Theater as politics: an interview with Einat Weizman

Jonathan Ofir interviews Israeli playwright Einat Weizman about her play ‘Prisoners of the Occupation’ and how theater can become a vehicle for political mobilization and change.

Einat Weizman’s play, Prisoners of the Occupation, is running in Denmark from mid-April until May 6. The play, which is the result of interviews with several Palestinian political prisoners, especially those incarcerated for suspicion of armed resistance, was an overwhelming success with over 20 sold-out performances, countless interviews, and five-star reviews in the biggest papers. The play faced great resistance in Israel where it was at first banned by the culture minister Miri Regev and then managed to be performed a few times under significant limitations. 

The play is part of a trilogy focusing on Palestinian resistance. The first of the three concerns resistance through art and is titled I, Dareen T. (about the Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, who was imprisoned for a poem titled “Resist them”); Prisoners of the Occupation, which focuses on armed resistance and prison; and the last of the three is How to Make a Revolution, which focuses on the oppressive Israeli occupation system of military courts. 

I interviewed Weizman on April 18, 2023, following that evening’s performance, and this is a slightly edited version of our conversation.

Jonathan Ofir: I am coming straight from the play, Prisoners of the Occupation, that is running here in Copenhagen and is going to run more than twenty times, and it’s all sold out – it’s an enormous success here. It was kind of a shattering experience to see this play. To be in the cell with the Palestinian political prisoners and almost experience the torture – ongoing mental torture, physical torture, sexual harassment, and hunger strikes, and what that means. It was terrible and great at the same time. 

I am interested to hear about the background of this play. You are coming from Israel, you’re an actress, you’ve moved into directing and creating theater – you wrote this in Israel and tried to perform it. How did this get received in Israel?

Einat Weizman: So the play was programmed for a theater festival in Akka (Acre), and a few weeks later, it was banned on political grounds. It was back in 2017. The banning of the play was followed by a massive media storm because all the other artists withdrew their plays from the festival – all the actors, all the directors, all the dancers, the artistic committee, and finally, the artistic director resigned. So the whole theater festival collapsed. So that year, there was no theater festival – which made the Ministry of Culture back then, led by Miri Regev, attempt to justify the banning. They said that it’s not censorship, she said that it’s because I’m glorifying terrorists with blood on their hands. She repeated this claim in the parliament. This of course led to many attacks on me and on my family, I got death threats – and I thought that I would not ever be able to stage this play. But this was only the beginning of a journey inside the prison, inside this subject. 

This story of others canceling their participation in the festival sounds quite extraordinary and dramatic. Did the others also say why they stood with you?

Yes, they all said that they stand for freedom of speech. So it was like a liberal statement for freedom of speech, not a radical statement for the political prisoners. It was imperative for them to state that they were standing for the freedom of speech – it’s easier, of course, and I understand them. The fact that they did this act of standing in solidarity and withdrawing from the festival is very surprising, and I respect it.

So, that was 2017. And the show did get to be performed in Israel some years later, right?

So, after the banning, of course, I was trying to go to other theaters, knocking on closed doors… the whole theater community was very supportive of me and told me, ‘keep on going, be strong, we are with you’ – but no one – no artistic director wanted to take the risk and stage the play, because it’s a play that made so much controversy, that they didn’t want to take the chance. So I was left alone, and that actually gave me the opportunity, because I thought, ok, nobody will do it, so if this is the situation, then I can even research it in a different way, not the way I thought at the beginning. Because at the beginning I thought I would base the play on letters from prison, and later I understood that of course all the letters are being read by the secret service, so it’s not the information I wanted. Then I started to meet former prisoners. Together with them, we reconstructed and mapped all the important things inside the prison, what the critical subjects that we have to talk about are, so we reconstructed from their memories…

If I may pause here – when you say the secret service reads those letters, you mean that the prisoners are already being cautious about what they are writing, and they are censuring themselves?

Of course, yes. 

And you wanted to get the fuller story?

Yes, I wanted the whole story, and I know there are dark spots in the Israeli Apartheid that there is no way to document. Like the prison – there are no cameras, there are no recording devices, and there is no way to really know what is happening inside. So, in this case, the theater was like a tool for me to show the undocumented spots. This is why I was working with the prisoners, reconstructing from their memories, and I asked them, to show, exactly, how did you sit, what did he do, and what size was the room. So all these small details were reconstructed in our research. 

For example an interrogator torturing a prisoner – that is something I have seen in the play itself – it’s horrifying. Did you get these descriptions because of your direct contact with those prisoners?

Yes, this is the only way. There are things that cannot be documented. So we have to rely on, you know, of course, it’s not only one prisoner, I spoke with many prisoners. And only one prisoner was still in prison, and he is still, to this day, in prison, who wrote one scene that was sent to me from within prison – this prisoner is Walid Daqqa. Unfortunately, he has been diagnosed with cancer, and now he is not in prison, he is in a hospital, and there is a campaign now for his immediate release. 

I think he’s been in Israeli prisons for over 30 years?

Thirty-seven years. He was supposed to be out already, but he got another two years when [former Balad lawmaker] Basel Ghattas was caught smuggling phones to him – so two more years were added. 

So, returning to the play in Israel …

Finally, something happened. Back then, the Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, was trying to legislate a law called the ‘loyalty in arts’ law, and she didn’t succeed, and when the law failed, it was my cue to go to the theater and ask them, please, now, let’s go and do Prisoners of the Occupation, since there is no law and she will not be able to shut down the theater. And then the theater agreed, with some restrictions. Lawyers had to go through everything I wrote, and I couldn’t do any PR, but I did stage Prisoners of the Occupation in Tel Aviv at the end of 2019. 

And how many times did it run?

Not many, because then COVID-19 started.

So, having it performed in Israel was always a kind of a struggle against the odds, as you describe, but now you have performed the piece in Norway (2020) and Japan (2023), and now we are getting it in Denmark. You’ve done at least a dozen interviews with the media, and you’re getting 5-star reviews in the biggest papers here. How does this feel in comparison to the whole struggle in Israel?

This is so strange to me, you know. I come from Israel, where so many people hate me. Sometimes I just go down the street, and people are addressing me and saying ‘I’m so happy that you are unsuccessful.’ This happened just before I came here, he had so much hate in his eyes. So this, I’m used to it…

But coming here, first of all, I noticed everywhere, there are posters of Prisoners of the Occupation, which is so strange to me! It’s like, what, where am I on the moon?! Really, I felt hugged by the city the minute I came. And then the love of the audience, and the way the media accepts this play, is so surprising, it gives me so much hope that there is someone out there that is willing to hear this story. And it makes sense, and the audience doesn’t think that ‘they are terrorists’ or that the play should be shut down… so this is like a miracle for me, for someone like me, from where I came – it fills me with new energy. 

That’s fantastic. Stepping back, how did you even get here? You were a very successful Israeli actress on mainstream Israeli television, and suddenly at some point, you made a break and began doing political theater. It cost you a considerable price. Is there a point where you broke from the mainstream and went into this contentious area in Israel?  

Yes, of course, there was a turning point in my life in 2014 during the attack on Gaza. A photo of me with the Palestinian flag [on a t-shirt] was shared on social media. This photo was taken in 2006, but people thought it was taken in 2014 during the attack on Gaza, and there were many calls to ban everything I do and to not watch my films and TV series I was playing in. There were attacks against me over social media, of course, with many threats on my life and threats that they would rape me in very creative ways… and the hate moved from social media to the streets because people knew me. So for quite some time it was frightening to be me, walking alone in the streets. I tried not to go outside a lot, and if I did, friends of mine accompanied me everywhere I went. 

My agent back then told me, ‘ok, if you want to save your career, you have to go to the media, to the press, and apologize and to explain and to say that you stand for Israel, otherwise I cannot send you to any more auditions’. So, I said, ok, so don’t. And I had to process everything that happened to me, because it was… you know, for someone who is used to getting love, suddenly to be hated so much, and that I was barred from performing. I was not in a good psychological state. So I decided not to go to therapy but to take the experience and put it on stage. So this is how my first play, Shame, came about, about the junction between arts and politics…

You decided not to apologize…

No, I took my activism to the theater – having been pushed out of the stage, I decided to take my story to the stage. This was my first play. And then, I realized that theater is quite an effective tool and that I will move all my activism to the stage. I will use my privileges as an Israeli white Jew in Israel in order to raise the Palestinian narrative – all the things that are almost impossible for Palestinian artists, Palestinians in general, to talk about – it’s easier for me. I can be banned, but I will not (until now) be imprisoned for my artwork. This is what I have done since then. 

Have your other series, films, etc. been canceled, are you considered a ‘performer non-grata’ in Israel?  

I’m not playing anymore on Israeli TV. People are afraid to work with me. I’ve experienced it time and again. People are afraid to work with me because I’m tagged as radical-radical left, like a traitor. It’s easier for me to work with Palestinians than with Israelis. 

Most recently, before the 2022 elections, you entered the Balad-Tajammu’ party, a party that represents mostly Palestinians and advocates for one secular-democratic state, and suddenly you are #6 on their list! They didn’t quite make the threshold, but how was getting into politics? You do not come from a professional political background, right?

Yes, I’m not, I’m an artist, and the way I do theater is a political form. Because, of course, the play itself is very important to me, but there is something more important, and these are the alliances and communities it creates. Like now, I have a community with political prisoners – ex-political prisoners and prisoners still inside prison. And unconsciously, I have built myself a political platform without even noticing.

All these communities… because before Prisoners of the Occupation I did another play about house demolitions, and I am still very active in Al-Araqib – a Bedouin village that has been demolished 215 times until today. Since 2016, when I did the play, I still work with Al-Araqib, so this is another community… Every play, I create a community, and I work with a community, so the tool is art, but it’s context. But I admit I couldn’t imagine that this is what I’m doing – but I’m doing politics. It was unconscious, and I was surprised to find myself #6 in a party that I admired and supported from afar. I was always supportive of the party and close to the leadership, but I didn’t imagine I would be part of it. 

That’s an amazing story. I would like to ask you, towards the end of this – now that this play has been performed in Norway, Japan, Denmark, what do you want this play to accomplish?

Success for me is when people are leaving my play, and they say, ‘ok what can I do?’ – I want people to be active – moved and active. If someone comes out and asks me how can we get engaged, please give me tools, this is a success.

If someone asked you this, what would you tell them?

There are so many things that people can do… you can be active only on social media, but I have friends who go every Saturday to the Jordan Valley to accompany Palestinians and protect them from settlers – there are many kinds of activism. So yes, there is a lot to do. But also, if you are outside Israel-Palestine, from different countries, it’s essential to be vocal about Palestinian rights. 

I can see why Miri Regev tried to ban your show… If she knew it would get around the world like this, maybe she would make an even greater effort. But she has not succeeded, whereas you have. And I wish you all the best of success in the future of this production. Thank you very much.  

Thank you.