Ballad of the Burning Star: How a night at the theatre turned into a festival of hate

Ballad of the Burning Star: How a night at the theatre turned into a festival of hate

Yiftah Curiel
Yiftah Curiel

By Yiftah CURIEL, Embassy of Israel, London

I recently went to see Ballad of the Burning Star, a cabaret-style performance at Battersea Arts Centre, billed as a fresh, shocking take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I expected the evening to be an interesting one because of a discussion event planned for after the performance, on “the role of storytelling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.

Yiftah Curiel
Yiftah Curiel

I won’t comment on the artistic quality of the show, as I’m not an art critic, but I’ll say that in line with the genre of fringe theatre, the show is highly critical, and at times enraging. I will also say that as an Israeli, I could identify with some of the experiences that director and star Nir Paldi portrays from his life growing up in Israel: Sitting with his family in a sealed room wearing gas-masks while Iraqi scuds were raining on Israel in the early 90s, Rabin’s murder at the now famous Tel Aviv peace rally, as well as dilemmas faced during an army service with the IDF.

Then the panel discussion began. Chaired by Channel 4’s Jon Snow, it was a decidedly one-sided affair, which left little doubt as to who was the problem and what was the solution. Former MP Martin Linton read out of a large notebook, what seemed like his own personal history of the region, which resembled a work of fiction that he passed off to the audience as historical fact. In this fiction, Israel’s existence was the sole cause for the region’s problems, and if anyone else was to blame, it was the British for supporting the creation of a Jewish state in the first place.

Palestinian filmmaker Leila Sansour joined this line of thought, explaining why Israel alone was to blame for the misfortunes of the Palestinians. Paldi himself seemed taken aback by the direction the talk was taking, and he interestingly chose to mention that in an interview he had given recently to the Guardian his words had been taken out of context and made him appear considerably more extreme than he actually is on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

While it was clear that the panellists had their minds made up, the questions from the audience contained a whole new level of hostility, culminating with a Palestinian theatre student from Jenin who expressed anger at the fact that an Israeli personal perspective was allowed to be staged at all, and threatened to “walk out” of the discussion when members of the panel disagreed with him.

At a certain point it seemed that even Snow had had enough, and when someone in the audience went as far as to blame Israel of “pink washing” for highlighting Tel Aviv’s stature as the “gay capital of the Middle East”, he responded sharply: “Well, isn’t it the gay capital?”, praising Tel Aviv as one of the most open, vibrant cities he’d ever visited.

Nevertheless, the overall atmosphere was of a festival of hostility towards Israel.

I could expect this level of animosity in certain political circles, but was frankly surprised to encounter it in a discussion on storytelling following a theatre performance. I was disappointed that instead of using this highly critical show as a starting point for a meaningful discussion, it was used simply to demonise Israel further, as if this was the goal.

Finally, I was compelled to ask the panel one simple question: Israel has a long artistic tradition of critical soul-searching, second-guessing, looking back to see how things could have been done differently, and taking responsibility for mistakes. Is there a similar soul searching going on among its neighbours? Do they look back at the past decades and think – would history had played out differently for us had we not shunned Israel? Is there an Arab narrative out there which places some responsibility on Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and the Palestinians, for the current predicament? The silent dismissal with which my question was received said it all: There is no other narrative; not in art nor in politics.

Author and commentator Ari Shavit wrote recently in Haaretz: “The Palestinians must concede that the Jews are not colonialists but legal neighbours. There will not be peace if the children growing up in the Deheisheh refugee camp will not know that the country across the border is a legitimate Jewish state of a true Jewish people, whom they are decreed to live with. It is those who give up on the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state who are actually giving up on peace”.

When those in our neighbourhood begin to question their paradigms, accept responsibility and view us as the legitimate neighbours that we are, peace will be that much closer.

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