Israel’s national theater performed in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba for the first time on Thursday, amid an ongoing dispute over a minister’s campaign to have publicly funded cultural acts toe a more nationalistic line.
“Well done, Habima. Well done, Kiryat Arba. Together we have made history,” said Culture Minister Miri Regev of the ruling Likud party, who has warred with cultural institutions over her policies.
Regev was among the 380 people who attended the show of “A Simple Story,” based on a story by S.Y. Agnon, in Kiryat Arba, which is adjacent to the West Bank city of Hebron.
The show did not pass without incident. Ahead of the performance, the Israeli human rights group “Breaking the Silence,” took some of the actors on a tour of Hebron in what they said was a bid to expose them to the complexity of the only shared city in the West Bank.
Hebron has for decades seen almost daily friction between its community of several hundred Jewish settlers, the soldiers that guard them and its tens of thousands of Palestinian residents.
Breaking the Silence activists showed actors streets in Hebron where Palestinians are no longer allowed to walk as security forces work to keep the populations apart. They saw IDF soldiers arresting two Palestinian minors on the tour, which was filmed by Channel 2 and aired on the Thursday night prime-time news.
Several settler activists tried to disrupt the tour and ensure their views were caught on camera.
“You are living in an ivory tower, busy with films and plays, but here they are throwing Molotov cocktails at children,” far-right activist Itamar Ben-Gvir told the actors.
“Stay in Tel Aviv, we are sorry they are bringing you here,” shouted another protester.
Regev slammed Breaking the Silence, a controversial Israeli NGO that publishes testimonies by military veterans, most of them anonymous, describing what they say were disturbing aspects of their service in the West Bank, including alleged abuses of Palestinians.
“The Breaking the Silence organization is threatening the National Theater, I will defend it and its actors. This organization is trying with all its might to harm our national symbols,” Regev wrote on Facebook.
“It won’t help them, there will be more shows in Kiryat Arba, Bet El, Elkana and Ariel. The National Theater will perform in every spot in the state of Israel,” she wrote.
Founded in 2004 by army veterans, Breaking the Silence has come under heavy criticism from the government and right-wing advocacy groups for its anonymous testimony and campaign to bring international pressure on Israel.
Regev has frequently clashed with Israeli cultural institutions. She says that they are under the control of left-wing elites and should make their content more accessible to all Israelis.
Many actors and writers have argued that requiring them to perform in the West Bank tramples on their freedom of political expression.
הגעתי הערב לקריית ארבע-חברון להתרגש ולראות בעיני חלום שמתגשם!אמרו לי זה לא יקרה.את חולמת. לא בקדנציה שלך. לא בגלגול…
Regev, who has threatened to withhold funding from artists expressing a pro-Palestinian stance, has introduced financial incentives to cultural groups that perform in the West Bank, claiming that she wants to make culture accessible to all.
The Culture Ministry offers an extra 10% funding for those who perform over the Green Line, and institutions which refuse to perform in the West Bank are liable to have their state grants slashed by one-third.
The performance in Kiryat Arba was the first for Habima there, though the troupe has performed in the West Bank before, including a show to open a new cultural hall in the settlement of Ariel in 2010 that drew protest from the left.
In response to the outcry, Habima said that the management of the theater rejects “any attempt at a cultural boycott in any place where Israeli citizens live. Habima Theater is the national theater of the State of Israel.”