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‘We Played Through War, Why Not Now?’ Israeli Musicians, Artists Slam Pandemic Policies (VIDEO REPORT)

Hundreds demonstrate in Jerusalem against coronavirus restrictions, which have brought cultural sector to near standstill

With concert halls and theaters closed for the foreseeable future, Israel’s arts and entertainment industry has joined a chorus of protests against the government’s coronavirus restrictions.

Hundreds of members of the country’s cultural sector took to the streets Tuesday night outside Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s official residence to demand the reopening of closed venues and request additional financial aid. Thousands have been furloughed since March.

Amid great fanfare and a memorable performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, dancers, musicians, actors and technicians called on the government to address the unique challenges facing the sector during the pandemic.

Organized by several leading Israeli cultural institutions, including the Culture and Arts Institutions Forum and Shaham (Israeli Actors Guild), the event also included performance art and speeches by prominent Israeli actors.

Hundreds of members of Israel’s cultural sector protest outside Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem on Aug. 11, 2020. (Raymond Crystal/The Media Line)

“We are worried, concerned, disappointed and feel very insecure,” Avi Shoshani, CEO of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), told The Media Line. “The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1936, which was one of the darkest periods of human history and we haven’t stopped playing for one day.

“During the Gulf War we played with masks on our faces,” he recounted. “There are many possible ways to let us play.”

Under famed conductor Zubin Mehta, the IPO performed throughout the Six-Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the Gulf War in 1991, when concerts were held in a small hall in Jaffa.

In a particularly striking experience during the Gulf War, a Saturday night performance with American virtuoso Isaac Stern was interrupted after an air raid alert went off, warning of an incoming Scud missile.

Stern and orchestra members briefly left the stage to get their gas masks before returning and going on with the show.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has presented Israel’s entertainment industry with a new set of challenges. For now, theaters, concert halls and other performance venues across the country remain shuttered as live performances have all but been banned to prevent the spread of the virus, leaving artists and support staff in the lurch.

In an agreement aimed at softening earlier restrictions and reviving the sector, Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein on Sunday announced new guidelines for outdoor shows. Holding concerts and other live performances is now permissible with “capsules” of up to 20 people, as long as these capsules remain separated by barriers in order to prevent them from interacting.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Israel Katz, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Culture and Sports Minister Yehiel Tropper, and representatives of the culture sector meet on August 9, 2020 to discuss new guidelines. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

Under the new guidelines, outdoor shows with capsules adding up to 500 people in attendance will require a permit from the Culture and Sports Ministry’s director-general, while those over 500 people will require additional approval from the Health Ministry’s director-general. Patrons will also be required to have their temperatures’ taken upon entering the outdoor performance area.

We are worried, concerned, disappointed and feel very insecure. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1936, which was one of the darkest periods of human history and we haven’t stopped playing for one day. During the Gulf War we played with masks on our faces. There are many possible ways to let us play.

Israel’s cultural sector has reacted largely with disappointment to the new directives, arguing that they are nonviable.

“To play in concert halls like ours is one of the safest things that I can think of, but somehow the government doesn’t listen to us,” Shoshani of the IPO asserted. “When I look at my friends in Europe, each orchestra is being sponsored by the government. Here, nobody knows what’s going to happen.

“I have a fantastic group of musicians who are dying to play,” he said.

Some musicians in Europe have indeed received government pandemic aid. The Berlin government, for instance, generated headlines back in March when it distributed roughly $588 million to freelancers – including artists and musicians – within days of launching a coronavirus grants rescue package. Overall, however, cultural workers around the world are reeling from social distancing regulations and show cancellations.

“This is what we’ve been doing all our lives and we’ve been cut off,” Eran Reemy, a trumpet player with the IPO, related to The Media Line, adding that he is currently on unemployment.

A group of performers at the protest on Balfour street in Jerusalem on Aug. 11, 2020. (Maya Margit/The Media Line)

Back in June, when indoor venues were temporarily allowed to run, 500 people were permitted to sit inside in the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv where the IPO performs. The hall normally has a seating capacity of 2,400 people. According to Reemy, everyone in attendance wore masks and sat far apart from one another.

“You can [preserve] health but still let people do what they do and live,” he stressed. “We don’t get any [aid] and we’re not allowed to work. I’m not allowed to do [what I’ve been doing] for 40 years.”

Others in the entertainment industry agreed.

“We don’t see any way forward, not for the workers of the theater and not for the actors,” Dganit Turgeman, finance director of the Tmu-na Theater in Tel Aviv, told The Media Line. “All we’re hearing about is holding shows in open spaces. Right now we don’t know when we’ll be going back to work.”

Dganit Turgeman, finance director of the Tmu-na Theater in Tel Aviv. (Raymond Crystal/The Media Line)

The Tmu-na Theater, a Tel Aviv-based performance center that highlights fringe and avant-garde plays, sent its 40 workers on unpaid leave back in mid-March.

“We’re not working and we will continue to cry out for the [government] to answer us,” Turgeman said. “People don’t think of this as a real career and it’s a big problem. Aside from the actors, there’s an entire world of workers, from technicians, producers, who have also been [affected].”