For Jaffa theater director Igal Ezraty, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
And press is what he’s been getting in spades, since Culture Minister Miri Regev asked Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to reduce government funding for the Jaffa cultural institution, following two performances of readings from Palestinian prisoners.
“We’ve gotten great public relations for the theater,” said Ezraty, who founded the theater 20 years ago, with fellow Arab and Jewish directors. “All our tickets are sold out. The Mahmoud Darwish performance sold so few tickets for the last two years, and now it’s sold out. So she’s helping us sell tickets.”
Ezraty was referring to “Eyes,” a theatrical musical performance based on the poems and life of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, performed in Hebrew and Arabic, by Arab and Jewish players, accompanied by Mira Awad’s music and directed by well-known Arab-Israeli actor Norman Issa.
It is typical of the more than a dozen productions launched by this small theater, which aims to offer a stage to Hebrew and Arabic stage performances.
It was Sunday morning at the theater, a small, shabby space on the edge of the historic neighborhood of Old Jaffa, with a clear view of the Mediterranean Sea just beyond the cobblestoned sidewalk outside.
Ezraty was seated in his office, a prefab space at the back of the 140-seat theater, with purple walls, photos of his family and his productions surrounding him, and sheaves of flyers piled high on his small desk.
Despite Regev’s continued protestations about the theater and its productions, Ezraty appeared far from concerned. In fact, he’s somewhat elated by all the attention.
“She’s helping us sell tickets,” he said. “If there’s no reaction to all this, the censure will continue. So maybe this is better, because it will force people to understand how important it is.”
The brouhaha over the theater’s productions came to a head last week over an evening held in honor of Israeli Arab poet Dareen Tatour, during which her poems were read and a short movie she directed was shown. One of the readings was a poem by Tatour entitled, “Resist My People, Resist.” Tatour is under house arrest for alleged support for a terror group.
Three months ago, the theater staged an event called “Notebooks from Prison,” which included readings of texts written by Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails.
According to Ezraty, the theater shows a mix of productions, including plays about the Israeli periphery, Ethiopian family dramas, and one about a Jewish family in Germany.
“We show all the narratives, while she tried to show that we only show the Palestinian narrative,” he said. “The whole story here is about two shows that we didn’t even initiate; we hosted them, and we don’t censure the shows we host.”
Ezraty and his fellow founder, Gabi Eldor, began their theater group 25 years ago, and, when they met fellow artist Mohammed Bakri, decided to run the theater together. The Tel Aviv municipality offered them the space in Jaffa, and since then, it has been home to the two theater collectives, the Arab Al-Saraya theater, name for the Old Saraya House in which they arre located, and the Local Hebrew Theater.
The two companies collaborate to promote cross-cultural understanding through plays, cultural projects, workshops, festivals, and educational programs, working together and independently, in Hebrew and in Arabic, with Jewish and Arab actors.
“We couldn’t have gotten this space without this concept,” said Ezraty, gesturing around him.
He believes it is the use of languages, with ongoing productions in Hebrew and in Arabic, that provide the best method for gaining a better understanding of the other.
“Israelis hear Arabic and they think it’s the language of terrorists,” he said. “They say to me, ‘We didn’t know it was such a musical language.'”
He spoke about one of the recent hosted productions, in which the audience discussed the Arabic word shaheed, and how the Israelis identified it only as meaning a terrorist. A shaheed is a sacrifice, said Ezraty, and they debated what it meant, on stage.
“Miri Regev took that,” he said, “and deduced that we’re supporting terror.”
In fact, said Ezraty, the mix of languages offers a kind of solution to the ongoing woes. The theater doesn’t exist to offer a political solution, but rather its existence in Jaffa, a part of Tel Aviv that has always had a mixed population, offers a way to become familiar with the other, a way to experience the other side, by “leaving politics at the door” when coming to the theater, he said.
Still, the theater has to work hard to promote a mix of theatergoers.
With 400,000 Jewish Israelis, and only 17,000 Arabs in Tel Aviv, there’s a significant preponderance of Jews in most of the theater’s audiences. Arabic speakers, even those who understand Hebrew, prefer the performances in Arabic, said Ezraty.
So they invite groups and hold conversations after performances so that the audience hear and meet one another. Ezraty pointed out his own daughters, who attended high school in north Tel Aviv, where they never met any Arabs, but regularly attended the theater’s annual festivals, and met other Arab kids.
“I watched the process happen to them,” he said. “For them, the term Arab isn’t something fearful, but it is for many Israelis.”
The theater is also the only one of its kind in the country’s center. There are other independent Arabic theater groups in Haifa, Nazareth and Sakhnin, but nothing else of this type in Tel Aviv, which is why the Arabic-speaking Al-Saraya portion of the theater travels around the country with its productions.
And when the theater hosts readings and productions created by other groups, Ezraty does not check or censure their shows.
“I don’t tell anyone what to say or do,” he said.
He’s not afraid of the investigation, either.
“The finance minister should decided what we’re going to say?” he asked. “This is all part of a general trend that has nothing to do with us. The government is trying to quiet all voices that don’t agree with them. It’s a lack of understanding of freedom of speech, and the public needs to understand this. Art should be provocative, that’s how it works.”
Ezraty sat back in his office chair, ready to go on with his day. For now, he’s not worried about his government budget, as all Regev can do is fine the theater for several thousand shekels, if she successfully proves that the performances incited terror. The theater is funded by the Tel Aviv municipality and the Ministry of Culture.
In the meantime, he has received at least 20 emails offering financial help, and what he’s most concerned about is Regev’s gaining popularity.
“It’s hard to know what will happen, but at this rate, Miri Regev will be prime minister in 10 years. That’s how these things work,” he said.