The play that tore Israel apart

Playwright Hanoch Levin was pilloried for predicting the woes of being an occupying power.


Army Chief of staff Haim Bar-Lev joked that it was raunchy enough to be performed for the boys at the front with Egypt. Defence Minister Moshe Dayan condemned it for undermining morale and giving succour to the enemy. Members of the audience hurled curses, stink bombs and stones while critics called for its creator to be locked up in a mental institution.

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the rise and fall of Israel's most controversial play, Malkat Ambatya (Queen of a Bathroom), Hanoch Levin's blunt indictment of Israeli militarism and hubris after the stunning victory of the 1967 Six-Day War. And the controversy over claiming territory captured in that conflict; over whether Israel is doing much, if anything to make peace; over its, in Levin's view, self-righteous dehumanisation of Arabs, continues to reverberate today.

Levin, who died of cancer in 1999 at 56, has become regarded as Israel's leading playwright both inside the country and abroad. He is recalled variously as a prophet who foreshadowed the devastating 1973 Yom Kippur War and the unending entanglement of occupation in the West Bank, and a traitor who stabbed a country fighting for survival in the back.

"This was not another show in the theatre, this was a historic event, a turning point,'' says Omri Nitzan, the artistic director of the Cameri theatre, which staged Malkat Ambatya beginning in April 1970 and then, following a public outcry, cancelled its run after only 19 performances. As a young soldier Nitzan went to see Malkat Ambatya three times and tried to protect its actors from the heckling that would invariably start up after a scene in which a fallen soldier accuses his father of sending him to needless death.

During one show, after bereaved parents in the audience began shouting "shame, shame'' and "hater of Israel'' at the stage, Nitzan, dressed in his uniform and wearing his paratrooper wings, got up and yelled out: "Let them put on the play. It's a free country.''

I stopped performing when stones were thrown - blocks of Jerusalem stone

Actor Yossi Graber, who appeared in the original production, says the cast was taking its life into its hands by performing the play. Police, fearing attacks after the show, guarded the actors' exit. One performance in Tel Aviv was disrupted by a bomb scare. When the play reached Jerusalem it was even more dangerous. "At one show I decided to stop performing when stones were thrown. I am talking about blocks of Jerusalem stone,'' Graber recalls. "I said: 'I am not willing to die for Malkat Ambatya'."

There were also tensions over the play among the actors of the Cameri. Says Graber: "One actor, Yossi Yadin, said to me: 'You should be ashamed of yourself.' The older actors, in particular, objected to the staging of the show. They were intoxicated by the 1967 victory and thought it would last forever."

Indeed, those were in many respects heady times, with many Israelis fearing extinction at the hands of the surrounding Arab armies and then, just days later, celebrating a victory that brought huge territorial gains, and an accompanying sense of invincibility.

Levin had no tolerance for the wave of nationalism fuelled by the capture of the ancient biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria in the West Bank. Even secular intellectuals had begun to lose their heads and were advocating annexation. But, for Levin, these territories were not essential and were certainly not worth losing lives for. "The kingdom is whole," went one of the Malkat Ambatya songs, then adding caustically: "Most of my uncles have one leg, but the kingdom is whole.''

Another scene showed Prime Minister Golda Meir, the queen referred to in the title of the play, clutching Foreign Minister Abba Eban by the crotch at a cabinet meeting to prevent him from making any dovish proposals.

Many critics vociferously attacked the show, and Levin personally, although Malkat Ambatya also had its defenders who argued that Israelis could learn a lot about themselves from it. Much discussion focused around Levin's depiction of Israelis as not letting Arabs fulfil their basic needs, for example by hogging the bathroom when an Arab needed to urinate. The play became integrally associated with peepee and kake, the Hebrew words for "urine" and "faeces". Indeed, one critic, Reuven Yanai, writing in the newspaper Maariv at the time, termed Levin's mind "satanic'' and "disturbed". He added that Levin should be treated the same way as a dog who has defecated in the living room. "You take its head and dip it thoroughly in what is has left behind,'' he wrote.

Moshe Dayan entered the audience one night to an ovation. He termed the show a gift to the Egyptian army. "I can't imagine anything more encouraging [for the Egyptians]," he said during a radio interview. Dayan characterised the work as being "something between a bathroom and a bathtub, and they enjoy being in this stench of a bathroom".

Gershon Solomon, at the time a 29-year-old member of the Jerusalem city council who unsuccessfully tried to stop the staging of the show in the capital, says: "Without doubt Hanoch Levin sowed the seeds of what we see today when not unsubstantial groups in the left, including the moderate left, are ready to give up the heart of the land in which the Jewish people were born."

Solomon, who went on to found and lead the far-right Temple Mount Faithful group, still justifies the throwing of stones at the stage. "What do you expect people to do when from inside the nation arises a man who vilifies it in the same way that the worst antisemites did throughout history?''

However Levin's brother, David, who directed Malkat Ambatya, says that Hanoch stood out for understanding where the occupation would lead at its very inception. Speaking from his home in Edinburgh, he says: "Malkat Ambatya identified an illness. At its basis, this illness has not really been treated. Today it is a 40-year illness. Go and cure it. How? With what tools?"

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