World Shakespeare Festival 2012
c/o Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
21 New Globe Walk
Israel's Habima Theatre is due to present, in your forthcoming festival, "The Merchant of Venice". As noted on your website, this play includes the role of "Shylock, the most famous and controversial Jewish character in the theatre canon" – which naturally, presents particularly acute problems and dilemmas to an Israeli theatre.
As told to the Israeli media, the Habima Theatre did not sidestep the problems inherent to this particular element of the Shakespeare canon, but faced them and dealt with them in a socially engaged and committed manner. According to the designated director Ilan Ronen, Habima's presentation of "The Merchant of Venice" will emphasize the issue of xenophobia – persecution of the Jew in particular but also of hatred of ethnic and religious minorities in general. As such, it would have of direct relevance to audiences in contemporary Britain, as in all times and places.
It must be said, however, that Habima's praiseworthy outspoken position on this issue seems at variance with its stance on another issue which is highly controversial here in Israel – the creation and the expansion of settlements in occupied Palestinian territory – a policy which has recently impacted the sphere of Israeli Theatre in a very direct manner.
In the past year, two large settlements – Ariel in the northern part of the West Bank and Kiryat Arba in its south – set up "Halls of Culture" and asked theatres to come and present their plays there. Last year, a large group of Israeli theatre professionals – actors, stage directors, playwrights – declared they would not take part in such performances; among them were such well-known people as Joshua Sobol, Edna Mazia, Shmuel Hasfari and Anat Gov. For several weeks, this was a major issue on the Israeli public agenda, and the aforementioned Israeli theatre professionals have received much support from colleagues abroad, such as Stephen Sondheim, Mary Rodgers, Tony Kushner, Mandy Patinkin, Theodore Bikel, Mira Nair, Julianne Moore, Vanessa Redgrave, Hal Prince, Roseanne Barr and other Broadway and Hollywood stars.
( http://jewishvoiceforpeace.org/blog/breaking-stephen-sondheim-julianne-m... )
The dissident Israeli theatre professionals have argued that the West bank settlements had been created in violation of International Law and with the specific aim of blocking any possibility of achieving peace with the Palestinians; that the expropriation of land in an occupied territory and the creation and maintenance of armed settlement enclaves are the very opposite of what is commonly termed "Culture"; and that therefore, a settlement maintaining a "Hall of Culture" was a blatant contradiction in terms.
It is especially noteworthy that Ariel and Kiryat Arba, like most settlements, are surrounded by walls and fences, closely guarded by soldiers and their own armed security personnel. A theatrical performance in a settlement is by definition a performance to an exclusively Israeli audience, with Palestinians living even in the nearest village being physically excluded from any chance of attending.
Despite all of the above, however, on this issue the management of Habima has taken a position which is remote from any kind of social engagement. Claiming to be "non-political", the management has reiterated its decision to perform in West Bank settlements, "like everywhere else". Moreover, the management specifically promised Limor Livnat, Minister of Culture in the Netanyahu Government, to "deal with any problems hindering such performances", i.e. to pressure recalcitrant actors into taking part in them, even against the dictates of their conscience. And it must be pointed out that for several months, Habima has indeed sent out its actors to hold theatrical performances in West Bank settlements, on a regular basis.
As Israeli citizens who are deeply concerned about the future of all people living in the region we deplore this attitude. We cannot help seeing the positions taken by Habima Theatre on the two issues – presentation of "The Merchant of Venice" in London and regular performances in West Bank settlements - as inherently incompatible. By inviting Habima to perform in London, you are siding with its administrators in the debate on settlement performances, and you are taking a step against the conscientious Israeli actors and playwrights who have refused to perform in the settlements.
We would be grateful to you for taking this issue up with your colleagues of Habima, ahead of its scheduled performance in London on May 28-29, 2012.
Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within (Boycott from Within)