Arab theater staff to quit if ‘terror’ play pulled

Employees of Haifa’s al-Midan Theater give two-day ultimatum after new CEO says controversial play may be canceled

The Al-Midan theater in Haifa (Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Al-Midan theater in Haifa (Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The staff of a Haifa theater that staged a controversial play highlighting the life a convicted terrorist announced Tuesday they would collectively resign if the new CEO fails to retract remarks he made indicating he may pull the production.

Earlier on Tuesday, al-Midan Theater’s freshly appointed CEO, Ghassan Abu Warda, formerly the theater’s legal adviser, said he does not rule out pulling “A Parallel Time,” a play based on the life of an Arab-Israeli terrorist who abducted and killed an IDF soldier, from the theater’s repertoire.

Following the remarks, the theater’s employees demanded Abu Warda release a press statement clarifying his stance, and called on the theater’s board to convene an emergency meeting to discuss their demands no later than Thursday, or they will submit their resignations.

“We inform, to the extent that his declarations are correct and not distorted, that we will not continue to be part of al-Midan Theater as long as Mr. Abu Warda remains in his post,” the statement read.

“We will not agree to have our image and the theater’s values tarnished, and we demand that the attack on al-Midan be treated as a political persecution of Palestinian culture and artists.”

al-Midan Theater's CEO, Ghassan Abu Warda (Facebook)
al-Midan Theater’s CEO, Ghassan Abu Warda (Facebook)

They added that they would stage a production of “A Parallel Time” in protest of Abu Warda’s statements, “and to make it clear that freedom of speech and creativity cannot be censored.”

In an interview with Channel 20 marking his first day on the job, Abu Warda said he intends to make significant changes in order “stabilize the theater and make it a place of culture once again.”

“It shouldn’t be a place for politics. We are tax-paying citizens of Israel, and proud to be part of the system,” apparently referring to the Arab citizens of Israel.

Abu Warda also spoke favorably of Culture Minister Miri Regev, who froze state funding for al-Midan last month over the play, sparking a conflict between herself and Israeli artists, many of whom have publicly accused the new minister of seeking to limit freedom of expression in the country by denying public funds to productions deemed too controversial.

“I definitely regard her and the Ministry of Culture as an important component in supporting Arab culture in Israel,” Abu Warda said, adding that he would gladly meet her and invite her to the theater.

Regev has defended her decision to withdraw the theater’s funding, saying the issue at hand was not freedom of expression but the state’s right to spend public funds as the public saw fit.

Since entering her position, Regev led several controversial moves against what she deemed “unpatriotic” productions, drawing the ire of many artists and politicians in what the Israeli media dubbed a “culture war.”

A still from the play 'A Parallel Time' (Courtesy)
A still from the play ‘A Parallel Time’ (Courtesy)

Al-Midan’s production of “A Parallel Time” documents a day in the life of a Palestinian prisoner, said to be based on a fictionalized version of terrorist Walid Daka, an Arab Israeli man who is serving a life sentence for abducting and murdering Israeli soldier Moshe Tamam in 1984.

In May, a confrontation between Tamam’s family and the play’s actors outside the theater prompted the Haifa municipality to suspend NIS 1.2 million ($300,000) in annual funding from the theater and set up the municipal panel of inquiry to evaluate the content of the play.

But last week, Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav accepted the recommendations of a review panel and decided to cease withholding funding from the theater.

In 1999, Daka made headlines after he became the first Palestinian prisoner permitted to wed while incarcerated, and for his protracted legal battle for a conjugal furlough.

The play mainly focuses on Daka’s wedding, his efforts to construct a new jail cell and his fellow prisoners’ attempts to smuggle in materials to build him an oud for a wedding present.

The al-Midan management and the play’s director have maintained the play was simply a fictionalized account of the day-to-day activities of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and does not address, nor glorify, acts of terror.

The Tamam family, however, says the play seeks to generate sympathy for their son’s killer. They have spearheaded the recent efforts to have the play banned and to deny public funding to the theater.

Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.

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