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.
You can drive easily from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem onto the four-lane settlement road and arrive in this Jews-only bedroom community of pretty, red-roofed houses and suburban shopping centers—and the John Hagee Sports Center, named after the Texas televangelist who has donated millions of dollars to the settlement—and not notice that you’ve actually left Israel. The theater artists who will not play in Ariel are refusing because they want to break through this carefully constructed illusion of seamlessness to shine their spotlights on the true nature of such places.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has tried to discredit the protest by linking it to the call for an international boycott of Israel. But these theater artists are not boycotting their own Israeli institutions or towns; they are insisting on a distinction that Netanyahu seeks to elide. Their refusal to perform in Ariel is predicated on a recognition of the difference between the state of Israel and its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories. The theater refuseniks are Israeli citizens, unwilling to accept their country’s occupation of the West Bank as a permanent condition, as anything other than a misbegotten and immoral policy to which opposition is demanded, not only by standards of human decency but by patriotism.
Last winter Netanyahu stated that Israel intends to annex Ariel. Such an annexation would kill any possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state. Even Ariel Sharon at least made a show of acknowledging the importance of dismantling some settlements for any meaningful peace negotiations to commence. We’ll never know how far Sharon would have gone; skepticism is as legitimate as the hope that in dire circumstances, people change. Whether a hardened ideologue like Netanyahu will change remains to be seen. His government’s furious reaction to the theater artists’ protest is an indication not only that he’s unlikely to bring to the peace talks a new tractability regarding the settlements, but also that the decades-long democratic openness to protest against the occupation is now imperiled by a bunker mentality from a coalition that owes its power in large measure to the settler movement.
Recent polls indicate that a majority of Israelis don’t agree with an internal boycott of the settlements. But often, principled and courageous actions are initially met by public disapproval; and just as often, principled and courageous action changes public opinion. These Israeli artists are acting out of love and concern for their fellow citizens and the Palestinian people. More than 150 American theater artists and scholars have signed a statement in support of their action, because we agree with them that the settlements are among the greatest obstacles to achieving a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.
Our Israeli colleagues are obeying not only their consciences but the mandates of their art. The best that theater can do is to confront truths that are difficult to countenance, to focus attention on specifics and subtleties that are too easily sacrificed to the rhetoric of strategy and propaganda. Like the best theater artists have always done, these refuseniks are attempting to create a space for imagining a different world.