Einat Weizman was basking in “public adoration in Israel” as a familiar face on television when, in 2014, Operation Protective Edge, better known as the Israel-Gaza conflict, started. Opposing the conflict meant that “for the first time, I was publicly attacked for my political views. I experienced attacks on social media from thousands of people and it spread from the Net to the streets”. The attacks became so bad that she was scared to step outside. “I decided I needed to come up with a way to process what was happening. Since I was being pushed out of public space, I decided to respond by doing the opposite — by putting the whole experience on stage,” she says.
The play that emerged from the turmoil was called Shame. First staged in Tel Aviv in 2015, it conveyed a message of Palestinian-Jewish radical opposition to Israeli-Jewish policies through the artists’ personal narratives. Ever since, Weizman has been using theatre to provide a platform for voices outside the mainstream. The director, born and raised in Haifa and now living in Tel Aviv, is ready with Palestine, Year Zero, which premiered in Israel and opened the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFok) this month.
Excerpts from a conversation:
What’s the premise of Palestine, Year Zero?
The play tries to present a portrayal of the ongoing Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) — the destruction of the Palestinian national home. Palestine, Year Zero is a documentary play, where the main character is a building assessor who decides to assess the damage that Israel has caused to Palestinian homes. He goes from house to house, and writes a report on the destruction. As part of my research I visited destroyed villages as well as houses that were partially or completely damaged. I met people whose houses were destroyed. I sat with them, I wrote, I filmed and observed their futile attempts to fight the state’s destructive mechanisms. I also conducted theoretical research that included readings of documentary material, such as court protocols, testimonies, articles and official publications of the state.
Why are you drawn to stories of Israeli brutality that can be deemed anti-national?
The theatre that I aspire to do responds to reality in a direct and immediate way, I am not interested in “distances” and allegories. The situation in Israel is grave and deteriorating. There is apartheid. Land is stolen. Every night, children and adults who oppose the occupation are getting arrested. Poets, bloggers, journalists, artists are arrested. My theatre and my work are meant to widen the boundaries of freedom of speech, to challenge the consensus and not to approve it.
I became increasingly politically aware and critical of the political narrative in Israel while studying at Tel Aviv University. There were two main reasons. First, I was exposed to information and ideas that opened my eyes and got me to reflect critically on the reality around me. And second, I formed close friendships with Palestinians I met at university, and was exposed to their experiences and outlook. While there are many Palestinians who live in Israel and are Israeli citizens, Israeli society is very segregated. It is easy to demonise and hard to develop empathy for people you never meet.
There was much drama surrounding the premier of Palestine, Year Zero at the Acco festival in Israel in 2016.
About two weeks before the play was scheduled to premiere at the Acco festival in Israel, a complaint was lodged with the Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, claiming that it contains messages of incitement that undermined the state and offended its symbols. Following that, the Minister stated that the play would be examined by her office and that a representative would visit the rehearsals. Immediately after the minister’s statement was made public, all of the other festival participants announced, in an act of solidarity, that they would not perform their plays at the festival if Palestine, Year Zero was prevented from performing. There was also an absolute refusal to allow the ministry’s representatives to view rehearsals.
The script of the play was sent to the government for approval. Why send it to begin with?
The festival organisers did send a copy of the play to the Minister’s office saying they had nothing to hide. The Minister was informed by the attorney general that she lacked the authority to cancel the play. She understood that if she did so, all participants would withdraw and the entire festival would be cancelled. She retracted her objection, noting that her office found nothing in the play that undermines the state or offends its symbols. Thus, Regev’s intervention ironically resulted in an unthinkable ministerial stamp of approval for a play unabashedly addressing the calamity that the Palestinian people have been enduring since 1948.
Last year, the ministry banned another play, Prisoners of Occupation. What is that about?
Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons are the open wound of Palestinian society, responsible for countless broken families and lives. Whole generations of Palestinians disappear into Israeli prisons. For them, the cry for ‘freedom’ is, first of all, a call for release from the prison cell. The play seeks to enter the closed confines of the prison and to present some aspects of this hidden space as seen through the eyes of the Palestinian prisoner.
You received a lot of support from fellow artists, who withdrew from the Acco festival because Prisoners of Occupation was not allowed.
The solidarity of the artists and the fact that they withdrew from the festival was very meaningful for me. They made a significant sacrifice for the sake of freedom of speech. But, unfortunately, they do not represent a common view in Israeli society. Most people in Israel support censorship and I got much more attacks than support at the end of the day. Activists are treated as a fifth column, like traitors.
How did growing up in Israel shape your sense of politics?
All my grandparents were Holocaust survivors and this had an impact on my parents, and, in turn, on my siblings and me. My parents are affiliated with Israel’s Zionist left, but they raised us in a way that encouraged independent and critical thought. The hegemonic narrative in Israel, conveyed through the media, the education system, most cultural productions and, in just about every aspect of daily life, directs you to adopt a certain outlook. Israel still sees itself as a small, threatened home to a persecuted minority and not as the powerful state it really is. In the last few years, there has been a notable shift towards more extreme right-wing nationalism in Israel accompanied by an extremely aggressive public discourse including hateful attacks on anyone expressing critical views about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians or human rights violations. It’s becoming scary to publicly support human rights in Israel.