Several key figures of British theater have supported the participation of Israel’s national theater company, Habima, at the Globe to Globe Shakespeare Festival. They were responding to a letter that called for Habima’s invitation to be withdrawn that was published in the Guardian newspaper, and was signed by 37 actors and directors including Emma Thompson.
Playwright Sir Arnold Wesker, and actors Steven Berkoff and Maureen Lipman, have compared the attempt to ban Habima to “Nazi-era book-burning,” and actor Simon Callow said he “strongly opposed” any attempt to ban the “challenging and fearlessly exploratory work” of the Habima company.
Sir Arnold Wesker said “depriving an audience of an artistic experience is like the Nazis burning the books of the finest minds and talents of Europe”.
Berkoff called the letter “dangerous rubbish to identify artists with the policies of a government” noting that some Israeli actors opposed the policies of the current Israeli government. He added that “this has a kind of stench to it which reminds me of the hundreds of other times when Jews were excluded for whatever reason, as writers, actors and painters, from the Russian tzar to Hitler onwards.”
Maureen Lipman called it “disgusting” and said “I don’t notice them trying to ban Israeli inventions which are changing the world”.
Berkoff and Lipman also “questioned whether the letter’s signatories had voiced their opposition to the involvement of groups from countries including Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Russia and China, given their respective human rights records.”
During the six-week festival, 37 plays will be staged in 37 languages. Habima will be performing “The Merchant of Venice” in Hebrew. Other companies participating in the festival include the Palestinian Ashtar Theater company performing “Richard II” in Arabic and the National Theatre of China performing “Richard III” in Mandarin.
The letter calling for the exclusion of the Israeli theater group said “Habima has a shameful record of involvement with illegal Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory.” It also claimed that if the invitation is not withdrawn, the festival is “…complicit with human rights violations and the illegal colonization of occupied land.”
The Shakespeare’s Globe theater has defended hosting the Israeli company and described the festival as “a celebration of language and not … a celebration of nations and states”.