If the two dozen anti-Israel activists outside the August Wilson Center on Oct. 11 actually had attended the show they were protesting, “In the Tunnel” by Israel’s Gesher Theatre, they would have seen a political satire about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was evenhanded in its portrayal of characters, allocating blame as well as humanity to each side in equal measure.
But it was not the “content” of the show they were protesting.
“The theater is a part of ‘Brand Israel’ sponsored by the Israeli Foreign Ministry in an attempt to distract America from what Israel is doing to the Palestinians,” said Ken Boas, a local anti-Israel activist who is the U.S. chair of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and a former instructor at the University of Pittsburgh. “Israel is sending cultural groups all over the West to brand Israel as humane.”
Boas admitted that he had not seen the show, which played in Pittsburgh from Oct. 11 to 13 as part of Gesher’s North American tour and included stops in Toronto and New York City. He also acknowledged the “liberal” bent of Gesher, but said the fact that the theater company was liberal made its tour of the United States even worse.
“This is a liberal performance, but these kinds of groups that come to the U.S. are putting on a false front,” Boas said. “We are not against the artists or the content of this performance, but the fact that the theater group is serving as ambassadors for Israel.”
Gesher’s North American tour was sponsored in part by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“In the Tunnel,” part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Festival of Firsts, uses dark humor to tell the story of two IDF soldiers trapped in a Hamas-dug tunnel along with two Palestinians. While the men together try to find their way to the light, the audience sees the media circus unraveling above ground, complete with unethical politicians on both sides spouting buzz words and fueling the cycle of violence. The audience is asked to vote whether there is “light at the end of the tunnel,” and the actors base the ending of each performance on what the audience chooses.
The protest against the show was initiated by Adalah-NY: Campaign for the Boycott of Israel and was joined by several other anti-Israel organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace Pittsburgh, the Thomas Merton Center, Pittsburgh Democratic Socialists of America, the Green Party of Allegheny County and the Pittsburgh Palestine Solidarity Committee. The groups sent a letter to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust prior to the performances, requesting cancellation of the show.
“This call is modeled on the global boycott movement that helped to bring an end to apartheid in South Africa,” the letter stated in part.
The Cultural Trust stood by its decision to showcase Gesher’s production.
“We at the Trust believe that this production fairly shines a spotlight on the tensions inherent in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and portrays them at a very human level in a way that only the arts can,” read a statement from the Cultural Trust. “Now more than ever, it is important to hear and understand not only narratives with which we feel comfortable, but also perspectives and opinions that challenge entrenched points of view.”
Karla Boos, guest curator of the Festival of Firsts and artistic director of Quantum Theatre, saw Gesher perform “In the Tunnel” while she was in Israel scouting for international shows. She sees the protests as misguided.
“I feel it is important that artists can speak across borders and across the conflicts of government,” Boos said. “I know the protestors object to the government’s support of the company coming abroad, but artists go to speak to the world with their voices any way they can, and this is the only way Israeli companies can travel.
“It struck me to think that I don’t like my government’s policies right now, and do I feel that American artists should be disabled from traveling and performing in other countries? Would I be happy with other nations making that decision about American artists? No, I would not,” she added. “I feel it is so to the good that we speak to each other, and in fact the Gesher show is very evenhanded and is as supportive of the Palestinians as the Israelis.”
Gesher Theatre was created in 1991 to bridge Russian and Israeli culture and stages all productions in both Hebrew and Russian. “In the Tunnel” was performed in Hebrew in Pittsburgh, along with English and Russian supertitles. The performances were funded in part by the Genesis Philanthropy Group.
“Genesis Philanthropy Group is committed to supporting and launching projects, programming and institutions that are focused on promoting and preserving Russian-speaking Jewish culture and heritage across the globe,” said Ilia Salita, president and CEO of Genesis Philanthropy Group. “‘In The Tunnel’ helps to accomplish this mission by sparking crucial dialogue around some of today’s most pressing issues in a way that is smart, relatable and entertaining to audiences.
“At its best, art has the power to create important conversations around difficult issues, and we’re proud that ‘In The Tunnel’ has done so.” PJC