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Religious-Secular Divide in Israeli Theatre

Hitting at the Haredim.

Though the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community does not usually attend the theatre, it ironically has had great influence on Israeli drama. Since the 1970s, at least 30 original plays on the topic of the internal religious-secular divide have been staged in Israel, concerned in particular with the powerful political influence of the haredi community and its expanding control over the ideology and legislation of the Jewish state. Playwrights displayed controversial anti-haredi grievances, which fed the religious-secular divide and provoked calls for theatre censorship. One particularly illustrative example is Yigal Even-Or’s Fleischer, written in 1993 and performed through 1994.  

Fleischer

The protagonists, Bertha and Aryeh Fleischer, are Holocaust survivors and owners of a butcher shop in a secular Israeli neighborhood. They are confronted by members of a haredi community who are settling into their neighborhood, and encouraging secular families to leave. Some non-religious families do in fact move away when haredim throw stones at them for watching television on the Sabbath.

At first the Fleischers do not object to the developments in the community. They see it as a positive economic opportunity, and they choose to invest in beautifying their shop. But no one buys from the Fleischers. They are finally told by a haredi lawyer named Hund (Yiddish for dog) that they need to purchase a kashrut certificate for an exorbitant sum of money. They buy it, and this sends them into debt. However, they continue to sell non-kosher meat even when they are certified kosher. According to Even-Or’s program notes, the Fleischers, “Try to stay afloat like survivors on a life-raft, on the sea of the ultra-Orthodox that rages around them, threatening to drown them. They even attempt a partial return to Orthodox Judaism [by wearing a skullcap and head cover] in order to attract the ultra-Orthodox customers. The butcher shop remains empty and boycotted.”   

Habimah Theater, Israel’s national theater in Tel Aviv

In debt from the money they gave to the religious community, the Fleischers are no longer able to keep Shloymele, their 30-year-old mentally disabled son, in an institution. Shloymele’s character brings even more sympathy to the Fleischers, who are also lauded for fighting in Israel’s War of Independence. However, this sympathy is rescinded when Shloymele rapes a young haredi woman, giving the religious community, as well as the audience, good cause for wanting the Fleischers to move away. Ultimately, the couple dies in a fire accidentally set by Shloymele, and the conflict ends in a victory for the haredim.

A Melodrama?

Many critics and journalists deemed Fleischer a melodrama because it exhibited many similarities to the popular melodramatic theatre of the 18th and 19th centuries. A classic melodrama rouses suspense and pathos to inspire action and moral clarity by the characters. The protagonist in a melodrama is a morally pure hero who must fight extreme corruption and evil opposition.


Fleischer

‘s protagonists, however, are far from being morally perfect, and Even-Or does not clearly define any heroes. The Fleischers and the haredi community are both deserving of sympathy and critique. The Fleischers may be victims of colonization, but they are not blameless. They are also at least partially responsible for their son’s heinous actions. Members of the haredi community also cannot be judged as pure aggressors–they are certainly deserving of pity after the rape of their rabbi’s daughter. 

Theatre Censorship in Israel


Fleischer

roused cries of laughter as well as debate and protest. Six religious members of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) raised Fleischer as an issue, terming the play “anti-Semitic, anti-religious, defamatory, and rabble-rousing,” and calling for its closure. These spokesmen added to the public’s awareness of the production, but did not succeed in censoring it. The uproar that surrounded Fleischer represents an important juncture in the history of Israeli theatre censorship.

After the establishment of the state, an official film and theatre censorship board was appointed by Israel’s Minister of the Interior with the government’s approval. This replaced the initial Board of Censors established in Palestine in 1927 under the British Mandate. The new board in Israel consisted of a changing panel of 15 to 20 representatives–sociologists, educators, legal experts, and government officials–almost half of whom had to be religious or “traditional.” The law also required that at least one representative be a woman.

Scripts had to be submitted to the board at least two months prior to any play’s opening. If the play was foreign, it had to be submitted in the language of performance along with a Hebrew translation. The board could ask to see a rehearsal of a play, and these previews sometimes resulted in censorship.

The board frequently cut lines from scripts that attacked religious groups, mainly the haredim. In 1986, The Last Secular Jew was banned, then conditionally allowed, pending cuts. This play by Shmuel Hasfari is a series of songs and sketches depicting Israel without secular Jews and Arab–expressing a political ideology similar to Fleischer’s. In response to the board’s decisions to cut the script, about 300 performing artists, writers, and other citizens staged a protest.

From protests like these and many censorship debates in the 1980s, the censorship board in Israel was suspended for a two-year trial period in 1989 and finally removed in 1991. While highlighting the growing divide between religious and secular in Israel, the controversies that surrounded Fleischer also represented the re-emergence of previously silenced censorship forces.

Since Fleischer and into the 2000s, Israeli theatre has continued to provoke public outcries, especially when plays scrutinize the religious-secular divide or Israeli-Arab relations.

Identifying with Fleischer

Even-Or responded to disputes surrounding his play by claiming to support “neither religious nor secular fanatics.” He admitted that the purpose of his play was to rouse the public and to warn them that the events of the play should not extend to the macrocosm:

“The haredim must not steal the country from us and the secular should not…reach the point of terrible hatred for them,” Even-Or said. “It can happen that soon the war with the Arab countries and the Palestinians will come to an end and then what? Then we’ll wake up to a war of the Jews. The destruction of the Temple, so they say, happened not because of the Romans but because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza [internal Jewish hatred]. We must not refuse to see that Kamtza and Bar Kamtza are living among us again.”
 

Although Even-Or’s stated objective was to promote a united Israel, Fleischer seems to have had the opposite effect on its audiences, giving credence to existing hatred and fear. In a questionnaire handed out to Fleischer audiences in May 1994, most spectators claimed that the play provided an honest representation of contemporary Israel (51.3%) while others found similarities between Israeli reality and the action on the stage (38.8%). The actor that played Bertha in Fleischer expressed during the run, “I have played this role over 100 times. The audience accepts [the performance] because we are carrying out an action on the audience’s behalf and [we are] venting all those expressions of anger that the secular have against the religious.”

Critics reported that inside the theatre, audiences laughed at the anti-religious jokes and applauded the lines expressing the threatening haredi domination over Israel, such as: “They’re stealing the country from under our nose and everyone keeps still…Pretty soon the whole country will belong to them, and what will you do then?”

Theatre critic Dan Urian described his experience attending a performance shortly after the Jerusalem Municipal elections, in which haredi parties had gained significant power: “To the audience…this [performance of Fleischer] was an opportunity to express concern and hatred, through laughter, whispered agreement, and much applause.” In another performance, a woman shouted to the actor playing the rabbi, “I wish you would die!” 


Fleischer

is a classic example from the ongoing battle between religious and secular in Israel. The attention Fleischer received from critics, politicians, and the public intensified awareness of the religious-secular conflict in Israel, keeping the discussion at the forefront of the public’s attention, while adding a new dimension to the role of theatre in society.


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