The BoycottIsrael organization, comprised of Israeli and Palestinian members calling for an international boycott of the Jewish state, has appealed to Shakespeare's Globe Theater over the weekend, demanding that it cancel Habima's participation in the prestigious Globe to Globe Festival immediately.
The organization said in its letter, "Israel's Habima Theater is due to present, in your forthcoming festival, 'The Merchant of Venice.' As noted on your website, this play includes the role of 'Shylock, the most famous and controversial Jewish character in the theater canon' – which naturally, presents particularly acute problems and dilemmas to an Israeli theater."
The organization quotes remarks made by Habima Artistic Director Ilan Ronen to Ynet that the national theater did not sidestep the problems inherent to this particular element of the Shakespeare canon, but faced them and dealt with them in a socially engaged and committed manner.
"According to Ronen, Habima's presentation of 'The Merchant of Venice' will emphasize the issue of xenophobia – persecution of the Jew in particular but also of hatred of ethnic and religious minorities in general. As such, it would have of direct relevance to audiences in contemporary Britain, as in all times and places.
"It must be said, however, that Habima's praiseworthy outspoken position on this issue seems at variance with its stance on another issue which is highly controversial here in Israel – the creation and the expansion of settlements in occupied Palestinian territory – a policy which has recently impacted the sphere of Israeli Theater in a very direct manner," the organization members stressed, addressing the letter in which dozens of Israeli artists refused to perform in the city of Ariel and other areas located beyond the Green Line.
"Despite all of the above, however, on this issue the management of Habima has taken a position which is remote from any kind of social engagement," the letter added. "Claiming to be 'non-political', the management has reiterated its decision to perform in West Bank settlements, 'like everywhere else.'
"Moreover, the management specifically promised Limor Livnat, minister of culture in the Netanyahu Government, to 'deal with any problems hindering such performances', i.e. to pressure recalcitrant actors into taking part in them, even against the dictates of their conscience.
"And it must be pointed out that for several months, Habima has indeed sent out its actors to hold theatrical performances in West Bank settlements, on a regular basis.
"As Israeli citizens who are deeply concerned about the future of all people living in the region, we deplore this attitude. We cannot help seeing the positions taken by Habima Theater on the two issues – presentation of 'The Merchant of Venice' in London and regular performances in West Bank settlements – as inherently incompatible.
"By inviting Habima to perform in London, you are siding with its administrators in the debate on settlement performances, and you are taking a step against the conscientious Israeli actors and playwrights who have refused to perform in the settlements."
Habima: We don't deal with boycotts
Meanwhile, Habima management announced Sunday that the role of Shylock in the new production will be portrayed by actor Yaakov Cohen.
Habima General Manager Odelia Friedman said in response to BoycottIsrael's claims, "We don't deal with boycotts. Habima is preparing for the trip and feels that this is an honorable accomplishment for the State of Israel in general and for the national theater in particular.
"The invitation on behalf of the Globe Theater in London is just one of a series of international projects created by Habima Theater in recent years, including a joint project with Germany's Schaubühne Theater and Artistic Director Ilan Ronen becoming the new president of the Union des Theatres de l'Europe."
The Globe to Globe Festival will be held in London as part of the Cultural Olympiad preceding the 2012 Olympic Games in the British capital. The festival will begin on April 23, Shakespeare's birthday, and will include productions from 37 countries of the English writer's plays in different languages.
The Israeli production, directed by Ilan Ronen and translated into Hebrew by Dori Parnas, will debut on May 10.