Jaffaʹs Arabic-Hebrew theatre

Model for a democratic, secular Israel

The Arabic-Hebrew Theatre in Jaffa is one of a kind – and a thorn in the side of the Israeli government. Alexandra Foerderl-Schmid visits a venue under constant threat of closure

The actors don't use words, but the complex plot can nevertheless be followed without any problems: one hundred years of Arab-Jewish history, the nucleus of the Middle East conflict, condensed into 90 minutes.

Because of the throng of people and the heat, the performance was relocated to the forecourt of the Arabic-Hebrew Theatre in Jaffa. The call of a muezzin and the music from a Jewish wedding can be heard in the distance.

The play "Today is for Dancing" begins in 1919. Jews and Arabs meet for the first time in a dance hall, then key years follow in quick succession and: the destruction of tender bonds of love by politics, the expulsion of the Arabs, who eventually have to wait on tables in the very places where they used to live, the settlement of European Jews, who are also eventually displaced – by real estate agents.

"The only theatre where thereʹs genuine co-operation between Jews and Arabs"

For 20 years now, the Arab-Hebrew Theatre in Jaffa has defied all conflicts and wars. It is an extraordinary institution in a country where equal co-existence is not a matter of course. "It's the only theatre where there's genuine co-operation between Jews and Arabs," says director Igal Ezrati with evident pride.

The Jaffa Theatre in Tel Aviv (photo: Imago/Sepp(Spiegel)
Dialogue venue under threat: the Jaffa theatre relies on the public purse for about a third of its budget. "Without regional and national funds we wouldn't be able to survive," says Yigal Ezrati, director and co-founder of the only Arab-Hebrew theatre in Israel

Jaffa is the ideal place for it. The Arab-dominated port town has existed since antiquity, while the city of Tel Aviv founded by Jews in 1909 was originally a suburb. From the forecourt of the former palace of the Ottoman governor the view extends as far as the skyline of Tel Aviv with its construction cranes. In recent years Jaffa has also undergone considerable gentrification.

This play without words by Igal Ezrati and Gabi Eldor premiered 28 years ago and has since been re-worked to incorporate subsequent developments.

For Ezrati, these are first and foremost the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and the conflicts within Israeli society. "There's a gulf between religious and non-religious Jews, between those who come from Europe or other Arab states," he says.

The 63-year-old is the engine that drives the theatre, which is intentionally described as Arabic-Hebrew. The theatre is "not the place for discussing religious questions." But that is wishful thinking. Of all theatres, this one cannot keep religion and politics at arm's length.

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