These days, the off-stage drama at Haifa’s Al-Midan theater may be more compelling than its staged theatrics.
As on the night of April 25, when a 26-year-old medical student stood outside the Arabic theater holding a photo of the murdered uncle she never met — IDF soldier Moshe Tamam — while inside, a play based on one of the men serving a life sentence for his killing — Walid Daka — unfolded on stage.
“I was physically attacked by one of the actresses. They also called me a ‘murderer’ and a ‘Nazi,’” Ortal Tamam said of the protest. “It was a terrible night.”
Now, Tamam, a genetic researcher, is spearheading an effort to get the theater’s funding pulled entirely. In a little over a month, she has garnered nearly 13,000 signatures on an online petition, and says she has the backing of Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog and Kulanu chair Moshe Kahlon to boot.
Following complaints from the Tamam family, the Haifa municipality suspended its NIS 1.2 million ($300,000) in annual funding from the theater and set up a panel of inquiry to evaluate the content of the play and its future steps. The panel has since met twice, and was expected to announce its decision next week.
But the Al-Midan management maintains the play, “A Parallel Time,” while admittedly partly based on Daka’s life, is simply a fictionalized account of the day-to-day activities of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and does not address, nor does it glorify, acts of terror.
Meanwhile, the Culture Ministry — now headed by the outspoken Miri Regev (Likud), who upon taking office said “if it is necessary to censor, I will censor” — is bowing out of the debate and leaving the play’s contents to the discretion of the theater.
‘A Parallel Time’
In early April, after the show had been running for over a year, Army Radio contacted Tamam for comment on the play, which is how she found out about its existence. At that stage, her family implored the theater to take down the show, but it was “absolutely unwilling” to do so, she said.
When she then found out that the theater, established by the Culture Ministry in 1996 to bolster Arab culture in Israel, was funded by the state, it “broke me,” she said.
“They chose to kidnap an IDF soldier,” she said of her uncle’s killing, several years before her birth. “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.”
On August 6, 1984, on the eve of the Tisha B’av fast, IDF soldier Moshe Tamam was abducted by a group of Arab Israelis as he got off a bus a few minutes away from his home outside of Netanya. Tamam’s body was located four days later – he had been shot, and his face was badly mutilated. He was 19.
Four Arab Israelis affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were later convicted for the attack, including Daka, who in 1987 was handed a life sentence for his involvement (in 2012, then-president Shimon Peres chiseled the sentence down to 37 years).
Daka made headlines in 1999 after he became the first Palestinian prisoner permitted to wed while incarcerated, and for his protracted legal battle for a conjugal furlough. Among his writings are a book, “Redefining Torture,” and columns for various publications. Daka has also legally disavowed his former membership with the PFLP and denies all the charges against him.
“He’s still sitting in prison, of course, and while in prison managed to do an MA in law at the expense of the state, and managed to get married, and now he’s planning his family. He’s turned into some sort of hero for other security prisoners, and serves as an inspiration to other people to carry out terror attacks and murders,” Tamam said.
Enter “A Parallel Time,” which centers on a Palestinian prisoner’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 theater manager, Adnan Tarabash, maintained the play is loosely “inspired” by Daka’s story and argued that rumors that the play was a straight adaptation of the convicted killer’s writings were “libelous.”
“There is a difference between ‘inspired by’ and ‘written by,’” he said. The playwright and director Bashar Murkus researched Palestinian prisoners for five years as part of a theater workshop, he said, gleaning his material from the interviews and writings of various prisoners, including Daka, he said.
Moreover, Tarabash added, the Culture Ministry approved the production before it opened in March 2014. Some 12 representatives from the ministry – Arabs and Jews – viewed the show and gave it the go-ahead, he said.
“To go so far as to say Walid Daka wrote the script is libelous. It’s a real libel. You could sue for that, and this is what we might do.”
The theater head charged that behind the Tamam’s family campaign, local activists were capitalizing on the Daka link as a pretext to muzzle the theater.
“It’s shameful that people like David Magen [a Haifa Labor party official], and an organization called Almagor [a terror victims association], and other people, are using the pain of the bereaved family to silence the Arab voice in a theater that raises issues that are very important to Israeli society. It’s really shameful. What have we come to? Are we a totalitarian regime?” he said.
Most of the fiercest critics of the show — including Regev — haven’t seen it and hastily jumped to conclusions based on hearsay, he maintained.
“The Al-Midan theater caters to both Arabs and Jews. It’s not a theater of provocateurs. It’s a theater that believes in professionalism, and theatricality, and in raising issues that are very important, that preoccupy the community, preoccupy the people. It’s not a theater of propaganda. It’s a state-funded theater. We don’t hide that fact.”
Tamam, for her part, said that having read the play it “doesn’t at all address that Walid Daka is a murderer. Meaning, at all. From its perspective, he’s a freedom fighter.”
“This play is based on the life and the letters of Walid Daka,” she said. “The playwright, who is also the director, interviewed him via his lawyer, meaning he tracked him down and I have a video in which he says he respects him and has photos of him at home, and thinks he’s a hero and the like,” she said.
Lobbying to bring the house down
In the past month, Tamam said she has received support from politicians across the political spectrum. She said Magen “put me in touch with Herzog and other members of the Labor party, who support the issue. I personally discussed the issue with Kahlon several times.”
Neither Herzog nor Kahlon have publicly condemned the show or the theater.
As for Regev, Tamam urged the new culture minister to act on her opposition to the theater, while emphasizing that the issue was not exclusively backed by hardliners like the Likud MK.
“I would expect any culture minister in the position to stop the funding, all the more so Miri Regev. Miri Regev already spoke out against the theater… and the time has come that in a democracy, public opinion is not only expressed in slogans, but also in actions. For Miri Regev, posting a status on Facebook is not enough,” she said.
Regev wrote on Facebook on April 29, shortly before she became culture minister: “A play has been put on in the Al-Midan theater on the killer Walid Daka, a prisoner serving a life sentence, who was partner to the murder of the soldier Moshe Tamam, and at Tel Aviv University, they are publishing an open call for students to submit films on the Nakba and return of Palestinian refugees. The time has come to put an end to this and stop the funding of organizations that support terrorists, betrayal, and terror, and set up clear guidelines on this subject — in education, culture, and sport.”
In a statement, the ministry said despite its reservations about “A Parallel Time,” it would not intervene.
“The Culture Ministry supports over 800 cultural institutions in accordance with criteria set by law. The ministry is not partner to the content of the events that take place in these bodies, and is not permitted to intervene, even in cases where it does not agree with the administrative decisions or the artistic content, including this play which isn’t supported by the Culture Ministry.
“We emphasize that the ministry understands the anger of the family, but the decision, as stated, rests exclusively with the theater,” it said.
As for the Haifa municipality’s probe and budget freeze, Tarabash is optimistic that the panel will reinstate its funding. He said the inquiry has already “found that these rumors are incorrect,” but a final decision will only be made in June. “I believe they will restore the budget because they didn’t find anything wrong with our behavior,” he said.
“You can’t come here and harass us. It’s harassment. But at the same time, we believe there is justice, and the justice will prevail. I hope this nightmare ends.”
Meanwhile, Tamam says the municipality promised her family would be allowed to testify as part of the inquiry, but later “they adamantly refused that we come.”
The Haifa mayor sent a letter to municipality members stating that the show is not based on Daka’s life and wrote that it had been staged in six other Israeli theaters, she said. In response, Tamam contacted the theaters, and, one by one, they denied having staged the production.
The panel now consists of a bereaved father from Haifa and nearly a dozen figures linked to the theater, Tamam said, terming it “tendentious.”
“The mayor there is very afraid of making a fuss, because for him it means a blow to his voters,” she charged.
The Tamam family was further infuriated with local officials this week, after the deputy mayor of Haifa, Suhail Assad, defended the show in an interview with a local paper. Asked whether he would support the staging of a production based on the life of Yigal Amir, the murderer of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Assad replied that the two could not be compared. Amir “killed peace,” while Tamam’s death was “one of many,” he said.
The Haifa Municipality did not respond to several requests for comment by the time of publication.
Regardless of the outcome, Tamam insists her family “has no intention of giving up until we succeed.”
As for the theater head, he diplomatically refrained from naming Tamam as the main figure behind the campaign to bring down Al-Midan, and later emphasized that he is not indifferent to her plight — but cannot support her political goal.
“Listen, I’m part of a bereaved family. My brother fell in ’68, in the war, in the War of Attrition. I’m Druze, my family is Druze,” he said. “I know what it is to be part of a bereaved family. I understand it. But… people like David Magen and Almagor – they should be ashamed of themselves – they take advantage of [bereaved] people in order to silence the Arabs. To fight the Arabs.”