When Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London invited the prominent Israeli theater company Habima to perform at their nonpartisan "Globe to Globe" festival in advance of the 2012 Olympic Games, they likely weren't expecting such an intense backlash.
Tapped to present "The Merchant of Venice" at the bilingual festival, which also features 37 other productions of Shakespeare performed by companies around the world -- part of the UK's "Cultural Olympiad" -- Habima has recently come under scrutiny for some of its past performances in disputed West Bank settlements.
On March 29, a group of prominent writers, actors, and directors, including Emma Thompson, Mike Leigh, Mark Rylance, and other prominent members of the UK's artistic community, called attention to Habima's inclusion in the festival. They authored a letter, published in the Guardian and elsewhere, calling on the Globe to withdraw their invitation to the Israeli company.
The artists' objection to Habima, the letter states, stems from the Israeli company's past performances at "halls of culture" in "illegal Israeli settlements" along the disputed West Bank.
"The Globe says it wants to 'include' the Hebrew language in its festival – we have no problem with that," the letter stated. "But by inviting Habima, the Globe is associating itself with policies of exclusion practised by the Israeli state and endorsed by its national theatre company."
Many artists responded negatively to the letter, including the the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Howard Jacobson, who authored a much cited piece in the Sunday Observer (not published online), lamenting the content of the letter as an affront to art in general.
"With last week's letter to the Guardian, McCarthyism came to Britain," he wrote. "You can hear the minds of people in whom we vest our sense of creative freedom snapping shut."
The Habima company has a long and storied history, dating back to its founding in Moscow in the early 1900s. Early incarnations of the company performed extensively in the Soviet Union and toured Western countries before becoming the national theater of Israel in 1958. Its main theater center is now located in Tel Aviv.
Habima's website states that the company's mission is to give "the Israeli public, from anywhere at any age, the opportunity to participate in theater - Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, young and old, from the central region to the periphery."
The company's artistic director Ilan Ronen was not available for comment, but he recently told the Guardian that he thought the letter was a "disgrace," and that a proposed boycott hinders "artistic dialogue" between European companies.
"We don't see ourselves as collaborators with the Israeli government over its West Bank policy," Ronen said. "We don't remember artists boycotting other artists."
Ronen noted that Habima is financially supported to perform all over the country, similar to other state-supported dance and theater companies. If the company didn't perform where it was asked to perform, Ronen said, it would be breaking the law. "We have to go, otherwise there is no financial support."
Out of 1,500 performances the company participates in every year, Ronen told the Guardian, only "four or five" were given in the disputed West Bank settlement. He added that company members who preferred not to perform in those productions were excused.
James Ivens, a theater artist and artistic director of the Flood Theatre in England, was one of the 37 signatories to the letter against Habima. Ivens said that Habima did not need to perform in the "occupied Palestinian territory" if the company chose not to do so. Other Israeli artists have refused paychecks and opportunities rather than perform in disputed settlements, he said, and it is "cant" for the company's artistic director to say that Habima "had no choice in the matter."
"That's absolutely spineless," he said. "The company accepting money from the government, if anything, is more damning. People find ways of funding theater otherwise. No amount of money is acceptable recompense."
Ivens said that he and others will continue fighting to boycott Habima, no matter how heated the dialogue becomes. "We're not about to let it drop," he said.
"The Globe's position is that if you boycott one company, then where would the boycotts stop? Would you boycott American companies because they launched a war in Iraq?" he noted. "But this [Habima] situation is different, being part of a company from a country whose government is complicit in these atrocities and becoming an instrument specifically of Israeli foreign policy."
The South Korean company Yohangza is also a part of the festival. One wonders what the international response would be to a North Korean theater company participating in the festival, if such a touring company existed. Despite disagreements with its home country's politics, would we be curious to see what kind of art they'd put out into the world?
Ivens suggested a comparison like that is false. "There is much more freedom in Israel than there is in North Korea," he said. "If North Koreans didn't participate they might be put in a prison camp. In Israel it's a different situation."
Ironically, "The Merchant of Venice," which Habima is set to perform at the festival, is considered by some to be anti-semitic. Writing in the Telegraph in 2008, Daniel Hannan suggested that the character of Shylock is "the most dangerous archetype of the malevolent Jew ever created."
"I feel awkward every time I watch the play, as many gentiles do," he wrote then. "I can only imagine how much more uneasy I would feel if I were Jewish."
Other notable performances at the festival include a production of "King Lear" from the Belarus Free Theatre -- an acclaimed underground company banned in its home country -- and a production of "A Comedy of Errors" from a troupe out of Kabul, Afghanistan. Another young company out of South Sudan wrote a 20-page pitch letter outlining how much Shakespeare meant to those involved in the Sudanese civil war. That company will present its version of "Cymbeline."
On May 4 and 5, the Palestinian Ashtar Theatre troupe will perform its "Richard II" in Arabic.
See the full schedule for the "Globe to Globe" festival here.
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