The Siege play tour by Jenni Frazer for Times of Israel April 27 2015
British Jews are once again bracing themselves for attacks on Israel with a month-long tour of a new play by the Freedom Theatre of Palestine, “The Siege”.
The theatre company, based in the West Bank town of Jenin, has devised the play based on the April 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The company, whose mission is “generating cultural resistance” is bringing the play to the UK in May, performing in a number of places with a large Jewish community. It will open in Manchester, at Salford’s Lowry Theatre, on May 13 and 14, and will then tour Britain, with performances at London’s Battersea Arts Centre and major stages in Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham and Glasgow, as well as some smaller venues. According to the theatre’s website, “The Siege” is supported by the EU, the British Council and the Roddick Foundation.
In 2002 scores of Palestinian gunmen holed up in the Bethlehem church, taking as human shields or hostages around 200 Christian clergy and civilians. “The Siege” has not yet been performed but some clues as to its probable content can be seen on the Freedom Theatre’s website: “A group of armed men seek sanctuary in one of the world’s holiest sites as the Israeli army closes in with helicopters, tanks and snipers. Along with the fighters are some 200 priests, nuns and civilians. The siege lasts for 39 days, paralysing the centre of Bethlehem and keeping tens of thousands under curfew… two dead bodies are decomposing in a cave below the church. While the world is watching, the fighters are faced with the question of whether to struggle to the end or to surrender. No matter what they choose, they will have to leave their families and their homeland behind forever.”
In fact, according to contemporary reports, the Christian clergy and civilians were the hostages of the Palestinian gunmen. A deal to conclude the siege was eventually concluded which sent the Palestinian terrorists into exile in Europe. Reports indicated that the gunmen used bibles as toilet paper and placed 40 bombs across the chapel area of the church.
In a video uploaded to YouTube, the theatre’s artistic director presents the play as a sympathetic look at the siege from the inside and says that it includes interviews with the exiled “fighters”.
Another YouTube video to promote the play includes a sympathetic interview with terrorist Ibrahim Moussa Salem Abayat, a Fatah Tamzin commander who was linked to specific terror attacks against Israel including the murder of a US citizen in 2002 and several fatal shootings and bombings.
The forthcoming presentations have now begun to be discussed on Twitter, although there is understandable nervousness about the show, so soon after the cancellation of the controversial Southampton University conference debating the legal right of Israel to exist. The conference caused a huge row with its organisers accusing pro-Israel opponents of being in favour of boycotts – when it suited them.
An Israeli official told the Times of Israel: “Many of the men featured in ‘The Siege’ have murdered innocent people, a fact left unmentioned in the ‘Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre’ promotional material.”
He added: “The most prominent terrorist celebrated in this play is Ibrahahim Abayat, the commander of a terrorist cell that murdered the elderly pro-Palestinian peace activist, Avi Boaz, in Bethlehem, three months before the Church of the Nativity incident occurred. When Palestine solidarity groups and activists in the UK are lauding ‘The Siege’, it is worth sparing at least a thought for Avi Boaz, who was murdered in cold blood by the same characters who evaded justice and are now being feted on stage.”
A spokesman for the British Jewish community’s Fair Play Campaign said: “Given that ‘The Siege’s’ writers consulted terrorist killers for research, it seems likely that the play will present the story entirely from the terrorists’ point of view. It is important that audiences understand that the facts are in dispute, and presenting it as a ‘true story’ stands to mislead. We respect artistic freedom, but are concerned that the play might ignore the murderous, violent pasts of terrorists, presenting them as the ‘heroes’ of the show.”
Julia Fawcett, chief executive of the Lowry Theatre in Salford where the first performances are due to take place, is well aware of the sensitivities surrounding the show. In an internal memo to staff made available to the Times of Israel, she wrote: “’The Siege’ is based on actual events that took place during the siege of the Church of the Nativity in 2002”. She warned staff: “As with any work relating to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, ‘The Siege’ is likely to attract comment and emotion for both sides of the debate. Given that, I wanted to reiterate the Lowry’s position on programming work of a sensitive and political nature”.
The theatre, she wrote, “wholeheartedly supported international cultural exchange”. It was “proud to provide a platform for art that encourages people to engage in discussion. Our decision to programme ‘The Siege’ was made solely on the artistic merits of the Freedom Theatre Palestine as a company and the work itself as a performance… it is without doubt a great piece of work telling a fantastic story.”
Leaders of Manchester’s Jewish community sought an immediate meeting with Ms Fawcett when the show was announced, expressing their concern. The Lowry is the only venue where the play is being performed on two successive nights, and a panel discussion is due to take place after the show on each night. In a statement to the Times of Israel after the meeting, Julia Fawcett said that she and the Jewish representatives had discussed the context of the company’s visit “and the wide range of work that we show from around the world, including the recent visit from the fantastic Batsheva Dance Company.” She said that the post-show discussions would focus on the role of the arts in places affected by conflict and tension, and that the panel participants were yet to be confirmed.
Freedom Theatre is supported by “The Freedom Theatre UK Friends” which raises money to fund their UK tours. The money is donated via the British Shalom Salaam Trust, which is the charitable arm of Jews for Justice for Palestinians. It is run by Zoe Lafferty, a supporter of Israel boycotts, who is a co-director of “The Siege”.
One Jewish community leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that arts programming related to Israel or Palestine presented a big problem in view of the protests over cultural boycotts of Israeli events. “We don’t want to call for plays or concerts to be cancelled,” he told the Times of Israel. “But people need to be aware of the facts and of the need for a balanced point of view.”