The Politics of the Public Sphere and Navigating State Interactions: The Case of al-Midan Theatre
By Mekarem Eljamal
"Palestine," courtesy of gnuckx on Creative Commons.
The history of Israel and the country’s founding lends itself to a complicated understanding of the public sphere. In 1948, Zionist forces expelled upwards of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes; however, 15% of Palestinians who lived on the land that would subsequently become the State of Israel remained. This segment of the Palestinian population, or ’48 Palestinians, were often forced into neighboring majority Arab villages or corralled into certain neighborhoods in “mixed cities” such as Haifa and Jaffa, which also brings into debate how truly “mixed” such cities are. In consequence, there are now several different public spheres within Israel: one for all Israeli citizens, one for Jewish citizens, and one for Palestinian citizens. With all of these divisions in the public sphere, the question then becomes, what truly is the public sphere? How do we understand Jürgen Habermas’s definition of the public sphere centering on “quality of discussion and quantity of participation” in relation to ’48 Palestinians, and how has the Israeli state challenged the creation of a public sphere for ’48 Palestinians? To delve deeper into this issue, this article looks closely at the al-Midan Theatre in Haifa: a mixed city that, through all of its neighborhoods, can encompass the all three different understandings of the public sphere simultaneously.
Al-Midan Theatre, like many theatres that serve a Palestinian audience within Israel, stands at a unique position vis-a-vis its place within the public sphere. As a theatre, there are already questions that arise in regards to accessibility based upon class stratification; in addition to this class analysis of al-Midan’s place within the public sphere, we must take into account its history, location, and most important to this piece, its interactions with the Israeli government. Originally opened in 1995 with the hopes of being a theatre for “coexistence” supported by the government, al-Midan eventually turned away from such a purpose. Located in Wadi Nisnas, a majority Palestinian neighborhood in Haifa, al-Midan almost exclusively produced plays in Arabic to serve its constituency, a constituency that often has to watch plays, films, and other sources of entertainment in their non-native language of Hebrew because the local entertainment industry caters predominantly to that one sector of the public. Al-Midan has filled a gap for ’48 Palestinians, not only linguistically by providing a space to hear their native language on the state, but also politically. The productions hosted by al-Midan often push what is considered politically acceptable to present in the public sphere, and it is here where interactions with the state begin to curtail, twist, and complicate the notion of the public sphere.
Al-Midan has hosted political plays such as “1945,” about a Palestinian village sitting in limbo between the end of World War II and the coming Nakba. However, “Parallel Times,” written by Bashar Murkus, was the play to garner the most backlash from the Israeli government. The play, which centers on a Palestinian prisoner accused of killing an Israeli solider in 1984, was successfully showed in Arabic multiple times. However, Murkus decided to subtitle the play in Hebrew in order to bring the discussion out of an exclusive Palestinian public sphere and into the general public sphere for all Israeli citizens. After the translation, accusations of ties to terrorist organizations and undermining democracy were flung from government officials; ultimately, al-Midan’s government funding was frozen. This background on al-Midan brings us to the present day. After having been promised the previously frozen funding, the Ministry of Culture continues to transfer over the funds. In response, al-Midan announced on March 24, 2017 that it was beginning its open strike.
By choosing the plays and performances that it did, al-Midan is promoting and engaging with Habermas’ definition of the public sphere, if we understand that sphere to be the one only including ’48 Palestinians. The conversations al-Midan encourages through its selection of works is challenging the ’48 Palestinian community to think about its history, it current situation, and the future—all of which neatly fall under Habermas’ image of the public sphere to be a place where many people gather to discuss issues of importance. However, when al-Midan attempted to broaden its reach in the public sphere—a move that would be supported by Habermas, who was concerned with quantity of participants along with quality of discussion—the Israeli state took actions that moved it towards the complete closure of the particular range of the public sphere fostered by al-Midan. This move by the Israeli government is incredibly telling in regards to how the state views the ’48 Palestinian community and the safety and integrity of their own communal-specific public sphere. Internally, the ’48 Palestinian community has developed a public sphere, which has been nurtured by organizations like al-Midan. Once we bring the state into the conversation, though, we see that they do not define the sphere as public; instead, they see the ’48 Palestinian public sphere as a private sphere within the greater Israeli public sphere, and conversations within the ’48 Palestinian sphere are only to remain there, never brought to the larger sphere.
Claiming ’48 Palestinian space as a public sphere—not a private sphere within an Israeli public sphere—is an assertive act stating the existence and rights of those Palestinians. In accepting a classification of their actions as being relegated to a private sphere, the community is letting go of a right to funding (in the case of al-Midan), civil liberties, and more. Furthermore, in viewing the ’48 Palestinian public sphere as private, which uses the logic and lens of the Israeli government, is a relinquishment of control over the community, their bodies, and their histories. This public sphere wherein ’48 Palestinians can develop their thoughts and community, cannot be relegated to the control of the Israeli government for it to determine unilaterally which conversations and conclusions are appropriate. While there are those who disagree with al-Midan’s fight for government funds, we must also look at the theatre’s strike as a demand for existence and a platform for expression, claiming is place as part of a great and complicated ecology within the ’48 Palestinian public sphere.
 Ghanim, H. (2015). The Nakba. Palestinians in Israel: Readings in History, Politics, and Society. 16-25.
 These spheres can be broken down further to include one for Druze, for Ethiopian Jews, Mizrachim, Eritrean migrants, etc. For purposes of this paper, we will focus on the three listed above.
 Calhoun, C.J. (1992). Introduction: Habermas and the Public Sphere. Habermas and the Public Sphere. 1-48.
 Hoval, R. (2011, March 22). Al-Midan Theatre is in danger of being closed. Haaretz.
 Erlanger, S. (2016, January 29). Israel, Mired in Ideological Battles, Fights on Cultural Fronts. New York Times.
 Calhoun, C.J. Ibid.