Israeli artists challenge identity issues

TEL AVIV – «If you want to see political theater in Israel, switch on your television. We didn’t need this morning to realize what the political situation is.» That is how Professor Avi (Avraham) Oz, founder of the theater department at the University of Haifa, author of «Political Theater» and a well-known peace activist, opened a symposium on political theater in Tel Aviv on Monday, May 31. The symposium came after the staging of Hillel Mittelpunkt’s «Railway to Damascus,» by the Habima National Theater of Israel. That same day, a week of acquaintance with Israel’s contemporary cultural scene, organized by the cultural and scientific affairs division of the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also came to an end. The audience at the symposium, consisting mainly of foreign journalists and festival organizers, experienced mixed feelings as information regarding the fatalities on the ships that had tried to break the blockade of Gaza was still blurry; some of us were numb, others remained uninformed and a few protested loudly. Upon my return to Greece the following day, I felt very awkward: What could one write about the contemporary cultural scene in Israel at such a difficult time? But then I realized that one of the images imprinted on my mind was something that is not given much attention outside the country: It is the image of an artistic community that persistently tries to question as well as define, through art, the identity of today’s Israel – a community that attempts its own peace efforts on a social and an artistic level and points out, through theater and music, that this is a multicultural region, a melting pot of many different cultures and traditions. It is a community whose efforts, voice and image are often drowned out by political and military actions and ignored by media abroad. «In Israel, with all that is happening, we can’t afford the luxury of not having our fair share of political theater… This country needs political theater for its cultural and spiritual health,» said Oz. «I do [political theater] because I need it for myself,» added Smadar Yaaron, currently staging «Wishuponastar,» a provocative, interactive, semi-improvisational and very emotionally charged one-woman show, where, through her marriage to the Star of David, she brings to the surface and then breaks down all the stereotypes of contemporary Israeli Jewish identity. Yaaron is the co-founder and artistic director of the innovative Acco Theater Center, situated in the old city of Acre, in northern Israel, whose residents are mostly Arab. The company works with both Arab and Jewish actors, who try to bridge the distance between actors and their audience and are actively involved in the community. On a similar note, in the old city of Jaffa, the Arab-Hebrew Theater of Jaffa promotes collaboration between Arab and Jewish artists through performances in both languages. That is where we watched director Gili Shanit’s «From Enemy to Lover,» a physical theater performance of wonderfully plain aesthetics, with a few props used very symbolically and creatively. «From Enemy to Lover» is based on a story by Nobel Prize winner Shmuel Yosef Agnon, who very sensitively approached human relations through the allegorical story of man’s struggle against the wind, which eventually leads to reconciliation and sound friendship. The Ruth Kanner Theater Group searches for a new theatrical language, working mostly with literary and documentary texts and making the best possible use of actors and their bodies. It brings many questions to the stage, through works like «Dionysus at Dizengoff Center,» which focuses on a plot of land in central Tel Aviv that has been inhabited by both Arabs and Jews, or «Discovering Elijah,» based on a novel by the award-winning author S. Yizhar (the pen name of Yizhar Smilansky), which focuses on the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a highly creative performance where actors use hardly any props at all. In the field of music, a new generation of fusion artists, who blend the different musical traditions one encounters in the wider area and beyond, has come to the forefront over the past few years. It was Idan Raichel who made the start, with the Idan Raichel Project – which The Times in London has described as a «one-man Middle East peace accord» – providing a platform to promote musicians from different areas and producing songs in different languages, with influences ranging from the Middle East and Africa to Latin America. Virtually unknown 10 years ago but currently enjoying an international career, Raichel was the first to bring the music of the minorities to mainstream radio stations in Israel and even introduced Arab sounds to the military, through the radio. The musicians he works with – some of them permanent collaborators, but many alternating – come from places including Yemen, Rwanda and Sudan. «In the past, immigrants changed their names to fit in, to be Israeli. But [in order to have a genuine musical collaboration] you have to know your roots and be able to bring them to the table along with your background; you have to be willing to share,» Raichel told us. «Fusion is natural to me, it is part of being in Israel. Music is still developing and discovering itself,» Din Din Aviv, an Israeli singer of Greek and Polish descent, who started out with the Idan Raichel Project and has now launched a solo career, told us at another meeting. «Israel is a melting pot of different cultures and traditions, you can’t not be affected,» said 26-year-old pianist and composer Omri Mor, who adds his own jazz touches to traditional Andalusian melodies, after a performance at the Levontin 7 club in Tel Aviv. «We present the other faces of Israeli reality to the world. It is important for minorities to have role models from their own community. It is also important for people to know about the cultures of Syria and Lebanon [for example], to know there is a neighbor across the border, not an enemy,» said Raichel. «To think that by signing an agreement there will be peace in the Middle East is pure imagination.» Some could argue that regardless of what certain artists believe and do, politics is still politics, that political theater might a voice, for instance, but is essentially ineffective, as Ian Herbert, former president of the International Association of Theater Critics, pointed out at the symposium. And there is no denying, after such an eventful week, that the work of talented and creative artists, like those we saw during this one-week stay, seems to exist in the shadow of current political affairs. Overcoming this obstacle is perhaps the biggest challenge for this community of artists at the moment.