Dear Sir or Madam,
I am an MA student in Jewish Studies. A few weeks ago students taking Hebrew were encouraged to book tickets for Habima Theatre’s Hebrew-language performance of The Merchant of Venice as part of the ‘Globe to Globe’ Shakespeare festival.
During my undergraduate years (as a student of English literature) I practically lived at the Globe, developing incredible calf muscles as I stood through half of Shakespeare’s repertoire. The opportunity to see one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays presented in Hebrew by a theatre company intimately acquainted with Jewish history and heritage could have been a strong incentive to make a return trip (and maybe even invest in a seat this time).
I spend most of my year in Bethlehem, occupied Palestine. I work at a cultural and creative arts centre that serves women and young people whose lives have been severely affected by decades of military occupation. The centre is located between a checkpoint and a military base, in the shadow of the eight-metre high concrete wall that has annexed so much local land (a friend’s confiscated olive groves lie on the other side) and had a crushing effect on the local economy. We have used that wall as a backdrop for our own theatrical productions. Drama and music are powerful ways for traumatised women and children to find voice; they are therapeutic. Whenever anybody tells me that theatre ‘shouldn’t be politicised’, I think of the centre’s children acting out scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in front of a wall that does not just separate Pyramus from Thisbe, but one family from another; and of the Christmas concert we gave two years ago…
Habima Theatre Company made its stance on the occupation very clear when it opted to perform in theatres built in settlements. By now you will have received many letters like this one, making you aware of Habima’s decision to go to Ariel and Kiryat Arbeh. Perhaps some of the letters have described how the military occupation and the settlements affect Palestinian daily life – such as by taking 90% of the water from the occupied West Bank aquifers and denying access to local springs, leaving Palestinians in some rural communities to cope on as little as ten litres per day. Then there is the network of segregated roads that connect the settlements with one another. Coupled with roadblocks and checkpoints, the road segregation makes it extremely difficult for Palestinians to move about. They are being pushed into ever-smaller enclaves as land is confiscated, crops are uprooted, and homes are demolished.
Habima has declared that it is ‘not political’, but it’s decision to perform on a stage like this (on confiscated land, in settlements that are for Jews only) can’t be anything but political.
In 2005 Palestinian civil society – represented by a slew of different organisations, including theatre companies – issued a call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions in order to end the occupation, inspired by the role of BDS in bringing down apartheid in South Africa. The BDS call has been taken up with enthusiasm by prominent South African campaigners, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In choosing to invite Habima to perform, the Globe has chosen to take part in a cultural whitewashing of the apartheid policies (known as hafrada in Hebrew) that have such a devastating effect on the lives of my neighbours and friends. The quotation from Merchant that you have placed in Habima’s entry in the online ‘Globe to Globe’ programme seems particularly ironic in the light of their suffering: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
That is why I will not be attending the performance, despite general enjoyment for Shakespeare and the Hebrew language. There are other things I value more. I am sorry that the priorities of the Globe’s management appear to be so very different.
Yours faithfully, etc., etc.