Israel’s national theatre company has announced it will stage its first ever performance in a controversial, hardline West Bank settlement, sparking a fierce row inside Israel’s artistic community.
The performance in the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba next to Hebron is planned to take place next month despite a growing chorus of criticism from Israeli cultural figures opposed to the move.
Although other theatre companies have performed in Kiryat Arba before, it is the first time that Habima – Israel’s national theatre – has performed in the settlement.
The row over the decision to stage a dramatised version of SY Agnon’s A Simple Story is the latest chapter in the increasingly bitter culture war between members of Israel’s artistic community and the country’s abrasive rightwing culture and sport minister, Miri Regev.
Regev has threatened to cut funding to arts groups that refuse to perform in settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
More than 400,000 Israelis live in settlements in the occupied West Bank, considered by the international community one of the largest obstacles to peace.
The US government has recently intensified its criticism of Israel’s persistent expansion of the settlements, saying it is endangering the possibility of a two-state solution to the conflict.
Kiryat Arba, in particular, is regarded as one of the more hardline Israeli settlements, controversially hosting both the grave of Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish extremist who killed 29 Palestinians and injured dozens more in an attack in Hebron in 1994, and a park dedicated to the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane.
Among those who have publicly criticised the move – in two Facebook posts – has been Haim Weiss, a literature professor at Ben Gurion University, who suggested that the theatre had decided to perform in the settlement because of the current climate of pressure on artists and arts groups.
Weiss accused the theatre of “conferring validity, significance and legitimisation upon the settlement enterprise, especially its most extreme and violent representation. Kiryat Arba’s residents understand this symbolic significance very well and are therefore very pleased about the theatre performance in their city.”
He added: “When Habima, with its canonic standing in the Zionist and Israeli discourse, chooses to appear in a city that symbolises more than any other the violence and racism of the settlement enterprise, it’s taking a step of major significance,” he added.
Weiss was joined in his criticism by other figures in the arts community.
Among them was theatre director Ari Remez, who sarcastically suggested actors should visit Goldstein’s grave site, which became a place of pilgrimage for Jewish extremists.
Veteran actor-director Oded Kotler also added his voice, saying that the company was being disingenuous when it likened performance before Jewish audiences in the occupied West Bank to shows within Israel’s borders.
“When we say, ‘the nation, Israel or national’, that doesn’t include the occupied territories,” he told public radio.
“By carrying out some kind of so-called pure cultural activity in these places, we are reinforcing the suffering of others, which has been continuing for years and years and is in fact preventing us from making peace.”
The decision to perform in Kiryat Arba, however, was defended by both Regev and the theatre.
“This is what a vision becoming reality looks like,” Regev posted on her Twitter account on Tuesday. “This is how a national theatre should behave.”
She added later: “The decision to perform for the first time in Hebron exemplifies the national theatre’s being a central pioneer in treating all citizens of the state as equal in their right to experience culture. I encourage Habima for its strong stance against the wave of criticism from the left, and am sorry to see elements in our land act as the lowliest of BDS bullies.”
For its part, the company – which did not reply to a Guardian request for comment – defended the performance. Habima’s general manager, Odelia Friedman, told Israeli public radio that settlers had the same right to government-subsidised culture as any other Israeli citizen. “We appear everywhere where we are required,” she added.
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