Model for a democratic, secular Israel

The Arabic-Hebrew Theatre in Jaffa is one of a kind – and a thorn in the side of the Israeli government. Alexandra Foerderl-Schmid visits a venue under constant threat of closure

By Alexandra Föderl-Schmid

The actors don't use words, but the complex plot can nevertheless be followed without any problems: one hundred years of Arab-Jewish history, the nucleus of the Middle East conflict, condensed into 90 minutes.

Because of the throng of people and the heat, the performance was relocated to the forecourt of the Arabic-Hebrew Theatre in Jaffa. The call of a muezzin and the music from a Jewish wedding can be heard in the distance.

The play "Today is for Dancing" begins in 1919. Jews and Arabs meet for the first time in a dance hall, then key years follow in quick succession and: the destruction of tender bonds of love by politics, the expulsion of the Arabs, who eventually have to wait on tables in the very places where they used to live, the settlement of European Jews, who are also eventually displaced – by real estate agents.

"The only theatre where thereʹs genuine co-operation between Jews and Arabs"

For 20 years now, the Arab-Hebrew Theatre in Jaffa has defied all conflicts and wars. It is an extraordinary institution in a country where equal co-existence is not a matter of course. "It's the only theatre where there's genuine co-operation between Jews and Arabs," says director Igal Ezrati with evident pride.

The Jaffa Theatre in Tel Aviv (photo: Imago/Sepp(Spiegel)
Bedrohter Ort des Dialogs: Gut die Hälfte des Budgets des Jaffa Theaters stammt aus dem Kulturbudget des Finanzministeriums. "Ohne staatliche Subventionen kann kein Theater überleben", sagt Yigal Ezrati, Direktor und Mitbegründer des einzigen arabisch-hebräischen Theaters in Israel.

Jaffa is the ideal place for it. The Arab-dominated port town has existed since antiquity, while the city of Tel Aviv founded by Jews in 1909 was originally a suburb. From the forecourt of the former palace of the Ottoman governor the view extends as far as the skyline of Tel Aviv with its construction cranes. In recent years Jaffa has also undergone considerable gentrification.

This play without words by Igal Ezrati and Gabi Eldor premiered 28 years ago and has since been re-worked to incorporate subsequent developments.

For Ezrati, these are first and foremost the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and the conflicts within Israeli society. "There's a gulf between religious and non-religious Jews, between those who come from Europe or other Arab states," he says.

The 63-year-old is the engine that drives the theatre, which is intentionally described as Arabic-Hebrew. The theatre is "not the place for discussing religious questions." But that is wishful thinking. Of all theatres, this one cannot keep religion and politics at arm's length.

"We feed off the rage; it's the motor for creativity"

Some two-thirds of the fifty or so actors working here are Jewish, one third are Arab. The audience ratio is less balanced, Ezrati concedes: "It's more difficult to attract Arabs to our theatre, they prefer to go to a purely Arab theatre."

"This despite the fact that all Arabs speak Hebrew, but most Jews don't know any Arabic," he says. The language of a production is a perennial issue. Shakespeare's best-known drama was recently transposed to the Middle East, with Juliet speaking Hebrew and Romeo Arabic.

There are currently 10 plays on the programme; with more than 200 performances every year. "In the beginning it was mostly about the Israeli-Arab conflict. Now we're focussing much more on societal questions, as well as conflicts within the Jewish faith community," says Ezrati.

The theatre has repeatedly come under fire from the political establishment. The situation has worsened since the passing of the Nation State Bill last summer, says Ezrati. Arabic is no longer an official language and Israel is defined as a Jewish state, although 20 percent of the population are Arab-Israelis.

Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo)
Mittel zur Kulturförderung an "Loyalität" gegenüber dem Staat zu knüpfen, das wollte Kulturministerin Miri Regev mit ihrem "Treuegesetz"-Vorhaben erreichen. Politiker, wie Oppositionsführerin Tzipi Livni, äußerten sich schon vor der ersten Lesung des Gesetzes kritisch: "Es gibt keine Kultur, wenn sie von der Regierung kontrolliert wird. Statt Kultur werden wir Propaganda bekommen."

When the theatre invited the Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour two years ago, the culture minister Miri Regev of the right-wing nationalist Likud party threatened to cancel all its subsidies. Tatour, who is an Israeli citizen, had been sentenced to five years in prison the previous year for a poem entitled "Resist, my people, resist them!" The court found her guilty of incitement to violence, as well as the glorification and support of terrorism.

Vulnerable to subsidy cuts

Since 2011, what's known as the Nakba Law prohibits events in Israel commemorating the expulsion of the Palestinians. The law also empowers the finance ministry to cut public subsidies to institutions not recognising Israel as a Jewish state.

Since the introduction of this legislation, cultural establishments serving Jews and Arabs in equal measure perceive themselves to be especially vulnerable to subsidy cuts. The Arabic-language Al Midan Theatre in Haifa had to close two years ago for this very reason.

The Arabic-Hebrew Theatre in Jaffa has so far been able to stave off funding cuts. The money it receives from the public purse amounts to around 250,000 euros annually, about a third of the budget, the director explains. "Without regional and national funds we wouldn't be able to survive," he says.

"We will continue"

This is why many cultural actors are now looking ahead with trepidation to parliamentary elections on 17 September. The snap elections prevented Miri Regev from pushing her cultural "Loyalty Law" through to a final vote in the Knesset.

The minister's bill envisages further funding only to projects and institutions that conduct themselves in a "loyal" fashion towards the state. "If we get the same government, then we have a problem. The Loyalty Law in culture is frightening," says Ezrati.

How does he see the future in such a broken nation? "Theatre folk like being in the opposition. We're here and we will continue doing what we're doing. Hatred of culture, the media and dissidents gives me energy. We feed off the rage, it's the motor for creativity," he says.

Ezrati sees his theatre as the "model for a democratic, secular state": Culture, he is certain, is "the bridge enabling us to live together". In his theatre in Jaffa, one gets a real sense how it could work, this co-existence.

Alexandra Foederl-Schmid

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon