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Israel's national theater must resist normalizing occupation

By agreeing to perform in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, Habima is forgoing its values of Cultural Zionism while adopting the dangerous mindset of Miri Regev and Benjamin Netanyahu.

By Misha Shulman

Left-wing activists take part in a protest against the war on Gaza, in central Tel Aviv, July 19, 2014. Right-wing activists tried to attack the leftists during the protest; police arrested at least five right-wing protesters. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Left-wing activists take part in a protest against the war on Gaza, at Habima Square, central Tel Aviv, July 19, 2014. Right-wing activists tried to attack the leftists during the protest; police arrested at least five right-wing protesters. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Earlier this year Israeli Minister of Culture Miri Regev announced a new policy for the funding of the arts: artistic organizations that agree to serve the settler population in the occupied West Bank will see a budget increase of 10 percent. Conversely, those who refuse to perform in the West Bank will see a 33 percent decrease.

This policy ignores the fact that under international law, settlements in the West Bank are not part of the State of Israel, which should preclude them from having to perform there, thus further normalizing Jewish life in the territories. Indeed, this week Israel’s national theatre, Habima, announced it will perform for the first time in an ideological settlement in the occupied territories, bringing famed author S.Y. Agnon’s A Simple Story to both Kiryat Arba — adjacent to Hebron — as well as Ariel, the largest settlement in the West Bank.

Habima is more than just a theatre. Since 1917, it has been a bastion of the Hebrew cultural revival — the beating heart of the Zionist Movement. The theatre played a major role in the unimaginable rise of the Hebrew language from its two thousand-year-old nap. By presenting plays by great Hebrew writers of every generation beginning in the 1920, Habima has allowed Jews everywhere to believe in the possibility of a thriving, Hebrew-speaking culture, which draws from history and tradition to create a new, vibrant way of life for our people.

President Shimon Peres attending the gala opening of the revamped Habima Theater, January 22, 2012. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

President Shimon Peres attending the gala opening of the revamped Habima Theater, January 22, 2012. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The theatre’s name provides a prime example of the way the nation moved forward, remaking itself out of the beloved traditions of Judaism. Habima, the Hebrew words for “the stage,” refers to the physical platform upon which the hazzan (Hebrew for cantor) stands as she/he leads religious services in a synagogue. For several generations, Israelis have seen its national theatre as its spiritual leader, singing the song of God and Nation, challenging us to repent and improve — to celebrate our struggles, successes, and differences. However one interprets Zionism in today’s landscape, for many of us, Habima has always represented the best side of a complex political movement. Until this week, Habima lived and breathed the vision of the founding figures of Spiritual or Cultural Zionism, such as Ahad Ha’am, Haim Nahman Bialik, and S.Y. Agnon.

That is why the theatre’s choice to perform A Simple Story, adapted from Agnon’s famous novel, throws salt on the wounds of Spiritual Zionism. Agnon’s massive body of work amounts to a love letter to humanity. On the fiftieth anniversary of Agnon’s Nobel Prize in Literature this past May, Rabbi Daniel Bouskila wrote:

Fifty years after his greatest moment, there is no better way for Israeli society to pay tribute to Agnon than to follow his lead: To engage in a truthful exploration of the core problematic issues within Israeli society that Agnon wrote about.

Habima performing in Kiryat Arba represents the polar opposite of that notion. Not only does normalization of life in a settlement next door to Hebron blindfold us to the untenable and cruel reality of the occupation, it amounts to an endorsement of the radical, divisive, and racist forces in Zionism. Kiryat Arba is built primarily on private Arab land, and its main park is named after a rabbi so racist his party was banned from the Knesset. Its main monument is the resting place of Baruch Goldstein, the Brooklyn-born doctor who celebrated Purim two decades ago by entering the Ibrahimi Mosque and murdering dozens of Muslim worshippers. This all took place in Hebron, where the central market place has been turned a ghost town for over a decade, since Palestinians are no longer allowed on its main street.

Shuttered shops on Hebron's Shuhada Street. (Photo by Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

Shuttered shops on Hebron’s Shuhada Street. (Photo by Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

Zionism, like any popular movement, has always included forces of all stripes and colors. It is as false to say that Zionists have always been driven by racism, as it is to say that they have never been driven by it. While Ben Gurion and the early leaders of the state were no lambs, they saw the secular, humanistic Hebrew culture as the blood that keeps the country breathing, and they were careful to preserve its independence.

The occupation and the settler movement, however, grew out of a politically-driven, nationalist side of the Zionist movement, on display today by the Netanyahu government. The sad truth, which we saw manifested this week in Habima’s capitulation, is that Netanyahu, Regev, and the Right are succeeding in destroying the last vestiges of Cultural Zionism, all while enlisting them for their political battles. In so doing, they are chipping away at the foundations of the entire movement, using Habima as their hammer.

Misha Shulman is a Brooklyn based playwright, rabbinical student and the founding director of the School for Creative Judaism.

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    COMMENTS

    1. i_like_ike52

      Kiryat Arba’s residents are taxpaying Israeli citizens, whose money goes to Habima and other things. The Israeli gov’t administers Kiryat Arba just like it administers Tel Aviv. The Palestinians also consider Tel Aviv to be occupied territory and illegitimate, no less than Kiryat Arba. Yes, there are some extremists in Kiryat Arba, just as their are extremists in Tel Aviv and in Nazareth and Um el-Fahem but the gov’t does not discriminate against them simply because they don’t like the views of some of the residents. Thus, there is NO justification for Habima to refuse to appear in Kiryat Arab.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Gee Ike, you make it sound like one big happy democracy from river to sea. So when’s the annexation and extension of the franchise to all coming? As you say, “Yes, there are some extremists in Kiryat Arba, just as their are extremists in Tel Aviv and in Nazareth and Um el-Fahem but the gov’t does not discriminate against them simply because they don’t like the views of some of the residents.” I look forward with a gladdened heart to the one state of all its citizens you implicitly sign on to. I knew you’d come around. You know an unsustainable thing when you see it. It is after all the 21st Century not the 19th. Ike, our fellow progressive.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Giora Me'ir

      Just shows how moral bankruptcy continues to spread throughout Israeli society. And why BDS is necessary. Illegal settlements should not be considered acceptable.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Bus189

      Bravo to Habima for being willing to leave their Tel Aviv bubble and to visit and perform for the brave people that live in Judea and Samaria! I hope that many more theater companies will stop their policy of discriminating against Jews on the basis of where they live. It is Israeli government policy that these settlements were created and that Israeli citizens live in them and it would be wrong for a state-subsidized body to discriminate against them. Miri Regev gets things done.

      Reply to Comment