Toward the end of August, a group of theater artists in Israel provoked an uproar when they declared that they would not perform at a new stop added to government-funded theatrical tours around the country. That actors, directors and playwrights have sparked controversy is nothing new in a nation where theater has always participated in the feisty public discourse. But this time, with Washington trying to resuscitate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, their offstage action holds a mirror up to society with especially urgent exactitude.
The artists, members of some of Israel’s leading repertory theater companies, are refusing to cooperate with the government’s plan to have them perform in the new, $10 million, 530-seat cultural center in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. They are refusing because settlements like Ariel sprawl across Palestinian land occupied by Israel and are illegal under international law. The theater artists point out that performing in the settlement constitutes crossing the Green Line that demarcates the sovereign state of Israel and the lands it has occupied since 1967. They object to their government’s attempt to use them as part of its program to erase that boundary, to treat Ariel, and other settlements like it, as if they were simply a part of the state of Israel. These artists—more than sixty of them at this writing—refuse to be deployed in an effort to normalize the existence and continual expansion of the settlements; they refuse what they see as an effort to use culture to weave the occupation of Palestinian land into the national life of Israel.
Some of Israel’s most prominent authors and cultural personalities quickly responded to the protest with statements of support; a letter from 150 professors and scholars vowing not to participate in academic events in the settlements soon followed. So, too, did denunciations from the highest offices of the government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the artists’ declaration an attack on the state from within. The finance minister threatened to cut off funding to any cultural institution that boycotted settlements.
Critics of the protesting artists, among them the culture minister Limor Livnat, argue that settlers have as much right to see the theater productions their taxes pay for as their compatriots in Israel proper. But the artists aren’t unwilling to play for settlers. They’re unwilling to play in a settlement. They’re rejecting the settlers’ credo that the presence of an Israeli on Palestinian land turns the land into Israel.
Ariel, with a population of about 18,000, is one of the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Already extending twelve miles past the Green Line, Ariel continues to grow. In January Israel announced the development of the Ariel University Center, with plans to triple the size of the campus of a local college and to build a neighborhood for housing the new faculty and staff. The settlement is one of the sites of the expansion criticized by President Obama last year, when he pushed Israel to adopt a freeze in new settlement construction as a step toward renewing peace negotiations (as every American president since settlements began in 1967 has had occasion to do).
Ariel cuts deep into the West Bank, blocking off villages from one another, forcing Palestinians to travel extra-long distances around the settlement to reach the area’s commercial center of Salfit. Villages to the north are cut off from Salfit altogether by Ariel’s bypass road. Salfit itself has no room to expand for economic development or population growth because Israel has claimed every bit of land around it, and a few years ago the Israeli army prevented the town from building a water-treatment plant. Meanwhile, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, Ariel’s sewage runs down into the Palestinians’ agricultural valleys—a blatant metaphor for the way settlers’ privileges come at the cost of Palestinian human rights.