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Shakespeare’s Globe defends invitation to Israeli theatre company

Shakespeare's Globe says that it has received "a huge number of communications" about its decision to invite Habima, Israel's national theatre company, to perform a Hebrew version of 'The Merchant of Venice' as part of this year's Globe to Globe Festival.

Habima's peformance at Shakespeare's Globe at the end of May is part of Globe to Globe, a London 2012 Festival project which will see 37 Shakespeare plays performed in 37 languages.

Pressure group 'Boycott from Within' wrote an open letter to the Globe's directors criticising the invitation to Habima because of the Israeli company's tacit support for controversial settlements on the West Bank.

The letter praised Habima's approach to the depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice but condemned the company for sending actors to perform in West Bank settlements.

"As Israeli citizens who are deeply concerned about the future of all people living in the region we deplore this attitude," says the letter.

It continues: "By inviting Habima to perform in London, you are siding with its administrators in the debate on settlement performances, and you are taking a step against the conscientious Israeli actors and playwrights who have refused to perform in the settlements."

Boycott from Within stops short of asking the Globe to withdraw the invitation to Habima but asks the Bankside theatre to take the issue up with its Israeli partners.

Last week Shakespeare's Globe published its own open letter in response to Boycott from Within.

"We have great respect for the passion and the sincerity of your convictions, and for the history of boycotting movements generally," wrote the Globe. "We also respect the convictions of the many who have e-mailed, posted and written to us in opposition to your position. It won't surprise you that we deliberated long and hard about the issue of inclusion and exclusion of companies programming such a comprehensive festival requires a huge amount of such consideration, in order to ensure that it is truly an international event.

"We came to the conclusion that active exclusion was a profoundly problematic stance to take because the question of which nations deserve inclusion or exclusion is necessarily subjective. Where does one start in such an endeavour? Clearly for you with Israel, but for many others, it would be with a host of different states. And more pertinently, where does one stop?"

The Globe's letter points out that the Ashtar Theatre from Ramallah, "who have done more than any other theatre group to highlight the nature of life in the Gaza Strip with their Gaza Monologues", are performing Richard II at Globe to Globe.

Shakespeare's Globe explains that "the festival was intended as, and has become, a celebration of languages and not with the exception of the group from South Sudan a celebration of nations or states. Habima are the most well-known and respected Hebrew-language theatre company in the world, and are a natural choice to any programmer wishing to host a dramatic production in Hebrew. They are committed, publicly, to providing an ongoing arena for sensible dialogue between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.

"We are acutely aware that there are strong feelings on either side of this debate, and have received a huge number of communications supporting both viewpoints. However, it remains our contention, and we think a suitable one for a Shakespearean theatre, that people meeting and talking and exchanging views is preferable to isolation and silence.

The Globe's letter ends with the hope that, by bringing together such diverse artists and audiences, the Globe to Globe festival will be "a potential point of light in a sometimes rather dark world".

Since the Globe's open letter the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP), led by UK-based academics, has written to the Bankside theatre asking it to reconsider its inivitation to Habima.

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