Bamat Etgar - "To Catch the Conscience of the King"

By: 
Orit Soudry

The staff of the quarterly Etgar (the word means "challenge", and the magazine is Challenge's Hebrew sister) has been busy, over the past two years, in creating a cultural and political base for artists who venture beyond what the establishment allows.

Events staged by the Etgar staff have made their mark among the left in Tel Aviv. The first was "Just Say No!", an evening of solidarity with conscientious objectors (February 18, 2002). Artists, singers and poets appeared before an audience of 600 youth. After that, as war loomed, Etgar initiated the "Stage Against the War in Iraq". From February to April 2003, it produced six shows, involving about a hundred performers. Most outstanding was "Theatre Veto", presented on April 15 at Tzavta in Tel Aviv.

These events gave Israeli artists, filmmakers, poets and actors a setting where, for the first time, they could take part in the worldwide movement against the war, lining up beside international artists who were protesting Washington's monopoly on power.

After these first endeavors, the group decided to cement the connection between culture and politics in a permanent framework, to be called "Bamat Etgar", the "Etgar stage". Its events take place at Hanitzotz Publishing House in Jaffa three times monthly. They include lectures on the local conflict or on global and ideological questions (For example, Globalization and the Rise of the Radical Right). The Etgar activists join representatives from other organizations in panels on political and social issues: for example, on the role of the press in the war against Iraq, or on the labor market in Israel. They screen films that cannot be found in commercial cinemas, as well as original plays with a political bent. Some nights are devoted to music. On February 12, for example, Gadi Zuz (discovered by Bamat Etgar, which first encouraged him to perform in public) sang anti-war songs. He was followed by Ze'ev Teneh and Amir Zuskovich, who leveled sharp musical barbs against the racist mentality so typical in Israel.

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The latest production at Bamat Etgar was a satirical cabaret on February 20, played before a full house of 120 people. A dozen independent writers, actors and singers joined the Etgar staff in creating this event. We talked with actors Ishai Golan and Ruti Ben Efrat. Both are active members of Bamat Etgar.

There are dozens of night clubs in Tel Aviv, not to mention cultural events. Why a satirical cabaret?

Ishai Golan: What's special here is that the evening has a well-defined political agenda. You won't find that in the city, and that by itself is a statement. The artists who perform here have to be focused in a political direction, and this condition is enough to get rid of a lot of the nonsense in the entertainment you get elsewhere.

Apart from that, all the shows in Tel Aviv are linked to the establishment. They appeal to the biggest common denominator – the biggest and therefore the lowest. People in search of a rating won't say unpopular things. We have the freedom not to compromise. The artists who appear with us don't have to pay for the forum they receive. They don't earn anything either, since everything is on a voluntary basis, but they gain exposure to a young and critical audience.

Ruti Ben Efrat: We don't say there isn't a place for light entertainment or nonpolitical art. In a country like ours, though, which is so hot politically – boiling, even – we provide a place for a piercing look at the political situation. In the entertainment world, from theatrical performances to stand-up comedy and television, you don't find any kind of critical stance toward the situation we're living in. Not only that. Our statement occurs as part of a wider framework, internationalist, backed up with grass-roots action. It's not by chance that our productions take place at the Baqa Center in Jaffa. The same rooms are used for community action and the campaign to put Arab workers back on the job. It's the kind of setting where the seeds of an alternative, avant-garde culture can sprout.

In the satirical cabaret, what topics did you deal with?

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Ruti: The settlements – through the mouth of a self-righteous, complacent settler lady. The Hague court. The economic situation and the budget cuts. The denial of the Occupation. Indifference and denial, the two main methods Israelis use to escape the reality they belong to.

Were you surprised by the big turnout?

Ishai: Yes. It convinced me that there is an audience thirsty for this sort of evening. The Bama has become an alternative address not just for performers but for the audience too.

Ruti: It didn't surprise me. From events we've staged in the last few years during the war against Iraq, or in support of conscientious objectors, it's clear that there are people who seek a straightforward political statement opposing the Occupation and racism.

WE ALSO talked with actor and author Ma'ayan Blum, who writes for the Haifa theatre, as well as children's programs. He is the co-author of "Stage Fright", which enjoyed a long run at Tzavta.

How was it to appear in the satirical cabaret?

Ma'ayan Blum: I've taken part in other Bama productions, but for Oded Semo and me – we work together in writing scripts – it was the first time performing our own sketches here. It was also the debut for these particular pieces. I don't think they would find a place in other frameworks, apart from the fact that there are precious few frameworks where you can put on satire at all. It’s a convinced audience, I admit, but it's vital nonetheless that there be a setting for pieces like these.

You say that you won't find a stage for your work, but you write anyway. How's that?

Ma'ayan: I'm a writer, so I write. When Oded has a good idea, or when I do, we write it down. We've thought of offering our scripts to the theatre or TV, but for now Bamat Etgar is the only one to take up the challenge (etgar). It's a good place to start. I have high hopes that the evening will give rise to others.

Are you optimistic that your materials will be picked up by places closer to the establishment?

Ma'ayan: I'm realistic. Still, I believe in the power of quality. The more quality the material has, the better its chances of success. My model is the late Hanoch Levin, a fantastic playwright. (Levin's "Queen of the Bathtub" (1971), about the War of 1967, provoked outrage in the Israeli cultural establishment, which shut it down. – O.S.) His messages were subversive, and he aroused a flood of antagonism, but despite that, people couldn't ignore him. His plays have tremendous power. Levin was a groundbreaker, and he is very much missed today. n

To contact Bamat Etgar, please send us an i...@etgar.info. Bamat Etgar also needs support for equipment, documentation and publicity. Donations of any size are welcome at Challenge, POB 41199, Jaffa 61411. Please make checks payable to Challenge and include a separate note: "For Bamat Etgar".