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  • Community Theatre of Mizrahi-Jews and Arabs in Ramle:A Junction of Nationality, Ethnicity, and Gender
  • Naphtaly Shem-Tov (bio)

In 1998, in Ramle, Israel, directors Oshrat Mizrahi-Shapira, a Mizrahi1 Jewish woman, and Yussef Swed, an Arab man, established a community-theatre group2 of Jews and Arabs that created and performed three productions over the next five years. Here? Now? Love?, the first performance of the group, was constructed as a retrospective journey through the memories of Tamar, a Mizrahi woman and Amir, an Arab man, who meet after many years and remember their love story—cut short because of their different nationality and religion.3 They meet again when Amir comes to inherit the abandoned house of his family and discovers that his ex-lover, Tamar, has moved into the house after running away from her oppressive and violent husband.

This particular play exemplifies the development and emergence of a social and theatrical site for dialogue between Arabs and Mizrahis about their social and political identities. The two other productions of this group are Ramle Beach (2001) and The Rich Man Dies of Laughter (2003). The former largely avoids dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the latter touches allegorically on political issues, but keeps away from definitive statements. The first play, on the other hand, attempts a realistic design, which signifies an attempt to cope with the political conflicts more directly.

My awareness of this ensemble group and its projects derives from my position as an Israeli-born Mizrahi man, whose parents immigrated in 1951 from Iraq and Iran to Israel. As a teenager, I joined the community theatre in my neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, which is considered to be socioeconomically disadvantaged. One of the significant experiences in this theatre community was the development of my sensitivity and consciousness to the connection between the social and political aspects of my life and their articulations in the theatrical event. Currently, as a theatre researcher, I have a personal, professional, and political interest in community theatre as bottom-up practice for empowerment of subordinated groups, which use it to express and challenge their marginalized identities.

Israeli community theatre is quite often a site that meets and confronts nationality, ethnicity, and gender (Lev-Aladgem 2003, 2008). This junction of identities is especially evident in this group that includes Mizrahi Jews and Arabs; the two communities live together in Ramle, an underprivileged city in the center of the country. This theatre group confronted three political and social conflicts that, from the Zionist viewpoint, are not normally discussed together: the national, the ethnic, and the gender-oriented. The Zionist discourse has two main arguments that are relevant to this analysis. First, the land of Israel (Eretz-Israel) belongs only to the Jewish nation, and it is an exclusive ownership. This means that Arabs have no national rights to the land. And second, the Zionist discourse has tried to constitute a new, uniform Jewish identity for all Jews who have immigrated to Israel, an identity designed according to Western secular cultural standards. This effort has largely erased many of the Jewish cultural traditions, especially the non-European ones that were developed over hundreds of years. As I detail later, these arguments promote rejection of [End Page 43] moral responsibility for the Palestinian demands and refuse to recognize a unique Mizrahi identity. Overall, they deny the association of the common root of these two subjugations: the prejudice of the "superior" Western culture.

Therefore the main question is how Arab and Mizrahi participants contended with the Zionist discourse: Do they challenge and subvert it, or maintain its boundaries? How did the community performance integrate different discourses and bring them together at one juncture,4 and how did it relate to the taboo issues of the Zionist discourse? Despite the raising and integrating of these issues on one junction, in opposition to the separation of the Zionist discourse in dealing with these issues, I argue that the production does not confront taboo issues directly, but only "touches" them politically, without any attempt to deconstruct and break the boundaries of the Zionist discourse.

The Israeli theatre researcher Shulamith Lev-Aladgem, who examines the history...


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