Opening of $11 million theatre in settlement sparks Israeli artist boycott

Karin Laub
Monday, November 8, 2010

An artists' boycott of a $11 million performing arts centre opening Monday in the Jewish settlement of Ariel is giving a new twist to a pressing question — where should Israel's permanent borders run?

Leading Israeli playwrights, actors and artists say they will not cross the "Green Line" — Israel's frontier before it captured the West Bank in 1967 — to perform in the new theatre in Ariel, an Israeli enclave of 19,000 people. The artists wrote in a letter explaining the boycott that Ariel was built in the heart of a war-won land to prevent creation of a Palestinian state. Ariel's defenders say most Israelis want the settlement to be annexed to Israel in any future peace deal.

In an angry backlash led by hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, they have threatened to strip the protesters of their government subsidies. The argument flared as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in the U.S. Sunday, where Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were expected to press him to renew a moratorium on settlement housing starts.

Netanyahu has refused to reimpose the construction curbs that ended in September, but the Palestinians say they won't resume peace talks without such a step. Israelis have been arguing about what to do with the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem ever since Israeli troops occupied them in the 1967 Mideast War. Devout Jews claim the territories as part of the God-given Land of Israel, while the Palestinians see them as a site of their future state. Over the years, the demographics of the occupied areas and the parameters of debate have changed significantly.

Nearly half a million Israelis have settled there among 2.5 million Palestinians, making partition increasingly difficult. But Israel's mainstream is also ready to embrace the idea of Palestinian statehood — a position once considered radical — and to relinquish large parts of the occupied lands. At the same time, the "Green Line," the old cease-fire line from 1949 that marks the West Bank's boundary, has become blurred by Israeli settlements and roads linking Israel and the West Bank, though Israel never annexed that territory the way it did east Jerusalem.

A four-lane highway connects Ariel to Israel's coastal metropolis of Tel Aviv, giving settlement residents a sense that they are part of Israel — even though they live in the centre of the West Bank. Successive Israeli governments have said they want to annex Ariel as one of the large "settlement blocs," while Palestinian and Israeli peace activists argue that Ariel would drive an impossible wedge into a Palestinian state. Perhaps that's why Israeli debate gets particularly heated when it comes to the future of Ariel.

Earlier this year, leading academics protested attempts to upgrade Ariel's college to a full-fledged university. In August, more than 60 Israeli actors and playwrights signed a letter saying they would not perform in Ariel's cultural centre. The letter drew support from dozens more Israeli academics and authors, including writers Amos Oz and David Grossman, as well as foreign artists, among them Oscar-winning actress Vanessa Redgrave, Cynthia Nixon of "Sex and the City" and playwright Tony Kushner.

Last week, those calling for a boycott wrote another letter urging artists scheduled to perform in Ariel to reconsider. Ariel "was founded for only one purpose: to prevent Palestinians from being able to build an independent state, and by extension, preventing us, citizens of Israel, from having the chance to live in peace in this region," the letter read, according to media reports. Yehoshua Sobol, a well-known Israeli playwright, said Sunday that the artists' protests have revived debate and "made it clear that there is no consensus about West Bank settlements."

The boycott calls have triggered angry reactions from nationalist politicians. The Yisrael Beitenu party of Lieberman, the foreign minister, said it would seek to cut public funding of the artists involved wherever possible. "Those theatres that enjoy public funding cannot impose a boycott on the city of Ariel on the basis of certain political views," Lieberman said Sunday. Still, the 530-seat Ariel theatre, built with the help of American ex-junk bond king Michael Milken's foundation, was opening as planned on Monday with a performance by the Beersheba Theater of "Piaf," a play about the life of the French chanteuse Edith Piaf, said Ariel Turjeman, director of the Ariel centre.

He said other theatre companies are also scheduled to perform in coming months, including the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv. About an hour before showtime, a few dozen spectators anxiously milled in front of the glass and metal "Milken Family Cultural Center." Large signs, with bold red letters saying "Sold Out" were posted outside. There were no protesters. Cameri's director, Noam Semel, said his troupe would perform three shows a year in Ariel.

He said fewer than five of his 120 actors have told him they wouldn't participate, adding that he would not force them to do so. However, playwright Shmuel Hasfari said he is considering suing Cameri to prevent it from performing his play "Havdalah" in Ariel, arguing that his contract stipulates that the play cannot be performed outside Israel without his permission. Semel said he was ready to let a court decide. "He says Ariel is not in Israel," he said. "We say it is in Israel."