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In Israel, life imitates satire

Polls indicate that a majority of Israelis do not object to the occupation, yet many of them are clamoring to watch a play mocking the policy.

At the end of his recent interview with Al-Monitor, professor Zeev Sternhell offered an important recommendation. The world-renowned expert on fascism suggested that we use our imagination to identify the threat looming over Israeli society and prepare to deal with it properly.

It would have taken a particularly vivid imagination to predict that an Israeli prime minister would utter a sentence such as "Arab voters are coming out in droves." Who could have foreseen that the public would back a soldier who shot an injured man, and who would have thought that in 2016 a massive majority of Israelis (71.5%) would believe that Israeli control of the territories it captured in 1967 is not occupation?

It takes an imagination such as that of witty playwright Michal Aharoni to come up with a plot — imaginative to the point of being surreal — that turned into reality by the time the play premiered. (Full disclosure: Aharoni is the life partner of Al-Monitor columnist Shlomi Eldar).

The play focuses on a defense minister who is sick and on his efforts to recover. To save his own life, the minister (played by the wonderful Dov Glickman) is willing to violate a law he himself co-authored forbidding Jews from accepting organ transplants from non-Jews. He gets the heart of a Palestinian and, to buy the silence of the settlers, he engages in secret trading with them over funding and the authorization of illegal settlement outposts.

Three years ago, when Aharoni wrote "Angina Pectoris," the practice of separating Arab and Jewish families on maternity wards was just a rumor. It was only in April that Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich openly supported the practice in writing. The possibility that this thug Smotrich, who dreamed up the "beast parade" against the LGBT community, would hold the title of deputy Knesset speaker would have once been considered a bad joke.

"Angina Pectoris" is also a joke about us, citizens of Israel, being led by a group of shameless cynics. They subvert values, laws and political and economic interests to suit their selfish and political needs at any given time.

The spoiled and purist left doesn't escape criticism in Aharoni's treatment. The hilarious dialogue between the minister and the surgeon Gal Shechnik (played by Zohar Straus), a knee-jerk liberal peace activist who flew in from the United States especially to operate on the minister, reduces audiences to tears.

But the tears of laughter dry up as soon as people walk out of the Tzavta Tel Aviv Theater and back into real life. Or perhaps they turn into tears of shame. On the radio they're talking about the leader of the Zionist Camp, Isaac Herzog, crawling on his knees to join the government without even demanding changes in the government's policies.

The play's humor provides a bridge between the personal and emotional dimensions of the characters and their racist and aggressive views. The hard-hitting messages sink in thanks to the sophisticated direction of Tzion Ashkenazi and excellent acting by Glickman and Straus, alongside Tali Ben-Yosef (in the role of Massada, the defense minister's daughter, named after the daughter of the late Gen. Rehavam Ze’evi), Shimon Mimran (as her fiancé, the settler Matanyahu Ben-Tzadik) and Sharon Friedman (who portrays several characters: Dr. Kostokovski, Dr. Amir and Muein al-Hilo, the father of the dead Palestinian whose heart was donated to the minister).

"The play was written three years ago in reaction to a bunch of anti-democratic bills presented at the time to the Knesset by the government coalition," Aharoni told Al-Monitor. She met David Chack, the president of the Association of Jewish Theaters and artistic director of the ShPIeL-Performing Identity Theater in Chicago dedicated to the portrayal of Jewish stage characters. He decided to direct and stage the show in its English version (translated by Danny Wool).

The play's path to the Israeli stage was not smooth. No repertory theater would produce it. Perhaps the evil spirit of Culture Minister Miri Regev was its undoing. Perhaps the managers of the major theaters were afraid that people would not pay to see a play about the occupation and its dangerous side effects. "After all the repertory theaters refused to produce it, I started fundraising on [Israeli crowdfunding platform] Headstart and at the same time sent the play to the manager of the Tzavta Theater, Haimon Goldberg. He decided to produce the show and showed the text to Glickman, who got excited and the cast was put together around him."

All the upcoming shows in Tel Aviv sold out in one day. Cultural centers in the towns of Yavne, Nes Tziona, Raanana and Arad bought the show — an unusual decision for a play not produced by a repertory theater. "Even in Ariel they want it," Aharoni said. "The manager of the cultural center, Ariel Turgeman, told me he has no problem presenting different views as long as it's good theater and not propaganda, and it's not insulting or injurious but satirical in the good sense of the word."

Given the current state of Israeli society and politics, the settlers can afford to laugh out loud all the way to their next settlement outpost, all the way to the bank and all the way to the ballot box. The leftists can write as much satire as their hearts desire and act it out before them. They will even buy tickets. But as long as there are witty satirical television programs such as "Matzav Ha'Uma" (“The State of the Nation”) and "Eretz Nehederet" ("A Wonderful Land") and "Roim et Hasof" ("We See the End Coming"), there's hope for Israel's shaky democracy. He who laughs last, laughs longest. If only we could all laugh together.

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.

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