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Papp Blames Himself, Not Pressure, for Cancellation of Palestinian Play

July 26, 1989
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Somewhere between the time he agreed to present a play by a Palestinian theater group and the moment it came to close the deal, Joseph Papp had a change of heart.

But just what, or who, caused the famed theater impresario to cancel a planned appearance by the E1-Hakawati Palestinian Theater Company has been a cause for speculation here.

Conjecture ranges from charges that Papp was pressured by his Jewish supporters to Papp’s own contention that now was “not the time” to present a single play on so sensitive a topic as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Either way, E1-Hakawati’s “The Story of Kufur Shamma” will not be seen at Papp’s Public Theater this month, and instead will be presented at the smaller Dance Theater Workshop in lower Manhattan.

But while the play has moved on, the controversy hasn’t.

Reeling from charges that he had violated the First Amendment rights of the Palestinian troupe and insulted both Jewish-and Arab-Americans, Papp met for an hour-and-a-half Monday with delegates of the American-Arab Relations Committee of the National Council on Islamic Affairs.

Emerging from what both sides agreed was a cordial meeting, Papp said he would present a Palestinian play, possibly “Kufur Shamma,” by the end of the year.

But Papp said he would present the play within a spectrum of other performances, possibly including Israeli or other Palestinian plays.

Papp’s cancellation of E1-Hakawati came amid a debate on the willingness of cultural institutions to present controversial programming, especially on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In September, the local PBS affiliate, WNET, will present “Days of Rage,” a documentary about the intifada that has been lambasted by Jewish groups as pro-Palestinian propaganda.

Responding to the outcry — what some have called pressure — from Jewish groups, PBS said it will “wrap” the documentary with two-and-a-half hours of analysis and documentary material in order to balance the film’s pro-Palestinian view.


At Monday’s news conference, Papp denied published reports that he was pressured into his decision by Jewish patrons of his theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival who objected to the play’s ostensibly anti-Israel content.

Papp said he was “sensitive to their beliefs,” as he would be to any minority’s, but that he “didn’t respond to pressure.”

“There was no Jewish pressure, no board pressure,” he said. “That conjures up all the anti-Semitism that ‘Jews want this or that.’ “

Papp also denied that he personally objected to the content of the play. “Kufur Shamma” tells the story of a Palestinian who returns to his village looking for survivors of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The play was performed last year in Israel without any political commotion.

Papp indicated that his decision was a highly personal one, one tied into his own Jewishness and his ambivalence about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Earlier this year, the former Yosef Papirofsky founded the Joseph Papp Yiddish Theater, which staged a highly successful Yiddish play, “Songs of Paradise.” He also began an involvement with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

As the decision to sign the deal with El-Hakawati neared, Papp said he received a letter from an elderly woman associated with the Baltimore Hebrew College, who didn’t think presenting the play would “be a good idea.”

Papp said that, having so recently reasserted his Jewishness but having never presented an Israeli or Palestinian play, he didn’t want his first statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be seen as pro-Palestinian.

“I didn’t want that to express my view alone,” he said. “El-Hakawati would have been shown at a time when no other play was occupying the theater,” he added. “It could, in my opinion, be construed as a declaration of my position on the Palestinian-Israeli issue.”

Papp’s explanation is not likely to satisfy critics, who still consider his decision censorship. But it did satisfy the Arab delegation he met with Monday.

“His decision was not based on any pressure on him, but was a personal decision. We accept that,” said Mohammed Mehdi, president of the American-Arab Relations Committee, who later planted three kisses on Papp’s cheek.

After its appearance in New York, El-Hakawati will perform in Lexington, Va.; Woodstock, N.Y.; Vancouver, British Columbia; Seattle; Pittsburgh; and Atlanta.

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