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The Image of the Arab in Israeli Theatre—from Competition to Exploitation (1912–1990)

  • Dan Urian (a1)


The Arab, as presented in plays of the early days of settlement, is linked by his manual labour to the land of his birth. He might be primitive and his encounter with the chalutzim may be necessary to improve his situation and show him how the world has progressed, but he is also an example to be copied for his sheer work capability. He is seen as a powerful competitor with the Jewish work-force, due both to his ability to be content with little and to his forced acceptance of meagre wages. Towards the end of this period and for several decades afterwards, the Arab was pushed aside into the fringes of the labour market. Work that was previously thought by the Zionist pioneering ideology to be of utmost importance, was no longer considered as such. As occasionally the Arab image served as a reminder of an ideology of manual labour that no longer existed.

The Israeli playwright is a representative of the beliefs and opinions of a particular group in Israeli society; mainly that of the western intelligentsia. Almost all of the playwrights mentioned in this article are from the ranks of the Labour Movement and Zionist tradition. Their attitude regarding Jewish labour and towards the Arabs who do the ‘dirty work’, derives from a yearning for standards and values that had formerly stood at the centre of education and debate for many prominent sectors of Jewish society. From the early 1950s, and particularly after the 1967 war, the ideology of Jewish labour, especially manual labour, became one of mere slogans, symbols, songs and folk dances, or as subject for study matter, but no longer an active component in the life of the Israeli Jewish citizen.

From the beginning of the 1970s, but mainly towards the end of that period and continuing into the 1980s, the Israeli playwright saw the driving of the Arab work-force into despised jobs, under degrading conditions of exploitation, as a central cause for the unrest that led to the Palestinian uprising. The image of the exploited Arab was no longer an ideological, nostalgic reminder but, rather, a social time bomb that might explode at any time and fragment the Israeli social and economic structure. It is interesting to compare the reasoning given by the Jewish Israeli playwrights for the outbreak of the Intifada with an Arab-Israeli play staged in 1990 in Nazareth. In The Ninth Wave by Riad Massaraweh, although the playwright describes the labourers that line up daily in the Haifa ‘slave market’ as exploited, degraded and slave labourers, his main emphasis is on the Palestinian longing for national identity. Research too reveals that the nationalistic element and the state of the refugee camps are the most serious causes of the Intifada. Despite this, the Jewish Israeli playwright presents the economic factor as the important one. This discrepancy between the Israeli theatre and Palestinian reality, derives from the playwright's ignorance of, and lack of attempt to study the actuality of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories, as well as their ignorance of the conditions of daily life there. The playwright meets Palestinians in the local (Israeli) cafe or restaurant, on building sites and in other places where the Arabs work and where Jews are not willing to do so. He deals with the problems that bother him and with his target audience, and not necessarily with the problems that bother the Palestinians. However, the Jewish Israeli playwright nonetheless senses the indignity of their exploitation and the dangerous dependency of the Israeli economy on a hostile population, and he tries to express his reservations about this Israeli ‘work schedule’ when he takes refuge on occasion in ideals that no longer exist.



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1. Gorny, Yosef, The Arab Question and the Jewish Problem, Am Oved, Tel Aviv, 1985, pp. 1213 (in Hebrew).

2. Eisenstadt, S. N., The Israeli Society in Change, Magnes, Jerusalem, p. 107 (in Hebrew).

3. Elon, Amos, The Israelis—Founders and Sons, Sphere, London, 1972, p. 120.

4. Shaked, Gershon, No Other Place, Ha'Kibbutz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv, 1983, p. 77 (in Hebrew).

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6. Eisenstadt, , op. cit. p. 366.

7. Gazit, Shlomo, The Stick and the Carrot—The Israeli Administration in Judea and Samaria, Zmora, Bitan, Tel Aviv, 1985, pp. 255–6 (in Hebrew).

8. Horowitz, Dan, Lissak, Moshe, Trouble in Utopia. The Overburdened Policy of Israel, Am Oved, Tel Aviv, 1990, pp. 83–4 (in Hebrew).

9. Weitz, Shoshana, ‘Mr Godot will not come today’, in: The Play out of Context: Transferring Plays from Culture to Culture, eds. Scolnivoc, Hanna and Holland, Peter, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1989, pp. 186198.

10. Al HaMishmar, October 8, 1987.

11. Shalev, Aryeh, The Intifada—Causes and Effects, Papyrus, Tel Aviv, 1990, pp. 1941 (in Hebrew).

The Image of the Arab in Israeli Theatre—from Competition to Exploitation (1912–1990)

  • Dan Urian (a1)


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