Top actors want Israel boycott at London Shakespeare festival

Top actors want Israel boycott at London Shakespeare festival
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In a letter published in the Guardian, Emma Thompson, Mike Leigh, Jonathan Miller, Alexei Sayle, Richard Wilson, Miriam Margolyes and 31 others urged Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to uninvite Tel Aviv’s Habima, “so the festival is not complicit with human rights violations and illegal colonisation”.

Habima is due to perform a Hebrew rendition of The Merchant of Venice, as one of the Bard’s 37 plays, to be performed in 37 different languages. Among other theatre companies invited are those from China, Russia, Tunisia, the Palestinian Authority, Turkey and Oman. The letter noted that the general manager of Habima had declared the “invitation ‘an honorable accomplishment for the state of Israel’. But Habima has a shameful record of involvement with illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian Territory.”

The letter further read that “last year, two large Israeli settlements established Halls of Culture and asked Israeli theatre groups to perform there. A number of Israeli theatre professionals, actors, stage directors, playwrights, declared they would not take part. By inviting Habima, Shakespeare’s Globe is undermining the conscientious Israeli actors and playwrights who have refused to break international law.”

The Globe Theatre said it would hold a discussion on theatre and politics after Habima had performed at the festival, on 28 and 29 May. It added that the Tel Aviv-based theatre was “the most respected Hebrew-language theatre company in the world”. It was, therefore, “a natural choice to any programmer wishing to host a dramatic production in Hebrew. They are committed, publicly, to providing an arena for sensible dialogue between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.”

Habima’s Ilan Ronen said: “The letter is filled with half truths. Habima Theatre doesn’t hold any political policies, and any attempt to present it in such a light just harms the artists. Habima is a democratic and pluralistic theatre. Some of the plays performed at our theatre criticise the Israeli government’s policies in the settlements. Portraying Habima as a mouthpiece of this or that policy does a disservice to anyone who’s a part of our endeavour.”

The Israeli embassy in London said: “This is a clear attempt to mix culture and politics. We will continue to act in order that this phenomenon is not repeated and that Israeli artists due to appear in Britain do so without fear.”

The Zionist Federation’s Alan Aziz said: “What a sad indictment on these signatories that they are calling for a cultural event to be cancelled for misguided reasons. Where are their similar calls against some of the other participants of the festival who are guilty of genuine human rights abuses? Why is Israel the only country being singled out?”

A blogger, writing on the It’s Complicated website, noted the irony that the “person who initiated and worked tirelessly to give the Globe Theatre its second life was Sam Wanamaker, the Jewish-American actor who was forced to leave the US to find work in London as a result of being blacklisted during the McCarthy reign of terror. Sadly, he died a few years before seeing the new theatre fully built, but I imagine he would be disgusted with this new witch hunt.”

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