Banned Play on Palestinian Prisoners, Occupation Throws Israeli Theater Festival Into Turmoil

Artistic director quits popular Acre Fringe Theater Festival after public steering committee disqualifies ‘Prisoners of Occupation’

The artistic director of the Acre Fringe Theater Festival resigned Sunday because a play about Palestinian prisoners was disallowed by the event’s steering committee.

Avi Gibson Bar El informed the Acre municipality that he was resigning because the play “Prisoners of the Occupation” by Einat Weitzman was blocked by the committee. Gibson issued a short statement about his resignation to the festival’s artists. Afterward, Yosef Abu-Varda, a member of the festival’s artistic committee, also resigned.

After six of the eight ensembles that were to compete in the festival threatened to drop out if Weitzman’s play was not restored to the program, it was no longer clear what form – if any – the festival, scheduled for the intermediate days of Sukkot, will take this year. Several of the production’s artists met over the weekend to decide on how to proceed, and one of them told Haaretz that they planned to stage their plays outside the Acre festival.

“This year Acre will have the Miri Regev festival,” said the artist, referring to the culture minister who denounces and threatens the funding of works she deems unpatriotic. “The Fringe Theater Festival will take place in [another] city that understands freedom of expression.”

Israeli producers, actors condemn ‘offensive’ move by Acre

The steering committee’s disqualification of “Prisoners of the Occupation,” which deals with letters and stories of Palestinian prisoners, angered some artists’ organizations. The Association of Independent Theater Producers and the Israeli Actors Union supported for Gibson and several artists’ withdrawal from the festival, and condemned the Acre municipality, which they called “offensive and undemocratic.”

“All the years of its existence the festival has preserved freedom of expression and had become a symbol of coexistence and cooperation,” the two groups wrote in a joint statement. “Last year Gibson got high praise from the public, the critics, Acre residents and the municipality for the quality of the festival.”

They said it was critical that the steering committee and artistic committee operate separately. “From the moment the steering committee and the municipality choose the artistic director, they should back him, even if the artistic content doesn’t conform to their personal views, legitimate as they may be. [The decision] shook up the entire festival and put its very existence in question.”

Playwright and director Yehoshua Sobol, who planned to have his play “Shkulim” staged at the festival, told Haaretz the steering committee disqualified Weitzman’s play “without seeing her pilot and without reading her text, because the text was still being formulated. She submitted an idea and a pilot, and the disqualification was based on the name of the work – ‘Prisoners of the Occupation,’ and the name of the writer, who last year staged ‘Palestine – Year Zero.’ The politocrats decided the subject had been dealt with enough, and that’s the worst kind of censorship.”

In response, the Acre Festival management called Gibson’s resignation “irresponsible and evidence of his misunderstanding of his role and an outrageous lack of professionalism.”

The statement added, “Gibson’s decision that year after year the main topic would be terrorists with blood on their hands is evidence of a fixation and inability to diversify.”