Saturday, June 20, 2015

Of abductors and actors and censors

 "The question is not of the Freedom of Expression but rather of the Freedom of Financing. Does a country have to pay for presenting a play about a man who kidnapped and killed a soldier?" So said Culture Minister Miri Regev yesterday, at the height of a stormy confrontation with some of Israel’s most well-known artists.

Indeed, does a country have to finance such a play? Well, the answer seems to depend on who kidnapped and who killed which soldier.

1) Abduction in 1947

On July 11, 1947, two British Army sergeants, Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice, went to a cafe in the city of Netanya, north of Tel Aviv. On their way back to camp they were captured by a unit of the National Military Organization (Etzel or Irgun), a radical Zionist underground which was at the time engaged in a head-on confrontation with the British Mandate authorities. The two sergeants were sedated with chloroform and taken to a hiding place in an inactive diamond polishing plant. When waking up they were told by their captors: "You have been detained by the National Military Organization, as hostages for the three Jews sentenced to death by a British military court. Your government’s conduct will determine your fate."

The kidnapping aroused a major storm of reactions in Mandatory Palestine and in Britain itself. The British Army imposed a curfew on Netanya and conducted two weeks of intensive searches, but failed to find the hiding place. The families of the two soldiers pleaded with the kidnappers to spare their lives. Mervyn Paice's father even sent a letter addressed "To the Commander of the Irgun, Palestine" which against all odds reached its destination – being found by a postal clerk who sympathized with the underground and duly delivered to Irgun commander Menachem Begin.

The father begged for the life of his son, "an innocent young man, who was caught in a tragic situation and who had never been opposed to Zionism." Begin's response was broadcast on the clandestine "Voice of Fighting Zion" radio station: "A British citizen has contacted us with a request to spare the life of his son – a spy in the service of the occupier, who was sentenced to death by a court of the underground. We, the soldiers of Israel, well understand the sentiments of a father anxious for his son. We too are the sons of fathers and the fathers of sons. As God is our witness, it is not we who wanted the escalating bloodshed plaguing our country, plundered and occupied by tyrants who thirst for oil and blood. But we are not the address, Mr. Paice. Go to them, to Downing Street, and tell them what they should be told by all British fathers whose sons were recruited to perform the most disgraceful task in the history of the world. Tell the British Government: it is you who are responsible for the life of my son".

After a stormy debate in the British Parliament, in which Opposition Leader Winston Churchill demanded "An iron hand to suppress the terrorists in Palestine", the High Commissioner for Palestine approved the death sentences passed on three Irgun members. At dawn on July 29, 1947 they were hanged at the Acre Prison. Thereupon, the Irgun's Chief of Staff Haim Landau instructed the organization's Operations Officer Amichai Paglin to carry out the immediate reprisal hanging of the two sergeants. Paglin arrived in Netanya with four of his men, and informed the two sergeants that the National Military Organization’s court had sentenced them to be hanged by the neck, on charges of "Ilegal entry into our homeland and membership in a British criminal-terrorist organization known as ‘The British Army of Occupation in Eretz Yisrael’ which is responsible for: depriving our people of the right to life, cruel acts of oppression, torture, the murder of men, women and children, murder of Prisoners of War, some of them wounded, and the expulsion of Hebrew citizens from their country". After reading the verdict to the two sergeants, Paglin oversaw all details of the hanging ceremony, confirmed that the two were dead, and organized transport of their bodies to nearby woods where they were found by the British on the following day.

In fact, the two sergeants had been sympathizers of the Zionist enterprise and had actually passed British military information to the Hagana militia, the Irgun’s rival. Only many years later, in 1981, did it come out that Clifford Martin had actually been a Jew as defined by Jewish religious law – since his mother, Fernanda, was a Jewish woman originally from Cairo. Apparently, Martin did not mention this fact to his captors and did not try to thereby save his life.

Amihai Paglin who oversaw the hangings, Chief of Staff Haim Landau who gave the order, and their supreme commander Menachem Begin, were never apprehended by the British and did not undergo any punishment for these acts. Following the sergeants’ hanging, British soldiers rampaged through Tel Aviv, killing five random passers-by, and there were also violent attacks on Jews in Britain. However, the Irgun people directly responsible emerged unscathed. They took pride in their action having brought to an end the British "hangings policy" and in its having been instrumental in getting the British to definitely quit Palestine.

As is well-known, Menachem Begin was much later elected Prime Minister of Israel and also got the Nobel Peace Prize. "Immediately after forming my cabinet, I appointed Amihai Paglin to be my Adviser on Anti-Terrorism, to oversee the struggle against Arab terrorism" Begin recalled. "It was a natural choice. There was no one better qualified. He was a legendary figure, he had suddenly appeared like a shining star, from among the storm clouds of the independence war waged by the Jews in the Land of Israel. It was he who made the National Military Organization into a formidable war machine, hitting the British relentlessly and mercilessly. The deeds of this wonderful young man, undoubtedly a military genius, will be remembered by the British as long as the earth will bear them. Unfortunately, he was my Adviser on Anti-Terrorism for just a few months before the terrible traffic accident which took him from us so prematurely - but even in these few months he was able to do great things..."

In a newspaper interview shortly before his death, Paglin referred to the sergeants’ hangings. "It bothers me more than any of the other two hundred operations I had carried out as Chief Operations Officer of the National Military Organization. When you think of two helpless people, their faces covered, being hanged right in front of you, you know you've passed beyond the limit. This is not war, it leaves a stain, it remains on your conscience... But I had no choice. Even today, I would have carried out the very same operation, I would do it all over again if the need arose again. "

In Tel Aviv and Petah Tikva and several other Israeli cities, streets are named for Amihai Paglin and for the Irgun’s Chief of Staff Haim Landau, who eventually had a distinguished political career and served as a cabinet minister in several Israeli governments. Also named for Landau are the bridge over the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv and Route 5 ("Trans-Samaria Highway" or " Haim’s Road") leading to Ariel and several other West Bank settlements.

Where the two British sergeants were kidnapped in Netanya, Irgun veterans placed a memorial plaque celebrating the heroism of the kidnappers.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever written a theater play about the Sergeants’ Affair. Nor is there a play about the life of Amihai Paglin –

though his career provides a lot of potential material, allowing for many possible interpretations: a hero, a villain, a tormented soul…

2) Abduction in 1984

Moshe Tamam was born in 1965 at Havatzelet Hasharon, near Netanya, to a Jewish family from Libya which came to Israel in the 1950’s. In May 1983 Tamam joined the IDF, was assigned to the Engineering Corps, underwent courses in mine-laying and explosives and became an instructor on the operation of heavy machinery. On August 6, 1984 he went on leave, met his girlfriend and accompanied her to her home in Tiberias, and in the evening took the return bus from Tiberias to Tel-Aviv. At the Beit Lid Junction he got off the bus - and disappeared.

As it turned out later, Moshe Tamam was captured by a unit of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), which intended to smuggle him to Syria and then seek to exchange him for the release of their comrades held in Israeli prisons. But the attempt to cross the Syrian border failed and Tamam’s captors shot him to death. His body was found near the West Bank settlement of Mevo Dotan, with a bullet hole in his chest. He was 19 years old.

Moshe Tamam’s family erected a monument for him at Havatzelet Hasharon where he was born and grew up. They also set up a memorial website where the following is recounted: "Moshe loved the seashore and the sandstone rocks that rise from the coast. He loved plants and animals, birds, dogs, cats and horses. He was a handsome young man, affable and hard-working, who loved to help others and soothe family quarrels. He had a fine voice and loved to sing in public. He had a gentle and sensitive soul. His sense of humor won the hearts of all, children and adults. In times of trouble he gave generous support to all who needed it."

As Mervyn Paice's father wrote of his own son, Moshe Tamam was by all indications "an innocent young man, who was caught in a tragic situation". By chance, the Netanya Military Cemetery where Moshe Tamam was interred is very near to the woods where the two hanged British sergeants were found thirty seven years earlier.

In 1986 the Israeli security services captured Tamam’s abductors, who turned out to be Arab citizens of Israel from the town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye. Walid Daka admitted under interrogation that he had been a member of the squad, but claimed that he had not been directly involved in the killing of Moshe Tamam. The Lod Military Court rejected this assertion and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

In one of the letters he sent from prison Daka told of the motives which had led him to join the DFLP: "I could have continued my life as a house painter and gas station attendant, as I did until my arrest. I could have married one of my relatives and have seven or ten children with her. I could have bought a truck. All this was a distinct possibity. But there were the horrors of the war in Lebanon and the Sabra and Shatila Massacres, and they had shocked me. To stop feeling that shock, to fall into numbness in face of all these horrors - that's my definition of the ultimate nightmare. That would be an utter surrender".

In the later 1990’s Walid Daka conducted a long struggle over the right to marry Sana Salameh, a young woman from the village of Tira who began visiting him in prison in 1996, and who took the decision to tie up her life with a prisoner whose time of release (if ever) remains unclear. Following an eight-month negotiations with the Israeli Prison Service they managed to hold the wedding ceremony in the prison. They failed, however, in the struggle for an opportunity to be alone together and try to produce a child. The Nazareth District Court ruled that "any direct contact between Daka and his wife would constitute a threat to state security." Nor was it of any avail to cite the precedent of Yigal Amir, who had murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and who was allowed both to marry and to beget two children. (Amir is even allowed to phone his younger son and read to him a bedtime story, as seen in a documentary film which is also the subject of hot controversy at present…)

Thus, for nearly twenty years already, the married life of Walid Daka and his wife Sana consists of a bi-weekly meetings across iron bars where they talk about "personal matters, prison life, and a lot of politics". Last year, Daka was due to be released after 27 years in prison. He was among the last group of prisoners, held since before the Oslo Accords, whose release Netanyahu had promised to Secretary of State Kerry. At Baqa al-Gharbiyye his family already prepared a welcoming party - but Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home threatened a coalition crisis, Netanyahu canceled the prisoner release, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapsed and Prisoner Walid Daka remained behind bars.

3) Theater play in 2015

Playwright Bashar Murkus wrote the play "The Parallel Time" which deals with a Palestinian security prisoner named Wadia, who is secretly constructing an Oud, traditional Arab stringed instrument, which he hopes to play at his own wedding with his beloved Fida. "The two of them are in a constant struggle with the Israeli establishment and the courts, to have their marriage permitted" reads the brief presentation. "The Parallel Time seeks to explore the meaning of a person being a prisoner. It attempts to uncover the human side of the prisoner, look beyond the clichי which makes him a symbol and a statistical data, obscuring his being a person with a life story, dreams and desires."

Murkus states outrightly that his play was inspired by the true story of of Walid Daka and Sana Salameh, but he flatly denies that this in any way constitutes support for or endorsement of the kidnapping and killing of Moshe Tamam. In fact, Murkus this week started libel proceedings against Culture Minister Miri Regev, demanding 300,000 Shekels in compensation for her attributing to him such an endorsement.

The name "The Parallel Time" is derived from one of Walid Daka’s letters: "I am writing to you from The Parallel Time. We do not use your time measurements of minutes or hours, except at the moments when our time meets your time at the visitors’ window. One of the intifada youths who came visiting told us that many things have changed during your time, that your phones no longer use dials and even the car tires are not like those we knew. But we are stuck in The Parallel Time, the time before the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union. We are here from before the fall of the Berlin Wall, before the First Gulf War and the Second one, before Madrid and Oslo..."
Inspection by a prison guard - scene from "The Parallel Time,"
Photo: Wael Wakim

For several months there was no special public attention to "The Parallel Time", presented in Arabic with a Hebrew translation by the Al-Midan Theatre of Haifa. The government committee which approved the allocation for the theater did not see anything wrong with a play about a prisoner who dreams of getting married and builds a musical instrument in his prison cell. The situation changed drastically due to the efforts of Shamai Glick, a 27-year old Jerusalemite who in the past year appointed himself censor over cultural and artistic life in Israel. The energetic Glick had exhibited a remarkable detective talent for locating plays, films, performances and exhibitions which were in his judgment "unpatriotic", and also a considerable talent in lobbying and pressuring establishment bodies to stop public funding for such.

It was Glick who uncovered the link between "The Parallel Time" and the real-life experience of the prisoner Walid Daka. He drew the attention of various far right groups, which for their part got Tamam Family members to be involved in the campaign and use the considerable moral authority which bereaved families enjoy in the Israeli society. An unruly demonstration outside the theater and several strongly-worded letters to members of the Haifa City Council sufficed to get Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, a Labor Party member, to freeze financing for the Al-MidanTheater "pending the conclusions of a special public committee established to review the issue." By the way, Glick himself, who had started the whole thing, had never seen the play: " I live in Jerusalem, I did not have time to get to Haifa, and besides, why should I see such filth?"

To begin with, the Ministry of Culture – second source of institutional financing for the Al-MidanTheater – was in no hurry to respond to the pressure of Glick and his fellows. "The Ministry of Culture supports more than 800 organizations and cultural institutions, in accordance with the criteria set by law. The Ministry does not take part in the program decisions of supported bodies and is not entitled to interfere even in cases where it does not agree administrative decisions or artistic content. It should be emphasized that the Ministry has full understanding for the Tamam Family's anger, but the decision rests with the theater management alone".

Such was the position of the Ministry of Culture under the previous minister, Limor Livnat - herself not always a paragon of liberalism or tolerance. Things changed with the coming of the new minister, Miri Regev, who had been the Chief Military Censor, and who announced her full intention to engage in censorship also in her new role: "I'm all for cultural and artistic pluralism. The artists can have no better partner than me, as long as they lay off the occupation and politics".

And what about artists who insist on having the occupation and politics within the framework of their art? With them the minister is in direct and total confrontation which had been steadily escalating over the past two weeks,

reaching its peak (as of now...) at the Theater Awards ceremony held in Tel Aviv which included a protest by actors with gags on their faces, the speeches of almost all prize winners including, sarcastic references to the minister. And none other than veteran actress Gila Almagor interrupted the minister’s speech with angry heckling when Regev was justifying the termination of funding to the Al-MidanTheater - and the minister herself interrupting with angry heckling the speech of award winner Liora Rivlin who spoke of the Palestinians living under occupation and seeking liberation, and of the obligation of Israeli artists to remember them.

That was the occasion when Minister Regev stated: "The question is not of Freedom of Expression but rather of the Freedom of Financing. Does a country have to pay for presenting a play about a man who kidnapped and killed a soldier?" A good question. Fortunately, as of this moment no theater seeks to present a play about the life of Amichai Paglin, and thus the minister is spared an agonizing dilemma.