Banning of Play on Palestinian Prisoners Throws Israeli Acre Theater Festival into Turmoil

The artistic director of the popular Acre Fringe Theater Festival quit on Sunday, June 4, after the event’s public steering committee disqualified Prisoners of Occupation, a play about Palestinian prisoners in Israel. Avi Gibson Bar-El informed the Acre municipality that he was resigning because the committee blocked the play by Einat Weitzman. Gibson issued a short statement about his resignation to the festival’s artists. Afterwards, well-known actor Yosef Abu-Varda, a member of the festival’s artistic committee, also resigned.

Einat Weitzman

Einat Weitzman (Footage: YouTube)

The Association of Independent Theater Producers and the Israeli Actors Union expressed support for the withdrawal by Gibson and all artists from the festival, and condemned the measures of the Acre municipality, which they called “offensive and undemocratic.”

After all eight ensembles that are to compete in the festival threatened to drop out if Weitzman’s play was not restored to the program, it was no longer clear what form – if any – the festival, scheduled for the intermediate days of the festival of Sukkot, next October, will take this year. Several of the production’s artists met over the weekend to decide how to proceed, and one of them told Haaretz that they planned to stage their plays outside the Acre festival.

Playwright and director Yehoshua Sobol, who planned to have his play Shkulim staged at the festival, told Haaretz that the steering committee disqualified Weitzman’s play “without seeing her pilot and without reading her text, because the text was still being formulated. She submitted an idea and a pilot, and the disqualification was based on the name of the work – Prisoners of the Occupation, and the name of the writer, who last year staged a play entitled Palestine – Year Zero. The politocrats decided the subject had been dealt with enough, and that’s the worst kind of censorship,” said Sobol. “This year Acre will have the Miri Regev festival,” said the renowned playwright, making reference to the present government’s Minister of Culture who denounces and threatens the funding of works she deems unpatriotic.

“Far-right Culture Minister Miri Regev’s threats to make funding contingent upon artistic content, her interference and her direct appeals to cultural institutions and local governments in regard to these issues have no legal foundation, they infringe on freedom of expression and they exceed her powers as a cabinet minister” — so ruled Deputy Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Dina Zilber in a legal opinion that she submitted in response to queries from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

In at least two cases, Zilber warned that Regev’s efforts — all of which fall under the invented category of “freedom of funding” — could have a “chilling effect” on artistic freedom of expression.

As evidence, consider the fact that even though it would be hard to find any political works dealing with the current Israeli situation in the Israel Festival, which opened last week, this did not allow to it fly under the Culture Ministry’s radar. Instead, the minister made threats against two shows that include full frontal nudity. Regev’s speech on stage at the festival’s opening late Thursday evening was met with loud jeering and booing from the crowd.