Con­tro­ver­sial theater play sparks de­bate over free­dom of speech in Is­rael


A de­ci­sion by Is­rael’s new ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter to halt the per­for­mances for high school stu­dents of a con­tro­ver­sial theater play, in­spired by the life story of an Arab who mur­dered an Is­raeli sol­dier, has rekin­dled a fierce de­bate in the coun­try over the lim­its of artis­tic ex­pres­sion.

The min­is­ter, Naf­tali Bennett, says it is in­ap­pro­pri­ate for the state to ex­pose stu­dents to a play that hu­man­izes a killer and dis­re­spects the fam­ily of the vic­tim.

Crit­ics, how­ever, warn against cen­sor­ship, say­ing the new na­tion­al­ist gov­ern­ment is lim­it­ing the free­dom and vi­brancy of Is­rael’s democ­racy.

The is­sue emerged when the fam­ily of Moshe Ta­mam, a sol­dier who was ab­ducted, tor­tured and killed in 1984, dis­cov­ered that the al-Mi­dan theater in the city of Haifa was stag­ing a show in­spired by the pri­son ex­pe­ri­ence of his killer, Walid Daka, a mem­ber of Is­rael’s Arab mi­nor­ity, and that it was be­ing shown to high school stu­dents as part of their state-funded cul­ture and arts pro­gram.

Or­tal Ta­mam, the niece of the mur­dered sol­dier, choked up with tears as she de­scribed her feel­ings about the play, en­ti­tled “A Par­al­lel Time.”

“We are just say­ing a very sim­ple thing: Don’t fund this play. Our gov­ern­ment shouldn’t be the one to fund this play and hon­estly I don’t un­der­stand all those peo­ple who think that some­one who kid­napped a 19-year-old kid should be called a hero,” she said.

Bennett im­me­di­ately or­dered the per­for­mances be stopped, say­ing Is­rael should not be fund­ing or en­dors­ing some­thing so of­fen­sive.

“I sup­port plu­ral­ism and have no de­sire to in­ter­fere with cul­ture and arts,” Bennett told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “The ques­tion here is whether the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion in Is­rael should pay for school chil­dren to go see a play that shows sym­pa­thy to a mur­derer and a ter­ror­ist.”

“And my an­swer is no; I wouldn’t ex­pect Amer­ica to send its school chil­dren to a play that shows sym­pa­thy with Osama Bin Laden and so the same thing will not hap­pen in Is­rael,” he said.

The con­tro­versy comes on the heels of Cul­ture Min­is­ter Miri Regev’s threat to halt gov­ern­ment fund­ing for a small theater af­ter its founder, an Arab Is­raeli, re­fused to per­form in a Jewish West Bank set­tle­ment. Regev says she will also ex­am­ine fi­nan­cial sup­port for other in­sti­tu­tions that attack the state.

Both Bennett and Regev are prom­i­nent fig­ures in a new gov­ern­ment that is back­ing a num­ber of mea­sures op­po­nents say are aimed at sti­fling crit­ics.

Is­raeli artists have come out against the mea­sures, say­ing the coun­try’s plu­ral­ism is strong enough to cope with artis­tic per­for­mances that get un­der its skin.

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