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Video: Conflict over play leads to protest, vandalism at Victoria theatre

Two competing petitions have each garnered over 1,000 signatures

A meeting at the Belfry Theatre to host a discussion on petitions to stop a play ended in protests and graffiti damage to the building.

The play at the centre of the controversy is The Runner, written by Christopher Morris and based on a true story of a moral dilemma faced by an Orthodox-Jewish man who works with Z.A.K.A, a volunteer emergency response that gathers body parts to be returned to families. He decides to save the life of a Palestinian girl who is blamed for the murder of an Israeli soldier, and the play explores the outcome of that decision.

A petition for the Belfry to remove the play from the 2024 lineup garnered over 1,100 signatures as of Dec. 29, and describes the theatre’s hosting of the play as “unacceptable.”

“It is shocking to see the Belfry decide to host The Runner, a story of Israeli settlers in a dehumanizing exercise of whether Palestinian and Arab life is of value. We are currently witness to the ongoing genocide in Palestine that has killed 20,000-plus people, including 7,800-plus children, and we struggle to understand why the Belfry would choose to centre the voices of the oppressors instead of the oppressed,” the petition reads.

A counter-petition created by Jonathan Gustin has reached over 1,700 signatures.

“Our hearts break for the suffering of both the Israeli and Palestinian people, and we dispute the over-simplified narrative in the cancellation petition that the Israelis are oppressors and the Palestinians are the oppressed,” the counter-petition reads. “Surely, Hamas’ role is not insignificant? But we do not need to resolve the Middle East war in order to see the value of The Runner as a work intended to bridge rather than break.”

The Belfry has removed the play from its website and released a statement on Dec. 19 which also welcomes community members to stop by and read copies of the script in their lobby, available at the box office after Jan. 8.

“We thank those of you who have expressed your convictions, and we are listening,” the statement read. “We value and respect these conversations in our community. We have been having many complex conversations about the production, its content, and its impact on the community. We are taking time to reflect on how best to move forward and will make an announcement in the new year.”

At a Dec. 22 meeting at the theatre, artistic director Michael Shamata spoke on why the Belfry chose the play and read out the writer’s statement.

After a three-hour community discussion, many of the pro-Palestine activists walked out to stage a protest outside, saying their concerns were not being listened to.

The words “Free Palestine” were spraypainted on part of the building that houses the Belfry Theatre.

Black Press Media has reached out to several people who attended the protest, including the group Lekwungen 2 Palestine, but has not received a response by deadline.

Debate continues on social media regarding the play, including on Lekwungen2Palestine’s Instagram page, which organizes protests and made several posts calling for the removal of the play.

One post on the group’s page in support of the Dec. 22 protest quotes an article from Hyperallergic titled The Israeli Filmmakers Who Shoot and Cry.

“Within Israeli culture, there is a whole category of hand-wringing media focusing on soldiers or former soldiers grappling with the psychological impact of their actions during their army service. (Any criticism of the legality, validity, and/or morality of the treatment of Palestinians is optional.) This sub-genre is often called ‘shooting and crying’ and it’s a proven magnet for prestige,” the post reads.

“In the context of the conflict, the Israeli perspective shouldn’t really be at the centre of any kind of reconciliatory endeavour, no matter how liberally the play contends with its various ideas,” said a commenter on that post.

Solomon Siegel, a Jew and self-described art lover, attended the meeting at The Belfry and said there was little resolved.

“There is a loyalty test that keeps happening with Jews that is inherently anti-Semitic,” said Siegel. “That like before I’m even allowed to talk about my concerns with anti-Semitism and censorship, I have to position myself on the war in Israel. This is about censorship of artwork in Canada and anti-Semitism in Canada. You can dislike this play. Even the parts of the anti-Israeli protest that weren’t straight-up anti-Semitic of what they wrote were a critique of the play that I think is valid and they should publish that without the anti-Semitic rhetoric built into it.”

Siegel said he experienced anti-Semitism from some protesters.

“These things are not zero-sum games and we can call out anti-Semitism and we can say that Israel has the right to exist and that doesn’t mean Israel doesn’t need to change policy or doesn’t mean you shouldn’t criticize Israel, or that you shouldn’t do so loudly,” he said.

“I was walking up to people and asking if they wanted to have a cup of tea and talk about peace and people were screaming ‘baby murderer’ in my face.”

“Ultimately for there to be proper dialogue about Israel and Gaza we have to do it in a way where we first remove anti-Semitism and certainly islamophobia too. And I’m certain that there are people in the Muslim community that are experiencing this as well.”

April Nowell, another Jew who attended the meeting, said she had had similar experiences at the meeting.

“I am very used to conversing with people who have different points of view on a variety of topics, but the difference between them and the protesters at the Belfry on Friday, is that I have never felt hated before but that is how I felt as I exited the theatre,” Nowell said.

“We were told we could exit by the back of the theatre or by the front past the protesters screaming and brandishing a banner calling for Jewish genocide (From the River to the Sea) and for ‘rage’ against supporters of the play. It was traumatizing.”

The Runner first premiered in 2018 and is the winner of several 2019 Dora Mavor Moore Awards for Outstanding Production, Outstanding Direction and Outstanding New Play.

Sam Duerksen

About the Author: Sam Duerksen

Since moving to Victoria from Winnipeg in 2020, I’ve worked in communications for non-profits and arts organizations.
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