In the past week on the 28th and 29th May, Habima – Israel’s national theatre company – played the Merchant of Venice in Hebrew at the Globe Theatre in London as part of a festival where all of Shakespeare’s plays are to be performed in 37 different languages ranging from Armenian to Southern Sudanese Juba Arabic. However, pro-Palestinian activists coordinated by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign very publically boycotted the Israeli actors claiming that “Habima have been complicit in supporting…oppression by performing in theatres built on land illegally occupied by Israel” stood outside leafleting by-passers and even disrupting the play itself on both nights. As this was expected counter demonstrations had been organised in advance by the Zionist Federation, British Israel Coalition and StandWithUs UK.
As the first night that Habima played was Shavuot –a Jewish festival – I was unable to attend, but I did come the next evening; both to the performance and the associated demonstrations. For the most part they were good natured. The two sides were kept far away from each other and leafleted by-passers. The pro-Palestinians who numbered around forty allowed one of their activists to sing an awful rendition of “Palestine Will be Free” to the tune of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy whilst those supporting Habima played a trance version of Shir Lashalom over a speaker system and danced the hora to it in the street.
Together the pro Israel groups mustered around sixty supporters outside to demonstrate but many more inside. In fact it seemed that half the theatre were laughing at the Hebrew jokes that only a native speaker would have been able to understand. Ari Soffer of the British Israel Coalition said that his organisation was happy to “expose the true, ugly face of the anti-Israel network, who simply failed to achieve their objectives” as ultimately the show went on. He also highlighted the inefficiency of the boycotters saying how they had “failed dramatically once again”. Stefan Kerner of the Zionist Federation also criticised them questioning their priorities: “The Palestine Solidarity Campaign and their supporters should look at the oppression … in countries such as Syria, Egypt and Iran before they make their accusations at Israel” and that his organisation was proud “To welcome Habima to London to take part in this wonderful festival of theatre”. Speaking on a loud-hailer he also reminded the pro-Palestinians that totally boycotting Israel in the way that they advocate would mean sacrificing their mobile phones and online instant messaging as the technologies behind them had been developed by Israelis. Kasim Hafeez of StandWithUs UK said that “Boycotts do nothing for the cause of peace and only serve to create more barriers between communities”. Hannah Weisfeld who directs Yachad – the controversial left-wing pro-Israel group – was also present, but declined to comment on Habima and their boycotters.
And the play itself? It was excellent. Aside from acting many of the cast members were talented musicians and dancers which was evident throughout the evening. Shylock played by Jacob Cohen cut a sad and lonely figure that inspired sympathy rather than hatred from the audience, most of all in the opening scene where his tefillin and tallit were ripped off of him and then desecrated by Venetian youths and end when after losing his wealth he wonders melancholically through the streets of Venice. Portia’s prospective suitors – the Princes of Morocco and Aragon – were excellently characterised with guitars, flowing robes, castanets, darbuka drums and exaggerated accents but it was Yousef Sweid’s (an Israeli Arab) Bassanio who stole the show. His “hatred” for Shylock was so convincing it was as if it was against the actor playing him rather than a fictional money-lender. His regret at giving away Portia’s ring was also very believable. Tomer Sharon’s Launcelot was very well received getting most of the laughs from the audience, and was a glowing contrast to the rest of the cast who tended to be more serious much of the time. Well attended, it was graced by the presence of the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Daniel Taub (the Israeli Ambassador to the Court of St James’s) and Lord Robert Winston.
In fact Habima played so strongly that even the eleven pro-Palestinians who heckled and disrupted on the second night did not detract anything from the evening. Most simply waved a flag and made a V for victory sign with their mouths taped over, but a small number were more vocal. All the disruptors were removed by security with most of them only getting an emphatic “Piss off!” from one audience member. Ironically he was also asked to leave for waving an Israeli flag just after the performance ended.
To conclude, I can only wonder at the stupidity of the pro-Palestinians who disturbed the performance from inside the Globe itself. They promote boycotting Habima, yet pay for a ticket to see them (albeit with negative intentions). Surely that counts as somehow supporting them? But at the end of the day did a Palestinian theatrical troupe play in the same festival as Habima? Yes. Ashtar performed Richard II in Arabic. Did anyone attempt to boycott them or criticise their presence at the festival? No. I think that says a lot about the differences between the pro Palestinian and Israeli groups in the UK, don’t you?