Open Zion

07.03.13

Who's Afraid of Palestinian Puppet Theater?

Twenty years ago Israelis and Palestinians were meeting in secret in Norway, preparing a document which was to blow open the doors of Middle Eastern diplomacy—and today just about all that’s left of that revolution is this sort of thing: Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Israel’s Public Security Minister (from the hard-right Yisrael Beiteinu party), recently shut down the East Jerusalem el-Hakawati Theater’s annual puppet festival, “claiming festival organizers received funds from the Palestinian Authority, in contradiction of the Oslo Accords.”

Of course, I’m being unfair. The ability to silence puppets isn’t the only legacy of Oslo: Palestinians may now fly their flag without fear of arrest, and Israel has been able to use the Accords’ slow collapse to strengthen its hold on the West Bank (never mind that in so doing, Israel has been violating the Accords in deed and in spirit for two solid decades. Legacy!). And the Palestinian Authority is still around, serving as a convenient if toothless foil for all who want to complain about all that’s wrong in the post-Oslo world. Such as, apparently, puppets.

The festival is a beloved yearly event and Aharonovitch’s decision didn’t go entirely unnoticed: Israeli and Palestinian activists and artists protested on both sides of the city and an online protest was organized by Israeli puppeteer Ariel Doron (the voice of Elmo on Rehov Sumsum, but he’s anxious to clarify that his activism is independent of his employer). The latter was covered in a variety of Israeli, Jewish, and international news outlets this week, and even a Jerusalem official expressed his displeasure with the Public Security Minister:

Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Yosef “Pepe” Alalu also condemned it as “wrong and irresponsible” in a letter to Aharonovitch, noting the already heightened tensions between Jews and Arabs in the capital.

However Alalu (once described by Haaretz as a “Hobbit-like man with the ponytail, beard and Spanish accent”) is affiliated with the left-wing, two-state-supporting Meretz, so I’m not sure that his protests—or indeed those of a handful of activists, a larger handful of puppeteers, or the world’s press—will make any difference to an Israeli right-wing that is only too happy to use Oslo not to build two states (as intended) but to prevent a Palestinian state from ever emerging.

But let’s be clear: Puppets aren’t the only form of theater that the Israeli right finds threatening. While Deputy Mayor Alalu was protesting the closure of the el-Hakawati festival, another Deputy Mayor was doing this:

Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem David Hadari, of Naftali Bennett’s [hard-right] Jewish Home party, demanded that the city stop funding the Khan Theater because it is hosting a play about Rachel Corrie [the American activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting home demolitions in Gaza].

Hadari’s letter to his fellow city leaders read, in part:

In the past few days I was shocked to learn that the Khan Theater is advertising a play which it intends to show about the tourist Rachel Corrie, who was run over in an unfortunate accident by an IDF bulldozer during an operation in Gaza. May I remind you, this was a girl who demonstrated against Israel, against IDF soldiers and against the IDF’s activities to protect the communities of the South from missiles and terrorists. In other words, this was an Israel hater who was unintentionally killed [note: the State Department isn’t so sure it agrees with this assertion] and that the courts in Israel refused the family’s requests for compensation… We should not lend a hand to problematic plays that hurt Israel and Jerusalem in the name of art.

Unfortunately for Hadari, the Oslo Accords do not forbid the Jerusalem Municipality from funding freedom of expression, so we can’t know for sure that he’ll be able to protect his fellow Jerusalemites (including my own, poor, clearly benighted mother-in-law) from the horrors of a play that disagrees with the official narrative.

But speaking as someone who literally danced in the streets of Tel Aviv on the night that the Accords were signed, I have to say: Twenty years down the road, watching the Israeli government use that agreement as a rag with which to do its dirty work while the American Secretary of State sweats and strains to get the sides back to the very starting point we thought we’d achieved in 1993—I’m not so sure that Rachel Corrie, or a bunch of puppets, are the problem.