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Two Arabic-language theatres face funding cuts from Israeli government

Head of Al-Midan theatre accuses government of attacking 'free expression'
Actors perform in 'A Parallel Time' at the Al-Midan theatre in Haifa (Oren Ziv)

An Arab-language theatre in the city of Haifa in Israel has had its funding stopped and is being threatened with further funding cuts and censure after protests from Israeli activists.

The controversy has revolved around the theatre’s production of ‘A Parallel Time’ which examines the day-to-day lives of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

One of the non-fictional characters focused on in the play is former fighter for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) Walid Daka, who was implicated in the abduction and later killing of Israeli army soldier, Moshe Tamam, in 1984. Daka is currently serving a life sentence.

Relatives of Tamam have protested against the funding that the theatre received from the state, arguing that taxpayer’s money should not be involved in what they see as the “glorification” of Tamam’s alleged killer.

“They chose to kidnap an IDF soldier,” said Ortal Tamam, the soldier’s niece, speaking to Times of Israel. “He was killed because of who he was and because he served the state."

"And now the state is paying for a play about his murderer.”

The play was originally approved by Israel’s Repertoire Committee, which decides which production are made available to school children through the ‘national cultural basket’.

Since its approval in April 2014, “A Parallel Time” has been seen by more than 900 students.   

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, chair of the far-right Jewish Home party, promised that he would cancel the recognition and permit that his ministry gave to to the play, claiming that the committee had been misled.

“When it was approved, it wasn’t made clear to the professionals that it was an autobiographical story of a terrorist murderer who is serving a sentence for his role in the torture and murder of Moshe Tamam. I believe in the committee’s professionalism and in freedom of expression, but there are things we cannot accept.”

The Education Ministry said that “when the committee approved the performance, it was not brought to its attention that it was based on a true story, and that its performance would hurt the feelings of the bereaved Tamam family” adding that it was the family that brought the issue to the committee’s attention.

For Adnan Tarabshi, head of the Al-Midan Theatre, the withholding of funds could prove terminal.

“We are waiting until now for the municipality to free the budget for Al-Midan,” he said. "I don’t have money to pay my 40 actors and technicians and workers etc.”

He told Middle East Eye that the Haifa municipality was considering closing the Al-Midan bank account because of their failure to pay rent.

“But we pay the rent from the money that the municipality gives us,” he said. “We are caught in a big trap,” adding that if they failed to get access to the funds, he would consider seeking redress through the Israeli court system.

Another theatrical controversy came to a head this week when the Culture Minister Miri Regev on Tuesday threatened to pull government funding for Jaffa’s Elmina theatre after its leader, Norman Issa, refused to travel to perform in a settlement in the occupied Jordan Valley.

“If Norman does not change his mind, I intend to reexame my ministry’s support for the Elmina Theater, which operates under his management,” she wrote on her Facebook page.                           

Issa later stated the threat bordered on “extortion".     

“I am an Arab Israeli, married to a Jewish woman and raising a wonderful family,” he was quoted as saying in Haaretz. “My wife and I devote all our lives to fulfilling co-existence between Jews and Arabs and it was to that end that we established the Jaffa theater."

”You cannot expect me to go against my conscience and agree to perform in controversial places. Don’t force me to act against my will just for the sake of removing this threat.”

Tarabshi said that both the controversies were posturing on the part of the right-wing Israeli government.

“They are making a competition between them - who is going to be more right wing?” he said. “Who is going to have more votes from the rights wing?”

He warned that the threats marked a worsening trend in the country, in which pluralistic and provocative cultural products could find themselves under threat of censorship.

“There’s a proverb in Arabic - ‘who eats from the saucer of the sultan has to carry his swords’,” said Tarabshi.

“And this is becoming the policy in this country. If you get money you have to cheer for us. It’s closing free expression in this country.”