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Belfry could have added Palestinian voices rather than cancelling Israel-set play, rabbi says

Rabbi Harry Brechner of Congregation Emanu-El Brechner says he wants to work with the Belfry to explore ways to build bridges after The Runner’s cancellation
The Belfry Theatre announced Tuesday that it had decided to cancel the play The Runner, which was supposed to be part of the SPARK Festival in March. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

A Victoria rabbi says he hopes capital region residents will put aside their rage and try to understand each other following the cancellation of a play set to run at the Belfry Theatre that sparked protests and shouting matches.

Rabbi Harry Brechner of Congregation Emanu-El said he wants to work with the ­Belfry to explore ways to build bridges amid tensions stemming from the Israel-Hamas war that have spilled into the local community.

Brechner said the Belfry Theatre’s options for The Runner, a one-man play that focuses on the experience of a volunteer with an ultra-Orthodox rescue service in Israel, did not have to be limited to cancelling or going ahead with the production.

Adding Palestinian voices to the lineup alongside The Runner might have offered a chance to educate Victoria residents on the dynamics of the decades-long conflict, he said.

The Belfry announced Tuesday that it was cancelling the show, which was to be part of the SPARK Festival in March, saying presenting it now would not ensure the “well-being of all segments of our community.”

The theatre had faced duelling petitions asking that the play be removed or kept, and the theatre building was vandalized, with the words “Free Palestine” spray painted outside the entrance.

Brechner said he’s concerned that the cancellation sets a precedent of censoring artistic expression when a group takes issue with a particular work. “I want to be deeply sensitive to both sides. And I think we can do that. And I don’t think that anyone has really looked at it from, I think, maybe a more mature perspective of, how do we do this together?”

The rabbi said the emotionally charged issue requires careful and thoughtful dialogue, but a community meeting held by the theatre didn’t appear to allow for meaningful dialogue and devolved into a shouting match.

There is a lot of rage on all sides, and rage tends to come from fear, he said.

“I think that the only way to dispel fear is by encountering and understanding. You know, we’re not in the Middle East, right? We’re really far. So if we can’t get it together here, how do we expect them to get it together there?”

Christopher Morris, the playwright behind The Runner, said in a statement that he was disappointed the Belfry cancelled the production, but empathizes with the challenging situation the theatre faced.

“I am saddened that people in Victoria — especially those with divergent views and those traumatized by the atrocities in Israel and Gaza — will be denied the opportunity to come together in a theatre to explore their common humanity, share their grief and perhaps discover a flicker of solace and hope,” he said.

Morris described the play as a “nuanced and thoughtful conversation about the preciousness of human life” that has been seen by audiences in six cities since its 2018 premiere and has won numerous awards.

Morris said he wants to see Canadian politicians do all they can to stop the violence in Gaza and Israel, and he hopes theatre companies and playwrights give audiences opportunities for dialogue and to build bridges. “I believe The Runner is an excellent opportunity for those things to happen,” he said, noting Vancouver audiences will have a chance to see the production in late January.

Fosse Chang, a Jewish Victoria resident, said she thinks it was tone deaf of the theatre to put on the play while Palestinians in Gaza fight for their lives under Israeli bombardment of the territory. She said after reading the script, she found The Runner racist and Islamophobic, and the community discussions around the play hurt the Palestinian community in Victoria. The three-hour community meeting was poorly facilitated, with no ground rules, and people debated the characterization of Israel’s war on Gaza as genocide, Chang said.

She said that as a Jewish person, it’s important to her that Victorians don’t promote Islamophobia at a time when it’s on the rise in much of the world.

“I think that centring Palestinian voices during the ongoing genocide of their people is really important,” said Chang, who would like to see the theatre join a cultural boycott of Israel.

That boycott calls on artists to cancel events in Israel and involving Israel, and for cultural institutions to reject Israeli state funding.

Brechner said he suspects the backlash to the play was less about the content of the production and more about a blanket boycott of everything that comes out of Israel.

But there’s a difference between boycotting artistic expression and boycotting ­institutions that financially prop up governments, like boycotts of the Bank of America during the South African fight against apartheid, Brechner said.

The ongoing war is devastating and heartbreaking, Brechner said.

“But I don’t know that the little squabbles that we’re having here in Victoria now, if they’re helpful,” he said.

The Belfry did not respond to requests for comment.

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