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For Palestinian artists, freedom of speech is anything but guaranteed

By forcing Arab actors to perform in West Bank settlements and closing down Arab theaters, the government is proving once more that freedom of speech is solely reserved for Israel’s ruling class.

By Hasan Masri

A scene from Al-Midan Theater's production of 'A Parallel Time.' (photo: Activestills.org)

A scene from Al-Midan Theater’s production of ‘A Parallel Time.’ (photo: Activestills.org)

As an artist, I write these words with great trepidation that I may be judged based on my background, religion, skin color or political beliefs. I want to express myself — I want to write, perform, sing, and dance however I see fit. I love my job, I love the world I live in, I am opposed to all injustice or forms of oppression.

Until when will we continue to be oppressed in our homeland? Until when will we continue to be shackled? When will we live out the idea that the “personal is political?” And art is…?

Allow me to present a political scenario, which could easily come from the world of theater: an oppressive king from a faraway land appoints a new minister who wants to exert her power and kick out all the clowns — who are known to posses a controversial identity — from the streets (the majority of these clowns come from a community that once lived in a forest upon which the kingdom was later established). During their performances, the clowns tend to publicly express themselves about the goings-on in the kingdom. “Art is another way to engage with the world around us,” says one of the leading clowns. This story is far from over.

Since the election of this latest new-old government, we have witnessed how quickly things have turned extreme. Arab actors are required to perform in settlements, while Arab theaters are being shut down. “In Arab countries they destroy art, while we provide them a stage,” the regime will say in response. But is freedom of speech guaranteed for all in the State of Israel, or is it only reserved for the ruling class? Is it possible to occupy and inherit the land, not to mention freedom of speech or movement? Is it conceivable that an “Arab Israeli” will perform before a crowd for whom he does not want to perform on land full of crimes and blood? This brings up a simple question: are we artists, or just actors in the hands of the system? We are witnessing an attempt to force an Arab actor to perform on occupied land, where crimes that dehumanize that very actor occur on a daily basis.

When Arab actors perform in the occupied territories, it is good for Israeli hasbara. Look, say the experts of Zionist hasbara, Arab Israelis are performing in Jewish “communities” in the West Bank, everything is fine. As the global boycott movement gains strength, this kind of move actually exposes what kind of occupation we are dealing with here. Whether you are an artist who identifies as Palestinian or you call yourself an Arab Israeli, in the eyes of the occupier we are the same creature that deserves, at this moment, to be oppressed. The right-wing government is heading in only one direction: occupation.

Read: Israel’s culture minister is turning artists into enemies

Just as we are restricted in our movement as Palestinians under this regime, we are restricted as artists who want to express our positions, and become clowns, according to the expectations of the state — with no opinions, positions or conscience. We are restricted in our ability to express ourselves just as we are restricted in our freedom of movement in this country, whether on the stage or off it.

I always look at how Jewish actors portray Arabs on the screen. If the show is a comedy, the character will always be a ridiculous one. If it’s a drama, the Arab will always be threatening. That is how the regime wants to see us: as either ridiculous or terrorists. We are all bad Arabs in the eyes of this oppressive regime. It does not want to see other characters, especially real Arab ones.

Anyone who does not abide by these norms has no place here. And the norm of the State of Israel in 2015 is occupation.

Hasan Masri is an actor and activist. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets. Read it here.

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    1. Pedro X

      Freedom of speech is guaranteed. It is right of all Israeli citizens.

      It is not a right to receive or use government funding for glorifying terrorists, promoting the murder of Israeli soldiers or to discriminate against Israelis who live in the eastern part of Jerusalem or in Judea and Samaria.

      Should artists, whether Jewish or Arab, wish to exercise their right to free speech they are welcome to do so on their own dime. If they receive money from the Israeli government, the government has the right to set conditions on receipt of those monies.

      If artists do not like that, let them sell enough tickets to pay for their performances or obtain non government funding.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        I recommend all readers link to the Jerusalem Post article by Barry Davis to see for yourselves if this is far more complicated than Pedro X portrays it. Issa is no terrorist and his work is not glorifying terrorists, promoting the murder of Israeli soldiers or discriminating against Israelis who illegally squat in occupied East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. The government should not force actors to make a political statement by performing in such a loaded situation against their conscience. That is totalitarian. Many here have argued that this dropping of polite democratic fig leaves as is now going on is the best gift ever handed to the BDS movement.

        “Regev followed that with a thinly veiled threat to cut off the ministry’s support for the theater Issa runs with his Jewish wife at the Port of Jaffa, which provides entertainment for Arab and Jewish children, youth and adults. “If Norman does not withdraw his decision I intend to reconsider the ministry’s support for the Elmina Theater which he manages.”

        Issa, who is well known to the public his part in Channel 2 show Arab Work, for which he received the 2012 Israel Academy Prize for Best Actor in a Comedy Show, said it was unfair to expect him to go against his own conscience and to appear in places “which are controversial.”

        Issa added that the matter had come up in the past. “This is not a new issue, and the problem was solved years ago, at all theaters in Israel, when it was decided that whenever a case arose in which an actor, Jewish or Arab, was unwilling to appear in a particular location, on grounds of conscience, they would be replaced with another actor.”

        Meanwhile, Haifa Theater Director Nitza Ben Zvi clarified the theater’s policy, saying that: “Haifa Theater, like all theaters in Israel, believes in freedom of expression as the basis of creativity. We do not believe in forcing an actor to appear against their will.”

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Gideon Levy, 11.06.15: “Norman Issa did almost everything possible to be a good Arab. He was born a Christian (not a Muslim, like all the terrorists; Israelis love Christian Arabs); studied at the Beit Zvi School for the Performing Arts; married Gidona, a Jew; cooked a dumpling and added pomegranates for the refreshment on “Master Chef VIP;” acted on stage in Hebrew; played Amjad, a good Arab, of course, on the TV series “Arab Labor,” which was written by another good Arab, Sayed Kashua, whom Israelis so love to love.

          If only we had a few more such Normans and Sayeds, then we certainly would already have had peace. That is how we like them, the Arabs, when they make us laugh in Hebrew. Hummus, chips, salad and comedy series on Channel 2.

          There were once good Arabs, and they are no more. Israel finished off the genre. If there is an Israeli patriot, then Issa is the man. If there was an Arab who could serve as a model for living in coexistence, then he is the character. Trying to preserve his honor and identity, balancing on a thin line. In interviews he told me how he loves the land and also its residents; what more could we ask for?

          “There is nothing worth going to war over as far as I’m concerned,” said this charming man in an interview with Haaretz Magazine two years ago. He may vote for Hadash, but he has never been Mohammad Bakri. Not Lucy Aharish either, of course. He once said he feels “not here and not there.” When soldiers hugged him at the checkpoints and wanted to take their pictures with him, he felt uncomfortable.

          The seventh contestant eliminated from “Master Chef” did not hesitate to say this. Issa was born with the occupation, in June 1967, and tried to close one eye facing it. His father was expelled from the Galilee village Biram and not allowed to return despite all the promises – and Issa tried to forgive the country for that too.

          Now it is over. Norman’s path has been blocked. The end of the good Arabs who are not total collaborators. Issa dared to follow his conscience….”

          Reply to Comment
          • BigCat

            And the point of your series of looooong ‘copy-and-paste-job’ that includes the usual non-sequitur screed from Gideon Levy, is exactly……..What?! Pedro’s post is not extremely difficult to understand, is it, Brian alias “Ben” alias “MuslimJew” alias “Giora Me’ir” alias “E823” alias etc? In case you missed it, let me run it again through your thick skull:

            1). In Israel, we have freedom of speech as we have in the United States and more freedom of speech than the citizens of some of the most liberal European countries have – including the UK!

            2). In Israel everyone (except Jews who may not refuse military service, unlike Muslim-Arabs!) is entitled to act according to his/her conscience and base all his/her actions and omissions on his/her conscience


            DO NOT ask us to give you money to finance your actions and omissions against our core national interests;

            DO NOT ask us to give you money to finance your boycott of us based on your conscience;

            DO NOT ask us to give you money to finance your delegitimization of us based on your conscience;

            DO NOT ask us to give you money to finance your smear and demonization of us based on your conscience;

            DO NOT ask us to give you money to finance your glorification of those who killed our fathers, mothers, sister and brothers based on your conscience.

            You have a right to freedom of speech. BUT, you have NO right to the money of those you boycott, smear, demonize and delegitimize. Just sell enough tickets to finance your ‘Big-Halal-Conscience’ and the designs of your mind and intellect. If what you’ve got is good, folks will buy it; if not, then you have to work harder.

            We are not suckers!

            Got that?

            Now, go find a job and quit this manic fixating on- and obsession with Jews and Israel and getting all riled up and emotional about Jewish Affairs all of which are no way no how any of your business, you psychotic moron.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Way too nasty and dishonest a comment to invite reply. Sorry, we have standards. You are without a doubt the most obnoxious person I’ve ever encountered online. You’ll probably view that as a badge of honor I’ve just awarded you. And that’s the problem.

            Reply to Comment
          • BigCat

            Brian alias “Ben” alias “MuslimJew” alias “Giora Me’ir” alias “David T.” alias etc.,

            Your record on this site shows that you are indeed a “nasty and obnoxious” anti-Semitic psychopath. Here is just one example of your nastiness when you were posting as Brian. I will be introducing other examples at different times so that whoever is reading your mumbo jumbo and/or “copy-and-paste-job” can appreciate your comments from the context of your core beliefs. For you its ain’t really about Palestinians, but rather whatever harms Jews and/or the Jewish State. Palestinians are only secondary and instrumental to your goal! Here we go:

            October 29, 2014

            Again, Jewishness as a kind of mafia, ruled by a code of omertà!

            Reply to Comment

            October 29, 2014

            NOT Jewishness!!! Some Israelis, just like some Italians.

            Reply to Comment

            October 29, 2014

            Unfortunately it’s not just some individuals. It’s a whole entrenched racist system, a system of Jewish superiority and Arab inferiority. On many overlapping levels. With a code of silence enveloping it. Why do you think a certain organization calls itself “Breaking The Silence”?

            Reply to Comment

            October 31, 2014

            Jewish …Maffia ??jajaja more Christans _Maffia. you are stupide to insinate religion.


            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Yeah? So? My “record.” LoL. Jackass. Troll. This is instructive. Normally we ignore trolls but this is instructive so let’s go into it in some depth. What on earth is anti-Semitic about that quote, Eis-“BigCat”? Another own goal against the Hasbara Team. Thanks for linking to that excellent page complete with some fine quotations by other posters as well on a disturbing event:

            Photographed punching an Arab woman? Sue the photographer
            A freelance photographer who documented three young Jewish women attacking an Arab woman in Jerusalem is being sued for defamation after Israel’s most popular television news channel published her photos. Now she is asking for the public’s help to fund her legal defense.

            And one troll biscuit for you today for finally, at long last, quoting that pro-Jewish comment of mine without deviously doctoring it to make it look anti-Semitic! After so many deliberate mis-quotings with malice aforethought! You loathsome criminal who can’t win an argument on merits. Your parole board should build in a stipulation: one more devious quote-doctoring and you return to gaol. You fail.

            What is it, Eis? No versions of Jewish nationalism can be critiqued, no matter how misguided they are? That offends you? Those who do are to be whacked like in the mob to keep them silent? No way Eis. I’m not cooperating. Let us quote Mr. Bruce Gould upon the same fine page:

            “Ginger, I think you may be misunderstanding the point of 972. This purpose of this site is not to demonize Israel, it’s to show that Israel is a perfectly normal country. Israeli citizens are neither more nor less racist than the citizens of any other country (which is to say: they are racist as hell), the foreign policy of Israel is neither more nor less ethical than those of other countries (which is to say: it’s morally bankrupt) and so on. No more Jewish/Israeli exceptionalism: henceforth let us examine Israel just as we would any other country.”

            I endorse that. If you think that makes him and me anti-Semitic then (1) you’re nuts or you’re dishonest (well we already know about “BigCat”–it’s not a matter of opinion, it’s his/her record here–repeated deliberately doctored quotes and quotes deviously removed from context–everyone has seen it). Or both. And (2) you make the point Bruce made all over again! If that’s anti-Semitic than that makes Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Ze’ev Sternhell, Peter Beinart, most Haaretz writers, and every single +972 writer anti-Semitic. Again, you misunderstand the point of 972.

            “BigCat,” do you know whose ethic you’re emulating here? None other than Michael Oren, now outed as someone who plays fast and loose with the truth:


            Wow. Just wow. Michael Oren. Ambassador to the United States, the “Honorable” Michael B. Oren. What a devious guy. What a fabricator, what a mis-representer, what a twister–on purpose. Just like “BigCat” only in less crudely stupid a form–but no less brazenly!!! And he thought he could get away with it but has ended up thoroughly discrediting himself. Just like “BigCat.” Dishonesty never pays in the long run. But no wonder “BigCat” thinks s/he can do what s/he does with impunity. Wow. Because s/he and Michael Oren do essentially the same thing. “Hey I’m just doing what Ambassador Oren does.” Wow. How about that?

            Reply to Comment
          • BigCat

            OMG!! Brian is now extremely hysterical and going completely berserk and bonkers! Each time he takes a hit, he starts whacking it, hallucinating about Ginger. Go take your meds, you psychotic moron!

            Reply to Comment
        • Pedro X

          Because Issa would not perform the theatre company cancelled its performance in the Bik’at Hayarden Regional Council. No one replaced him. He discriminated against hundreds of thousands of Jews in Judea and Samaria. The government of Israel funds the theatre and requires that the threatre not discriminate against the people of Israel no matter where they live. Does the theatre allow Muslim actors to boycott Christian audiences for alleged crimes of Christians against Muslims or allow misogynist actors refuse to work with women actors?

          Meanwhile Haifa’s Al-Midan theatre chose to present a positive story about the life of a vicious, convicted terrorist who kidnapped, tortured, murdered and badly mutilated a 19 year old soldier in 1984. The niece of the slain soldier has lead the fight to close down this obscene production. She already has gained 13,000 signatures on a petition to close the production and the support of Issac Herzog and Moshe Kahlon. The 26 year old medical student said:

          “He was killed because of who he was and because he served the state. And now the state is paying for a play about his murderer.” and

          “[The Murderer] is turned into some sort of hero for other security prisoners, and serves as an inspiration to other people to carry out terror attacks and murders,”

          Having read the play the medical student said it “doesn’t at all address that Walid Daka is a murderer. Meaning, at all. From its perspective, he’s a freedom fighter.”

          She continued:

          “This play is based on the life and the letters of Walid Daka. The playwright, who is also the director, interviewed him via his lawyer, meaning he tracked him down and I have a video in which he says he respects him and has photos of him at home, and thinks he’s a hero and the like,”

          The family of the deceased soldier also produced a print-out of an invitation to a “Palestinian Prisoners’ Day” event hosted by Al-Midan Theatre that featured details about the play and its background and noted that it had been inspired by the life of the Arab terrorist.

          The financial support for this theatre which holds Palestinian Prisoner Days and seeks to whitewash the acts of terrorism inflicted by Arab terrorists comes from Israeli taxpayers, including bereaved families paying taxes according to the law, and is going to an anti-Israel event whose subtext is the call to see Terrorists in a different light and not be treated like murderers.

          The father of the murdered soldier put things into perspective when he said:

          “We are not for censorship… but we are against paying them any money from the Israeli taxpayer,”

          The funding for this theatre has been cut. If the Arab actors want to glorify the lives of terrorists let them do it on their own dime.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Again I think it’s not that simple. Addressing your comments before your “Meanwhile,” it is not true that Issa “discriminated against hundreds of thousands of Jews.” He merely refused to perform on occupied lands. Call that a boycott if you like but your invoking of Muslims and Christians does not stand up to scrutiny. Some vague “Christians” without nationality are not belligerently occupying some vague “Muslims” without nationality somewhere (or vice versa) in 2015 and if they were, or if one nation was occupying another and one happened to be predominantly Christian and the other predominantly Muslim, then I would well understand why an actor would “boycott” such, that is assert s right not to be forced to perform in that situation on those occupied lands. Out of conscience.

            Reply to Comment
          • BigCat

            Brian alias “Ben”/”MuslimJe”/”Giora Me’ir”/etc.,

            When you are not copying and pasting, you hardly make sense. Perhaps the only thing that is remotely clear from you mumbo jumbo is this:

            “it is not true that Issa “discriminated against hundreds of thousands of Jews.” He merely refused to perform on occupied lands. Call that a boycott if you like…”

            That, right there is discrimination, moron! Boycott is a punitive measure carried out by means of discrimination. And, again, Issa can follow his conscience to discriminate against those hundreds of thousands of Jews. BUT, don’t ask us to use OUR money to finance those who boycott us. It is immoral for us to finance our boycotters and OUR conscience does not allow us to do that. Everyone gets to follow his/her conscience, not just a delusional few who consider their conscience bigger than that of others. What exactly is too difficult about that to understand?


            Why are you so riled-up and emotional about just EVERY TOPIC involving Jews and Israel? Why are you so fixated on- and obsessed with Jews and Israel and so consumed by Jewish Affairs that are in no way, shape or form any of your business, while not knowing or even caring about what goes on in your own country or elsewhere or even having a job to support yourself? Something is seriously wrong with you, Brian. Honestly, seek professional help. I think your obsession is clinical.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Jello

      You are free to say whatever you want, but the elected officials get to determine how to distribute the taxes collected and if you choose to use your art as an act of political activism that the majority finds objectionable or treasonous there is no reason that the same majority should pay for your performance.

      If you want to continue your political activism disguised as art you are welcome to do so by finding an audience that is interested in paying for it, or alternatively you can make money by getting a job and then pursuing your political activism/art in your free time. I certainly do not want my money going towards objectionable, divisive, and incendiary political activism whose goal is to drive an ever deeper wedge between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Norman Issa’s life is more about bridges than wedges. And let me suggest to you that shouting “I paid” is shortsighted (in terms of your own interests) and misses something crucial about a complex situation that’s not going to get simpler just by insisting its simple.

        Tal Niv (Haaretz):

        “…There is no reason to laugh at Regev personally – clearly not. But there is a reason to weep personally. Every citizen can weep now. Because anyone who shouts “I paid” is not in the least ready to formulate a complex stance. Sometimes one pays precisely to receive something one cannot control. Sometimes one pays to be surprised.

        The most interesting case of relations between the regime that pays and what it receives in exchange is found in the story by Hans Fallada, whose book “Alone in Berlin,” has, ironically, become a bestseller in Israel in recent years. The government paid him, but in exchange it received an oppositional masterpiece.

        After the dust settles from the arguments with Regev, she and Israeli culture may find out that these were days of flourishing and blossoming of a genre that has so far not been popular – antiphrasis. What, after all, is Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The master and Margarita” if not the fruit of a literary genre that was created in the context of an “I paid” regime? And literature will not be the only thing to flourish to comfort us. The harder it is to criticize the right-wing pseudo-democracy, the greater the need will be for cryptic parodies, encoded satires and perhaps allegories as well. The possibilities in the area of abstract art, dance, music and performance art are huge. Regev promised Knoller to publish directives soon. So that we’ll know.”

        Reply to Comment
        • Jello

          It really isn’t very complicated. There is no basic right for artists to receive money from the government and this has nothing to do with freedom of speech. Governments subsidize culture to stimulate and promote specific values and principles. When you vote in a government there is an underlying assumption that you expect it to promote the values that you believe in. I do not want the government I voted for to pay for plays based on the life of a man that tortured and murdered an Israeli. I fail to see how sponsoring a play that gives reverential or even respectful treatment to a terrorist that murdered someone like me promotes any values that I would like to see advanced. I do not believe in banning such works. I just do not want my government to spend my money on promoting such works. I am certain that for the most part the people that are going apeshit about this would agree that there are some things that the government should not sponsor. So, it isn’t an argument over the principle of government funding for all art, but about the values that are being promoted with government money and about the role of the government in choosing them. The other side lost the values argument on March 17th and it can use all available democratic means to continue to push their values but the decision will be made by someone who disagrees with them. The argument over whether the elected government should have a role in choosing what cultural works to sponsor comes down to the question of whether the people’s elected representatives or an undemocratic unelected body should decide how to spend the people’s money. I realize that in some quarters it is considered enlightened to relate to the voting public as a herd of animals (when they vote incorrectly) in an attempt to discredit the elected government, and nonetheless in my mind the elected representatives have priority in determining budgetary allocations.

          Nor is there an argument over the principle of free speech. Both sides accept that principle.

          Tal Niv wants to equate what Miri Regev is doing to the Stalinists and the Nazis. As the comparison, a priori, is fundamentally absurd and baseless I see no point in addressing anything he derives from it. Anyone can publish whatever they want (other than calls to violence or racism) in Israel with no legal consequences. There is no censorship. No one has control in any case what gets published any more thanks to the internet. The comparison is so absurd that it demonstrates the delusional bubble Tal Niv lives in far more than anything about the current situation.

          Reply to Comment
        • BigCat

          You lost, Brian alias “Ben” alias “MuslimJew” alias “Giora Me’ir” alias etc:

          Check this out:

          http://www.timesofisrael.com/culture-minister-makes-nice-with-arab-israeli-actor/ “Culture Minister Miri Regev met Friday with actor Norman Issa, whose Jaffa theater she had threatened to defund over Issa’s statement that he would not perform in a West Bank settlement. Issa has since agreed to perform in the West Bank, prompting Regev to announce that she would not cut his Elmina Theater’s state funding.”

          That’s how to “build bridges”. Some people just learn how to do it the hard way.

          Got it?!

          Now, go find job and quit you manic fixation- on and obsession with Jewish Affairs that are no way no how any of your business, you psychotic moron.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Yes Regev certainly learned the hard way! Good for Norman Issa and good for Israel in the long run! Norman Issa is a winner!

            Now for the FACTS, by the intelligent Michael Handelzalts, and supporting Tal Niv’s viewpoint (now this is c o m p l e x, Gingerssmallmindedcat (kudus to Weinstein) so you might want to read it v e r y c a r e f u l l y:


            Theater funding and the boomerang effect
            Culture Minister Miri Regev’s all-out war on the country’s public theaters may have unintended consequenc

            Reply to Comment
          • BigCat

            What a moron, this Brian alias “Ben” alias “MuslimJew” alias “Giora Me’ir”, alias etc. really is.

            Like Regev and Shaked, Ginger must be your ultimate nightmare. Too bad you are too stupid to have a crush on someone who told you that “you are a pig”. Your whole world revolves around Ginger these days, huh? Oh boy! Lol… keep whacking it, you psychotic obsessive moron.

            we know that “Weinstein” is another one of you confused multiple identities on this site. But we get to that at a different time.

            Reply to Comment