Life & Culture

An artist who’s 
not scared to make enemies

As a left-wing Israeli artist in the UK, Avital Raz has come under fire from all side, she tells John Nathan


Some theatre artists are driven by the impulse to see their name up in lights in the West End. Others might take to the stage out of a sheer love of the classics. But what drives Jerusalem-born musician and theatre-maker Avital Raz is very different.

“I want to show that there is an Israeli left,” says Raz talking on Zoom from her flat in Sheffield.

“In this country it feels like people [think] you can fit the Israeli left into one bus or that all Israelis are bloodthirsty [and about] war. I grew up in a very strongly left Israeli home and I want to show that there is this part of Israeli society that exists which I believe should be supported in the West and amplified. Because they are the people who can vote and can ultimately make change.”

Raz has lived in the UK for about ten years now and the show which she hopes will generate more understanding about her home country is called My Jerusalem. Its tour was cut short by Covid but a recording is now available to stream until August 7. But in during the time Raz was performing it live she was called “a Zionist, racist colonialist” and, by others, a self-hating Jew.

As is probably already clear, My Jerusalem is no romanticised view of Israel. Rather this solo show is a deeply personal, largely autobiographical account of Raz’s formative years in the 1980s. It recalls her experience as a member of a children’s choir, the sexual abuse she says she suffered as a young person and the anxiety of being a geeky female teenager growing up in a culture dominated by macho attitudes cultivated in the Israeli army.

All this is inevitably overshadowed by the Israeli Palestinian conflict and the clash between secular and religious Israel which resulted in her claim that she was assaulted by an Orthodox Jewish woman on a bus because Raz was dressed immodestly.

And then there is that song, sections of which Raz performs throughout the show and which has offended many who have heard it. Called The Edinburgh Surprise it describes in the first person a carnal encounter between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. Unflinchingly explicit, it is a song to be played on headphones lest children walk into the room. It is also unsettling and reflects the personal and private impact the Israeli Palestinian conflict has on those born on either side of the divide. Is it autobiographical?

“My mother asked that question recently and I said ‘Of course, it never happened.’ I mean, I don’t know if that’s a question I want to answer, but that’s what I told my mother anyway.”

It is, says Raz, who is the daughter of a psychotherapist on her mother’s side, the most contentious song she has written. Stylistically it is influenced by the musicians Raz, who studied in India calls her “three rabbis”: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed.

The song and show’s dark view of Israel seems to have particularly found an audience with those who are critical of the country which is perhaps unsurprising given the activism Raz has been involved with.

“When I first moved to the UK, I was quite active with Palestine solidarity type of stuff,” she says. “But the more I was involved in that, the more I encountered a lot of ignorance. I got along great with Palestinians. It was the British people who were lecturing me about Israel that I found so obnoxious.”

So while it is fair to say that My Jerusalem is not a show which is likely to be embraced by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, there is a picture here emerging of an Israeli artist whose right to represent her own experience is constantly challenged by those who want Israel to only ever be portrayed in a way that conforms to their opinion.

“There is definitely an issue with me as an Israeli having my own narrative,” says Raz. She is particularly referring to the anti-Israel left who — despite there being what Raz herself describes as a “critical stance” towards Israel in her show — question her right to tell a story that is Israeli. There have also been comments from the other side of the political spectrum.

“I’ve had messages from strangers on Facebook telling me that my family must be ashamed of me and that I’m a traitor to my people,” says Raz.

She is however, not entirely blameless in the way she depicts the rumpus generated by her work. A documentary she made as a companion piece to her play contains Palestinian and Jewish responses to her play. Called Your Jerusalem it doesn’t shirk from showing critical responses to her stage show. But there is an odd section recalling her contribution to an event entitled Festival of Debate in which she appeared as a member of a panel discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict.

A Jewish resident of Sheffield, where the event was held in 2019, complained that it and other events at the festival were biased against Israel. In her documentary Raz alleges that in its report about the event the JC described her as ‘an Israel-hating antisemite’, though there is no such description of her in the article shown by the documentary, or indeed anywhere in the JC. When I mention the sequence she appears unsure how it happened even though it is her voice narrating the film.

This implies a lack of rigour to her work which is a shame because on the evidence of My Jerusalem Raz appears to be a lone, talented artistic voice attempting to be heard in the narrowest, thorniest and most hostile of spaces, and she deserves to be noticed by articles such as this.

One might even worry for her well being, such is the vehemence of the comments responding to her work. But then she seems up for the challenge. Above the Arts Council and Lottery funding logos on her website there is a slogan that suggests a contrarian impulse behind her art. “Making People Uncomfortable,” it says.

“My next work is going to make My Jerusalem feel like an easy show,” she says. Just don’t expect a West End transfer.

My Jerusalem can be streamed until August 7 at

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