LONDON — British Jewry is bracing itself for attacks on Israel ahead of the month-long national tour of a new play by the Freedom Theatre of Palestine called “The Siege.”
The theater company, based in the West Bank town of Jenin, structured the play around the April 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The company, whose mission is “generating cultural resistance,” is bringing the play to the United Kingdom in May and is set to perform in a number of locales with large Jewish communities. According to the theater’s website, “The Siege” is supported by the EU, the British Council and the Roddick Foundation.
It will open in Manchester at Salford’s Lowry Theatre on May 13 and 14, and will then tour Britain, with performances at London’s Battersea Arts Centre and major stages in Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham and Glasgow, as well as some smaller venues.
The background story: Back in 2002 during the height of the Second Intifada, in an attempt to stem terror attacks, the Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Defensive Shield and occupied parts of the West Bank, including Bethlehem. During a 39-day standoff, scores of suspected Palestinian gunmen holed up in the Bethlehem church, taking as human shields or hostages around 200 Christian clergy and civilians. By the siege’s end, eight Palestinians had been killed.
“The Siege” has not yet been performed, but some clues as to its probable content can be seen on the Freedom Theatre’s website: “A group of armed men seek sanctuary in one of the world’s holiest sites as the Israeli army closes in with helicopters, tanks and snipers. Along with the fighters are some 200 priests, nuns and civilians. The siege lasts for 39 days, paralysing the centre of Bethlehem and keeping tens of thousands under curfew… two dead bodies are decomposing in a cave below the church. While the world is watching, the fighters are faced with the question of whether to struggle to the end or to surrender. No matter what they choose, they will have to leave their families and their homeland behind forever.”
According to most contemporary reports, the Christian clergy and civilians were the hostages of the Palestinian gunmen. An eventual deal to conclude the siege sent the Palestinian terrorists into exile in Europe. Reports indicated that the gunmen used Bibles as toilet paper and placed 40 bombs across the chapel area of the church, considered by Christians to be one of the holiest places in Israel.
In a video uploaded to YouTube, the theater’s artistic director presents the play as a look at the siege from the inside and says that it includes interviews with the exiled “fighters.”
Another YouTube video to promote the play includes a sympathetic interview with terrorist Ibrahim Moussa Salem Abayat, a Fatah Tamzin commander who was linked to terror attacks against Israel, including the murder of a US citizen in 2002 and several fatal shootings and bombings.
There is understandable apprehension over the show. On Twitter, for example, the forthcoming productions are being discussed in context of the cancellation of a controversial Southampton University conference debating the legal right of Israel to exist. The conference caused a huge row with its organizers accusing pro-Israel opponents of being in favor of boycotts — when it suited them.
“Many of the men featured in ‘The Siege’ have murdered innocent people, a fact left unmentioned in the ‘Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre’ promotional material,” an Israeli official told The Times of Israel.
“The most prominent terrorist celebrated in this play is Ibrahahim Abayat, the commander of a terrorist cell that murdered the elderly pro-Palestinian peace activist, Avi Boaz, in Bethlehem, three months before the Church of the Nativity incident occurred,” he said.
American-citizen Boaz was an architect who, alongside his Palestinian engineer partner, planned to construct housing in the Bethlehem area where he had been a fixture for 20 years. His body was found riddled with bullets in a car near Bethlehem.
“When Palestine solidarity groups and activists in the UK are lauding ‘The Siege,’ it is worth sparing at least a thought for Avi Boaz, who was murdered in cold blood by the same characters who evaded justice and are now being feted on stage,” the official said.
‘It is important that audiences understand that the facts are in dispute, and presenting it as a “true story” stands to mislead’
A spokesman for the British Jewish community’s Fair Play Campaign said, “Given that ‘The Siege’s’ writers consulted terrorist killers for research, it seems likely that the play will present the story entirely from the terrorists’ point of view. It is important that audiences understand that the facts are in dispute, and presenting it as a ‘true story’ stands to mislead. We respect artistic freedom, but are concerned that the play might ignore the murderous, violent pasts of terrorists, presenting them as the ‘heroes’ of the show.”
Julia Fawcett, chief executive of the Lowry Theatre in Salford where the first performances are due to take place, is well aware of the sensitivities surrounding the show, as seen in an internal memo to staff made available to the Times of Israel.
In the memo, Fawcett wrote that the play is based on actual events that took place during the siege of the Church of the Nativity in 2002, and “as with any work relating to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, ‘The Siege’ is likely to attract comment and emotion for both sides of the debate. Given that, I wanted to reiterate the Lowry’s position on programming work of a sensitive and political nature.”
The theater, she wrote, “wholeheartedly supports international cultural exchange” and is “proud to provide a platform for art that encourages people to engage in discussion.”
“Our decision to program ‘The Siege’ was made solely on the artistic merits of the Freedom Theatre Palestine as a company and the work itself as a performance… it is without doubt a great piece of work telling a fantastic story,” wrote Fawcett.
It is the play’s “fantastic” nature that concerned leaders of Manchester’s Jewish community, who sought an immediate meeting with Fawcett when the show was announced this winter. The Lowry is the only venue where the play is being performed on two successive nights, and a panel discussion is due to take place after the show on each night.
In a statement to The Times of Israel after the meeting, Fawcett said she and the Jewish representatives had discussed the context of the company’s visit “and the wide range of work that we show from around the world, including the recent visit from the fantastic Batsheva Dance Company.”
She said that the post-show discussions would focus on the role of the arts in places affected by conflict and tension, and that the panel participants were yet to be confirmed.
Freedom Theatre is supported by “The Freedom Theatre UK Friends” which raises money to fund their UK tours. The money is donated via the British Shalom Salaam Trust, which is the charitable arm of Jews for Justice for Palestinians. It is run by Zoe Lafferty, a supporter of Israel boycotts, who is a co-director of “The Siege.”
One Jewish community leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that arts programming related to Israel or Palestine presented a big problem in view of the protests over cultural boycotts of Israeli events.
“We don’t want to call for plays or concerts to be canceled,” he said. “But people need to be aware of the facts and of the need for a balanced point of view.”