For Palestinian artists, freedom of speech is anything but guaranteed

By forcing Arab actors to perform in West Bank settlements and closing down Arab theaters, the government is proving once more that freedom of speech is solely reserved for Israel’s ruling class.

By Hasan Masri

A scene from Al-Midan Theater's production of 'A Parallel Time.' (photo:
A scene from Al-Midan Theater’s production of ‘A Parallel Time.’ (photo:

As an artist, I write these words with great trepidation that I may be judged based on my background, religion, skin color or political beliefs. I want to express myself — I want to write, perform, sing, and dance however I see fit. I love my job, I love the world I live in, I am opposed to all injustice or forms of oppression.

Until when will we continue to be oppressed in our homeland? Until when will we continue to be shackled? When will we live out the idea that the “personal is political?” And art is…?

Allow me to present a political scenario, which could easily come from the world of theater: an oppressive king from a faraway land appoints a new minister who wants to exert her power and kick out all the clowns — who are known to posses a controversial identity — from the streets (the majority of these clowns come from a community that once lived in a forest upon which the kingdom was later established). During their performances, the clowns tend to publicly express themselves about the goings-on in the kingdom. “Art is another way to engage with the world around us,” says one of the leading clowns. This story is far from over.

Since the election of this latest new-old government, we have witnessed how quickly things have turned extreme. Arab actors are required to perform in settlements, while Arab theaters are being shut down. “In Arab countries they destroy art, while we provide them a stage,” the regime will say in response. But is freedom of speech guaranteed for all in the State of Israel, or is it only reserved for the ruling class? Is it possible to occupy and inherit the land, not to mention freedom of speech or movement? Is it conceivable that an “Arab Israeli” will perform before a crowd for whom he does not want to perform on land full of crimes and blood? This brings up a simple question: are we artists, or just actors in the hands of the system? We are witnessing an attempt to force an Arab actor to perform on occupied land, where crimes that dehumanize that very actor occur on a daily basis.

When Arab actors perform in the occupied territories, it is good for Israeli hasbara. Look, say the experts of Zionist hasbara, Arab Israelis are performing in Jewish “communities” in the West Bank, everything is fine. As the global boycott movement gains strength, this kind of move actually exposes what kind of occupation we are dealing with here. Whether you are an artist who identifies as Palestinian or you call yourself an Arab Israeli, in the eyes of the occupier we are the same creature that deserves, at this moment, to be oppressed. The right-wing government is heading in only one direction: occupation.

Read: Israel’s culture minister is turning artists into enemies

Just as we are restricted in our movement as Palestinians under this regime, we are restricted as artists who want to express our positions, and become clowns, according to the expectations of the state — with no opinions, positions or conscience. We are restricted in our ability to express ourselves just as we are restricted in our freedom of movement in this country, whether on the stage or off it.

I always look at how Jewish actors portray Arabs on the screen. If the show is a comedy, the character will always be a ridiculous one. If it’s a drama, the Arab will always be threatening. That is how the regime wants to see us: as either ridiculous or terrorists. We are all bad Arabs in the eyes of this oppressive regime. It does not want to see other characters, especially real Arab ones.

Anyone who does not abide by these norms has no place here. And the norm of the State of Israel in 2015 is occupation.

Hasan Masri is an actor and activist. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets. Read it here.

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