Category Archives: Theatre

Standing together, standing in one another’s shoes

IMG_20160605_234815For this first time (June 3, 2016) I’ve been able to participate in the monthly Palestinian-Israeli “Freedom March” held at “machsom haminharot,” an Israeli checkpoint on Route 60 to the south of Jerusalem, just by the Palestinian town of Beit Jala. The march is organized by a coalition, in which Combatants for Peace are a key partner, called “omdim beyachad” in Hebrew (standing together). The group has operated since an upsurge in violence in October 2015, offering a clear alternative to the usual pattern in which Israeli Jews and Palestinians each increase their antipathy to and fear of the other.

Being who I am, I had already seen video clips and photos of the event posted on social media, and was expecting the colourful cloud of balloons in the hands of the marchers when our bus from TDSC00067el Aviv arrived at the meeting point. The protest procession crossed the main road slowly, but did not block it, and amid the shouting of slogans and the displaying of placards, found shelter from the sun under the monumental concrete overhang of the separation barrier at this point.

DSC00079The protest ended with short speeches (translated into Hebrew and Arabic) by MK Aiman Oudeh, the charismatic leader of the Joint List, Leah Shakdiel, a long time feminist and social activist who represented the religious peace group Oz v’shalom, and representatives of Combatants for Peace. But I won’t talk today about the content of the speeches, the formulation of slogans (also translated and transliterated between Hebrew and Arabic), or even the ritual of releasing the balloons from under the concrete canopy into the freedom of the skies.

Instead, I want to focus on another part of the protest, the performance of a short scene in which Palestinians and Israelis role played soldiers and themselves in a typical encounter at a checkpoint, an encounter which involves verbal and physical violence, detention, constriction, humiliation, pushing people to the ground. The performance ends with a call for non-violence, to the applause of those who had gathered round the scene. An upper level of the walkway by the separation barrier served as a stage, and some but not all  of the demonstrators gathered together to watch – although it was difficult to hear. Yet, the point is not the production or acting quality of this performance.

DSC00094“Standing together” itself performs the vital political position of “refusing to be enemies” at a time of hightened tension, and in the context of a conflict to which no political resolution can be seen on the horizon. Combatants for Peace, along with other groups participating in the freedom march, such as the Bereaved Families Forum, and the Jewish-Arab parliamentary bloc Hadash, have performed this partnership, including acts of co-resistance, for years now. Combatants for Peace has also turned consistently to the “theatre of the oppressed” as a key element of its activities, often in more rehearsed ways and in settings in which the audience could participate more easily. They have documented some performances, and I have written about one I saw a few years ago.

In the setting of the demonstration the performance has particular significance. We can stand together, we can march together. But we can do so meaningfully better when we have learned to stand in the shoes of the other, whether through role play or dialogue or hearing each others’ stories. Combatants for Peace is a partnership if Israelis and Palestinians who have seen how their armed force and violence of the other feel from the point of the other. They stand together by seeing themselves from the other stands, When you have stood in the shoes of the other, and experienced with them what it’s like to commit or be subject to violence, then standing together just feels a whole better than standing against each other.

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The Silliness of ‘Security’ and Puppets for Peace

Theatrical protest against closure of El Hakawati theatre. Photo: Guy Butavia.

Theatrical protest against closure of El Hakawati theatre. Photo: Guy Butavia.

For most Jewish Israelis, ‘peace’ means ‘security’. According to this mainstream ‘securitatist’ orientation (as Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling put it in his 2001 book The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Society, and the Military) ‘peace’ means that Israel will be secure when both the state and its citizens will not be subject to attack by their enemies. Any image or notion of peace connotes security, as peace entails the end of hostilities. The Israeli sense of ‘peace-as-security’ also refers to security guarantees and arrangements, in the form of territorial boundaries that provide strategic depth or advantage (such as the Jordan River), or the demilitarization of the proposed Palestinian state.

Yet, the very meaning and purpose of peace is undermined and obstructed by ‘peace-as-security’ as pursued in Israeli policy. Israeli political scientist Galia Golan argued this point in her paper, ‘Transformations of Conflict: Breakthroughs and Failures in Israeli Peace Efforts’, which she presented to the 29th Annual Association for Israel Studies Conference, June 24-26, 2013, at UCLA. In light of an underlying assumption that the other side, ‘the Arabs’ will never make peace with Israel because they do not accept Israel’s legitimacy, Israeli leaders have aimed not for peace but for ‘security’ in the sense of the optimal conditions for fighting the next war. ‘Peace-as-security’ is not peace at all, but an obstacle and alternative to peace. Successive Israeli governments distrust all but the most dramatic of Arab moves to peace, such as President Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977. When there are peace negotiations, or, (as at present under US secretary of state John Kerry’s guidance) negotiations about negotiations, Israeli diplomats stick to the self-defeating ‘security first’ formula. As a result, Israelis get neither peace nor long-term security.

Prioritization of ‘security’ also turns into a doctrine whereby every political position of Israeli governments in the context of the conflict with Palestinians is framed in terms of ‘security’. The separation barrier is the most obvious current example of security as a doctrine. For Israel governments, the Israeli Supreme Court, and most of the Jewish Israeli public, the barrier is the ‘security fence’ which prevents terror attacks on Israeli citizens. For Palestinians, and Israeli peace activists such as Combatants for Peace (who offer educational tours of areas around the barrier), it is both a means to dispossess Palestinians of the land on which the wall is built and part of a whole network of walls, fences, gates, checkpoints and travel permits that separates them from each other, their land, and vital economic and civil services. In this and similar cases, Israeli ‘security’ concerns appear cynical, undermining the governments’ case that Israeli anxieties about security are genuine, rather than veiled efforts to perpetuate occupation.

Puppets4All Facebook page

Puppets4All Facebook page

Sometimes, however, it’s not a question of cynicism but outright silliness. Two weeks ago, on June 22nd, the 19th annual Palestinian children’s theatre festival was due to open in the El Hakawati theatre in East Jerusalem. But (as reported by Amira Hass in Ha’aretz), the director of the theatre, Mohammed Halayka, was summoned for questioning by what he said was the Shin Bet security service. Then the Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch issued an order closing the theatre for eight days beginning on the scheduled first day of the festival, on the grounds that the event would be held ‘under the auspices of or sponsored by the Palestinian Authority’, which would contravene an Israeli law passed as part of the Oslo peace process. The law is designed to rebut Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed unilaterally following the 1967 war. It’s a matter of sovereignty, not security.

Riki blich , actress -Israel Pupprts4all# — with Riki blich.

Riki blich , actress -Israel
Pupprts4all# — with Riki blich.

Aharonovitch’s move also exposes the silliness of the security doctrine. There have been several Israeli as well as Palestinian protests against the theatre closure, including a petition signed by many Israeli actors, playwrights and directors (as reported by Haggai Matar on the +972 blog). On Thursday, June 27th, a theatrical protest was held, a carnival of colour, masks, music, movement, and a wonderful spoken word poetry performance by Moriel Rothman. Perhaps the best response, however, has come in the form of a Facebook page ‘Puppets4All’, on which many Israeli and other performers have posted pictures of themselves and a puppet or two with a sign reading ‘I too am a security threat’. All of which leaves Minister Aharonovitch looking not only like a version of scrooge (children’s theatre? – bah humbug!) but also like a ‘total muppet’. If Israel’s security doctrine sees danger in these puppets, then that only proves that the danger is in the eye of the beholder. It’s well passed time for Israel’s leaders – and publics – to see that actual peace is the best – the only – security.

Protest Theatre of the Occupation

Earlier in the week, as the “pillar of cloud” war raged in Gaza and southern Israel, Combatants for Peace had planned a demonstration for Friday afternoon calling for a ceasefire. This bi-national Israeli-Palestinian organization opposed to violence and dedicated to achieving a peaceful resolution of the conflict had no trouble switching the emphasis of the demonstration (after the ceasefire was agreed on late on Wednesday) to the acute need for direct and immediate negotiations to address the conflict. But the demonstration could have happened on any other Friday afternoon of the year. The world’s attention has been directed in the past couple of weeks to one area of Palestine striving for independence, the enclave of Gaza, but there has been no let-up in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Combatants for Peace demonstration in Izbat Tabib, 23.11.12

In the last few months Combatants for Peace has been supporting the struggle of a small, isolated Palestinian village, Izbat Tabib, that is close to the Palestinian town Kalkilya and the large Israeli settlement, Alfei Menasheh. Izbat Tabib is in Area C of the West Bank, the area constituting about 60% of the West Bank that according to the Oslo agreements of 1993 remains under full Israeli civil and military control until a later agreement. It’s nearly 20 years later since then, and Israeli rule is increasingly permanent and restrictive. For Izbat Tabib that has meant losing about 45% of its land to the building of the Separation Wall in 2011 and demolition orders, issued by the military government, for most of the homes and the village school that also serves as a community centre.

The group of about 100 Palestinians of Izbat Tabib and Israelis from the Tel Aviv area marched the short distance from the school to the junction with the main road. Protesting  the occupation in general and the demolitions in particular we chanted slogans in Arabic, Hebrew and English: “No, no to war; yes, yes to peace,” “One, two, three, four, occupation no more; five, six, seven, eight, end the killing, end the hate,” “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.” We held placards, mostly in Hebrew, on which were written slogans such as “There is a partner,” “it won’t end until we talk,” and “yes to dialogue, no to violence.” But other than passing traffic and the rain clouds quickly crossing the windy sky, nobody was listening or watching.

Combatants for Peace demonstration, Izbat Tabib, 23.11.12

And then our audience arrived. Hesitantly at first, they kept their distance. Then they must have called some friends, and a small group of military vehicles and soldiers came and stood close by. The Tel Aviv – Tulkarem group of Combatants for Peace use theatre as one of their approaches to non-violent resistance to occupation, and have previously performed for the villagers. Today, the improvised performance was for the soldiers. At first a couple of the demonstrators took up stances showing the soldiers how we saw them, how they held their guns, how they watched us. They turned to show us what they were doing, and then more demonstrators became actors, moving and standing in ways that showed the soldiers how we thought they saw us. A rainbow joined in. Then we all crammed in together to show that we could all be that close, without fear, without hatred, without any need for the red sign that warns Israelis it is dangerous to enter a Palestinian village.

Demonstrators acting the roles of the watching soldiers

The audience didn’t seem very appreciative. They came over-dressed, with far too many military accessories. Some seem to have got bored and left early in their armoured vehicle. One guy kept his distance throughout, staying with his vehicle on the other side of the road. Perhaps they were wondering why they had to be there and when they could go home. Maybe we should have brought snacks for them. We didn’t have a programme for them to take as reminder of the event. And really, they didn’t need to be there. Really, the Israeli military doesn’t need to be in the West Bank at all. They don’t need to come and demolish homes and schools, to build a Separation Wall on Palestinian land. We can get along fine without an audience, performing for each other the roles that neighbours play for each other. We’ve been playing a theatre of cruelty for too long, a theatre of domination and oppression, a theatre of fear and hatred. Combatants for Peace are writing a script for a new play and are ready in the wings to perform it. They just need a bigger troupe of actors and a larger audience.

Demonstrators acting as demonstrators