Jana Natya Manch appeals for solidarity with The Freedom Theatre

Ahmed Tobasi, Artistic Director, The Freedom Theatre, after the deadly Israeli raid on the Jenin Refugee Camp, where the theatre is located.

In April 2017, we at LeftWord Books, published our first visual book. Edited by Johanna Wallin, Rehearsing Freedom is a record of the first ten years of the work of The Freedom Theatre (TFT) in Jenin, Palestine. The Freedom Theatre was founded in a refugee camp in Jenin. When it was founded, the camp was still recovering from the devastating battle of Jenin unleashed by Israel during the Second Intifada. The next year, in 2018, we published documentation of the work of The Freedom Theatre, The Freedom Theatre: Performing Cultural Resistance in Palestine, edited by Johanna Wallin, and Ola Johansson, in its first ten years as it is a testament to its growing significance as a source of inspiration in Palestine and around the world.

Sudhanva Deshpande, our Managing Editor at LeftWord Books, and also an actor and a director with Jana Natya Manch (Janam), travelled to Palestine in March-April 2015 and spent a fortnight with The Freedom Theatre. This visit led to a joint production of TFT and Janam with eight members of TFT coming to India. The joint production then toured 11 cities of India in the winter of 2015-16.

Jana Natya Manch statement:

Jana Natya Manch (Janam), Delhi, is shocked, distressed, and enraged at the horrific attack on the Jenin Refugee Camp by the Israeli army that lasted over three days and resulted in the deaths of at least twelve people. This recent attack was also the most extensive and brutal military operation carried out by Israel for two decades.

The Freedom Theatre, with which Janam co-created a play in the winter of 2015-16, has been a special target of the Israeli military. The theatre itself is significantly damaged, and it is too early to say if anything has been stolen or planted there. Many people associated with the theatre been subjected to hours-long interrogations, and at least one staff member has been picked up and his fate is currently unknown.

The Jenin Refugee Camp, a densely-populated little square-shaped settlement in north West Bank, has been attacked by the Israeli forces literally hundreds of times over the last few decades. It will be recalled that the American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead by an Israeli sniper while she was on reporting duty in the Jenin Refugee Camp on 11 May 2022. Then, and subsequently, the Israeli forces have blocked off roads and prevented emergency and health workers from reaching and helping the victims of the violence.

The Freedom Theatre (TFT) itself has a glorious and storied legacy and is one of the leaders of the Palestinian cultural resistance against the Occupation. The precursor to TFT was the Stone Theatre, set up by the human rights activist Arna Mer-Khamis, who was an Israeli Jew and worked for the liberation of Palestine. The theatre was set up during the First Intifada and destroyed in 2002 during the Second Intifada by the Israeli forces.

In 2006, Arna's son, Juliano Mer-Khamis, himself a leading Israeli actor and theatre director, co-founded The Freedom Theatre with Zakaria Zubeidi, a freedom fighter who had been part of the Stone Theatre as a child, and Jonatan Stanczak, a nurse from Sweden. TFT has produced several rivetting, artistically accomplished and politically nuanced plays since then. It has been a beacon of hope, strength and resolve for the youth of Palestine. The theatre has been a target of Israeli harrassment and attacks on several occasions. In 2011, Juliano Mer-Khamis was shot dead by an unidentified assailant outside the theatre. TFT responded to that horrible tragedy, as it has to every attack before or since, by re-grouping and refusing to shut down its work.

We at Janam count many TFT artists as friends and comrades, and we worry about their safety and well-being. This year, 2023, has been particularly harsh for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. The UN has calculated that the number of Palestinians killed between January and May are more than double the number for the same period last year – which was already one of the highest in recent times. It is hardly surprising that Amnesty International characterised the Israeli Occupation as ‘apartheid’ in 2022, and most recently, two former senior UN officials, Ban Ki-moon (former UN secretary-general) and Mary Robinson (former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and president of Ireland), after a visit to the region, say that they witnessed ‘ever-growing evidence that the situation meets the international legal definition of apartheid’.

The apartheid regime of South Africa was defeated by the united struggle of the people of South Africa, aided by the solidarity extended by people all over the world. Today, more and more people and institutions all over the world need to be part of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against the Israeli state. We call upon artists, intellectuals, and people from all walks of life all over the world to stand up and condemn the brutal Israeli settler-colonialist regime.

We extend our solidarity and support to our Palestinian friends. We are certain that apartheid and racism will be defeated. Palestine will be free.