At first glance, the Cameri Theater’s repertoire for its next season looks no different from those of seasons past. The list of plays unveiled late last month reflects the same crowd-pleasing mix that has made Tel Aviv’s municipal theater into a national powerhouse: translated classics both old and new (Shakespeare, Chekhov, Mamet) alongside original Israeli fare.
But a new Israeli musical on that list has sparked controversy unlike anything Israeli theater has seen in recent memory. The Cameri announced that it plans to premiere Zeh Ani (It’s Me), a new musical by the writer and director Maor Zaguri, featuring the songs of Eyal Golan, one of the country’s most popular singers. The synopsis sounds harmless enough: It’s the story of the (fictional) Jerusalem Sephardic Orchestra, and of the attempts of its impresario, the elderly Toledano, to convince his three rebellious daughters to take up his mantle. A gentle Lear with pop songs, if you will. Israeli theatergoers have not been immune to the Mamma Mia! effect, and new musicals with familiar songs are a safe bet. Golan’s Mizrachi pop songs are as familiar as they come. One would be forgiven for assuming that the Cameri had a surefire hit in its hands.
Golan, though, carries some baggage. In 2013, Israeli police investigated Golan and his father, Danny Biton, for sexual relations with minors. Golan maintained that the sex was consensual and that he was unaware of the young women’s ages. When some of the women admitted to having exaggerated their claims, the state dropped the charges against Golan (his father was indicted and, in a plea bargain, sentenced to two years in prison). Golan, by then a millionaire many times over, suffered a difficult year, but quickly effected a meteoric comeback. His performances handily sell out the country’s largest venues, and he is slated to star in a new reality TV show this year.
Ran Guetta, the Cameri’s new manager, defended his choice. “Eyal Golan is a singer whose music is enjoyed by 70-90 percent of the people,” he told Walla News. “We’re not getting into places we needn’t get into, we’re dealing with culture. I read the play, and it’s good, with real drama that many people will be able to identify with. Eyal has many great songs. I’m not dealing with whether there’s a stain or not. As far as I’m concerned, he’s a great singer and he has a place in Israeli culture.” The Cameri quickly received the most coveted political imprimatur in the realm, that of Israel’s minister of culture. Like most Israeli theaters, the Cameri is a public institution heavily reliant on public funds; taxpayer money accounts for some 40 percent of its annual revenue. The ministry of culture oversees the appropriation of those funds, and the minister of culture herself, Miri Regev, released a statement expressing her wholehearted approval of the musical, calling it a “huge step towards realizing the vision of cultural justice,” namely the showcasing of Mizrachi artists after decades of Ashkenazi cultural domination.
Soon after that, Dror Keren, one of the Cameri’s leading stars (last seen in the United States in the stage adaptation of David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, which caused its own tempest in a teapot last year), wrote a letter to the theater’s management, that was quickly leaked to the media, writing:
“Over the past week, ever since the press conference that no one remembers anything about, other than that the Cameri is adopting Eyal Golan, I’ve wanted, as someone for whom the Cameri has been his second home for the past twenty years, to speak with you … to share with you how we feel, the theater’s actors and workers, who thought (and I did too, by the way), that this was a joke. I wanted to share with you the shame, the shock and the embarrassment that have come up in our conversations over the past week, in vans on the way to shows, in phone calls and in Whatsapp groups. I thought it’s important for you to know that beyond the outside criticisms, here at home, the feelings are difficult. There’s the sense that we’ve lost our way, and our values. That we’ve sold out.”
Keren quoted from an interview Golan granted Yedioth Aharonot in 2014, where Golan conceded, “yes it sounds very bad. My dad came to my apartment with two girls. They sat in the living room, one sat on the edge of the sofa. I stop by her and she pulls down my pants, and does what she does. As that’s starting, my dad takes the other one out to the balcony.”
“That’s where the shame is,” Keren concluded. “Not in Zaguri’s play. In a year where all over the world, men in key positions who exploited women only because they could, are denounced and receive a mark of disgrace, from us they receive kingship. It’s not a ‘Mizrachi tikkun’ as the Minister of Culture calls it, and it’s not ‘opening up to new audiences’. It’s first and foremost spitting in the faces of Eyal Golan’s victims, and in the faces of anyone who thinks that that behavior is wrong.”
Habima, Israel’s national theater and the Cameri’s main competitor soon let it be known that it had been offered the Golan musical, but had decided to pass on it. Implicit in that (anonymous) statement: The Cameri has sold out its art in favor of the crowds, and perhaps most blatantly, in favor of its patron, the Minister of Culture. But Habima, too, has its own hit jukebox musical, Road Signs, which tells the story of the late Naomi Shemer, one of the country’s leading songwriters. Though firmly of the old (read: Ashkenazi) establishment, Shemer was also an outspoken hawk, who paid a heavy price in the Israeli arts milieu for her unfashionable support of the right. In Shemer, Habima found that rare specimen: A right-wing protagonist who can sing and dance to boot.
Road Signs is a delightful production, but it’s difficult to shake the feeling that the choice to mount it had the happy side effect of currying favor with a highly political Minister of Culture. Why should Eyal Golan, never even indicted and highly beloved by his fans, receive different treatment? In the same 2014 interview, Golan set the tone for what was to follow. “I don’t want to get into it, but most of those who [took pleasure in my troubles] weren’t Mizrachi,” he said. “The Ashkenazim in the media did less to protect me, to put it mildly. The street protected me, but the media tore me apart, and those who did were more Ashkenazi than Mizrachi. They had an easy finger on the trigger.” Many of his supporters in the wake of the Cameri’s announcement accuse his detractors of the same cultural elitism.
To be fair, an all-singing, all-dancing Eyal Golan musical extravaganza might very well have attracted the slings and arrows of Israel’s cultural elite even had he not admitted to owning what he called a “pussy wagon”, which carried very young women, propositioned by his own father, to his luxury apartment. But Golan has admitted to that behavior. The decision of whether or not to enjoy Golan’s music or attend his concerts is a personal one, and has been easily made by his many fans. But the Cameri’s decision to produce Zeh Ani is a more complicated one, which may well risk muddying the waters of an otherwise honorable attempt at cultural pluralism.
Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.