Collaboration under fire

Arabs and Jews, with only a love of theater in common, choose creation over destruction

By Bonna Devora Haberman & Kadar Herini

War is raging. Missiles are exploding closer and closer to our center core. We contract into fear, mourn the loss of life and devastation, and worry for the safety of our loved ones. We also affirm our commitment and work tirelessly to build our capacity for peace. Though art is far from the headlines and policy agendas, precisely now, we share about our unfolding collaboration – a speck of light in terrifying darkness.

We, Kadar and Bonna, met nearly five years ago at the annual “Speaking Arts Conference” in Jerusalem. From near and far, people gather to share passions for theater, music, and dance.

Kadar Bonna
It was my first foray into a Jewish-Israeli zone. I never before had a chance to listen and learn about the Israeli side. I also found the possibility to share, to express my truth openly for the first time with people who cared to hear – that I am here, a Palestinian, and this is my pain. Though I had participated in “dialogue groups” and reconciliation gatherings, I had never worked or played with Palestinians before. Usually everyone wants most of all to talk, to say their piece. Here, we share actively with each other – with our minds, hearts, and bodies.

We returned each year for a few days of unfettered interaction across enemy lines.

From our first meeting, I was moved by the example of Bonna’s behavior and her patience to teach people how to act – on stage and in life. Bonna is a both a teacher and learner at the same time. Kadar is a fine actor/director. He puts his all into the moment; he doesn’t hold back. Kadar is genuinely intrigued by people – of every origin and belief. He is open and keen.

After our third conference, some of the theater participants decided to build a new project. Quickly, we discovered that we agree about almost nothing.

I see, hear, feel, taste, and smell the world through Arab culture, language, and media. I grew and was nurtured on Islam as the most advanced religion, encompassing the gifts of its predecessors, Judaism and Christianity. I was taught Palestinian narratives of displacement and entitlement and how Jewish history, ancient and modern, are manipulated to justify Zionist claims to sovereignty over my people’s land. I seek freedom from the impingements of Israel, and expression of Palestinian culture. We need to re-visit the distribution of resources and land here – in peace and through democracy. I see, hear, feel, taste, and smell the world through Western culture, Judaism, and Zionism. I grew and was nurtured on the Jewish people’s ancient, medieval, and modern texts and history. I hold the State of Israel to be one of the tremendous innovations in the last two millennia of Jewish life. Israel is one precious place on earth where Jewish civilization can inform an open, democratic civil society. I aim to contribute toward refining Zionism as an ongoing fulfillment of Jewish destiny. Living in dignity and fruitful peace with our minorities and with our neighbors are among my priorities.

Meeting weekly for four or five hours, we found that we do agree about the stage and community theater; we share an artistic language.

Theater is sacred. I believe that art and theater do not belong to any specific culture or nationality – we can go together beyond borders. I am prepared to collaborate in art with any person. Theater is a place to invest ourselves in order to make a difference. Community theater is rehearsing for better life. We become more aware of the way we speak, move, and act. We unsettle habits, experiment with and enact alternate scenarios – proposals for improving ourselves and our societies.

Gradually, we developed a full-fledged partnership. We committed to co-direct a community theater project, YTheater – without whitewashing our differences.

Bonna’s Arabic improves. Kadar’s Hebrew becomes more nuanced.

We convene a dynamic collection of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian performers to explore life themes through theater. There is no consensus – not about politics, religion, lifestyle, even language. We distill scenes, re-enacting our intersections, switching places, working through difficulty with caring. In intense and wildly creative weekly workshops, we make new multimedia community theater performances. We enable diverse audiences to experience our process, to face challenges and find inspiration with us.

For the past year and a half, we have been occupied with garbage – material and human. Why do we consume and waste so much? Refugees are the refuse of humanity, spit out by natural and human disasters. Jews have long experienced homelessness; Palestinians feel it now. Sustainable ecology must address a deep emptiness that careless and cynical trashing of our world and each other will not fill. At the root, we need to improve our relationships.

It was not simple for me to enter this world of collaboration. Professional theater communities and international guilds, even friends ostracize me – for working with Israelis, with Jews. Muslim women have been forced out of our project by their siblings, parents, friends, and spouses. Stigmas about men and women working closely together, exposure to foreign world-views and lifestyles intimidate people who hold traditional attitudes. Some are also afraid that people who see our shared work might think that the situation is fine, but it is not. It is difficult. Yet, I think that there is no point to continue shouting from afar. I decided to enter the circle, go on stage, explain myself, my Palestinian culture, and our existence, from inside.We must be ourselves without fear. People who struggle using stones and weapons, who refuse to cooperate – that is their way to speak their heart. It is not mine. I choose a different way to express what it means to be a Palestinian – the way of theater. I respect how Kadar takes a risky and bold position. For many, normalization is betrayal. Few (if any) Arab institutions agree to work with us. Closed-mindedness and coercion endanger ours and every collaboration.  Destruction is both easier than creation, and unbearably wasteful. We all pay the price. Protecting Israel from those who intend harm is a constant and aching burden. YTheater performs direct engagement and the opening of minds and hearts, each to the other. Coming to terms with each other’s pain, facing and responding to each other’s humanity strengthens resolve to resist violence, and to opt to build our societies in peace and with art.Israeli-Palestinian organizations tend to function on an anti-Israel consensus. Many would assume that I am a secular leftist. No, I am not. I am an observant Jew and an ardent Zionist. At YTheater, we make space to hold commitments and engage with one another. We are determined to persevere, to learn to live and work better together.

We have no illusions about ending this or any war with theater. But rather than waiting for the fighting to end, we steel our resolve to take creative action. YTheater welcomes you to participate in our process, propagating collaboration. We run workshops for Arabs and Jews, for young people, leaders, and performers. We have just launched a crowd-funding campaign to support the production of our new performance, Take-Away. Please visit our project on Kickstarter to learn more, view a short video, and reap rewards for investing in our work. We look forward to and are grateful for your contributions. We are scheduled to put Take-Away on stage at Beit Mazia in Jerusalem, 18 Messilat Yesharim Street on December 30 at 8:30 p.m. We intend to engage and inspire diverse audiences here and abroad. We are delighted to book Take-Away in any and every suitable venue – please contact us.

About the Author
The late Bonna Devora Haberman is author of 'Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism: Blood and Ink' and 'ReReading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter,' National Jewish Book Award finalist. Dr. Haberman taught at Harvard, Brandeis and Hebrew universities. In Jerusalem, she initiated Women of the Wall, a 25 year strong movement for women's full participation and leadership of public religious practice. -- Dr. Haberman died on June 16, 2015.