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Howard Jacobson says call to ban Israeli theatre group “treasonable” to artists

Novelist Howard Jacobson has written an open letter to The Observer criticizing a group of actors, playwrights, and directors who suggested that Israel’s national theatre company, Habima, should not be allowed to perform at the historic Globe theatre in London, England, as part of the upcoming Cultural Olympiad.

The letter that spawned Jacobson’s ire, which was signed by such notables as Mike Leigh, Emma Thompson, and Alexi Sayle, says that Habima should be disallowed from performing at the Globe because of its history of mounting performances inside Israeli occupied territories on the West Bank. The letter states that “Habima has a shameful record of involvement with illegal Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory,” and goes on to say that while some performers and other artists have refused to work in the disputed territories, Habima “accepted the invitation [to do so] with alacrity, and promised the Israeli minister of culture that it would ‘deal with any problems hindering such performances.'” The letter goes on: “By inviting Habima, Shakespeare’s Globe is undermining the conscientious Israeli actors and playwrights who have refused to break international law.”

In his response, Jacobson minces no words, calling the demand to ban Habima “treasonable” to other artists, and saying that in publishing the call for censorship, “McCarthyism came to Great Britain.”

Jacobson, who won the 2010 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Finkler Question, which is, at least in part, an examination of Jewish identity, points out one of the abiding ironies in the attempt to prohibit Habima from performing: the play they intend to mount is The Merchant of Venice. Jacobson writes:

One could almost laugh about it, so Kafkaesque is the reasoning: The Merchant of Venice, acted in Hebrew, a troubling work of great moral complexity (and therefore one that we should welcome every new interpretation of), to be banned not by virtue of itself, but because of where the theatre company performing it had also performed.

The Cultural Olympiad, which runs from April 21 to June 9, features 37 Shakespearean plays, each performed in a different language. On May 4 and 5, the Palestinian troupe Ashtar Theatre is set to perform an Arabic version of Richard II.