cut in Culture Ministry funding aggravated these problems.

The national theater is a major asset in Israel's public culture. Its gala reopening should have been staged after these chronic woes had been eradicated.