Interview with Jacob Gough, Manager of the Jenin Freedom Theatre

On the hot afternoon of Saturday, September 3rd, I went with another ISMer and two members of PEDAL to the Jenin Freedom Theatre, to interview Acting General Manager Jacob Gough about the harassment inflicted on the theatre recently by the Israeli military. (PEDAL is an amazing group of European activists who bicycled through Europe spreading seeds, both literally and metaphorically, between different autonomous food growing communities along the way. Though their ultimate destination was Palestine, they also did alot of work with permaculture, food autonomy, and anti-imperialist struggle in general. They are wrapping up their 4 month long adventure now, check out their website to see what they have learned, and what they have to teach you!) From the very beginning, the hour-long interview, laboriously transcribed here in its entirety, touched on much more than just the theatre’s troubles with the IDF. I visited the Theatre with the ISM a few weeks ago, and then, just like now, Jacob, as soon as he sat down, apologized for his frequent pauses and occasional mumbling, saying that he hadn’t slept the night before. He is an extremely dedicated fellow, and I’m sure the Theatre is very lucky to have him around. This time, like last time, we hardly had to prod him with questions to get him to tell us everything!


Tell us about the Theatre!

The idea of the Freedom Theatre came from a project started in the 80s by a woman named Arna Mer-Khamis who was a Jewish Israeli woman, and she saw a need for an alternative education system in places like Jenin refugee camp and the Jenin area in particular. Alot of it was to do with the first intifada, schools were shut all the time, and if they weren’t shut it was very dangerous for children to get to them, and so she wanted to work on a project that could give these children a chance, some education, some hope, some life, instead of the normal views that children have of Jews, of life, you know, just give them something new to experience. So she started the Care and Learning project, so initially she would come with books, pens ,crayons, whatever she could bring, she would turn up on the streets of Jenin refugee camp and just give lessons on whatever, or just give children the change to learn, to draw, to play or whatever. This project carried on, she won the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize for her work. and with the prize money from that, with the help of  a local family the Zubeidi family, they opened a theatre, the stone theater, which was on the top floor of the Zubeidi family home. Arna’s son Juliano, who was a famous actor in Israel, came and he started doing drama workshops, directing plays, taking drama therapy courses, and so her project carried on like this for several years.

In 1996 Arna died of cancer. After that, the project started going downhill. Juliano had returned to his career in Israel and so the project finished. the second Intifada started, and then the Battle of Jenin, and during the Battle of Jenin the theater was destroyed, along with the Zubeidi family home, and along with 10 to 15 percent of the refugee camp. The resistance in Jenin was so strong and well organized that the Israeli army had trouble defeating it, so in the end they just started bulldozing the camp to defeat the resistance. Alot of the boys that had been in the acting group with Juliano, most of them joined a resistance, nearly all of them were killed during the 2nd intifada, one committee a a suicide attack in Israel. And there was one survivor, which is Zakaria Zubeidi, who at that time was the head of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. So he was the head of a resistance in Jenin, and at the time Israel’s most wanted man. In 2004, a man named Jonatan Stanczak came to Jenin refugee camp, in fact he cycled from London to Ramallah, and then cycled up from Ramallah to Jenin, met with Zakaria, asked Zakaria what he could do for the refugee camp, and Zakaria said ‘start a theater’. He put him in contact with Juliano, and between them they opened the Freedom Theater.

So the theater started working in 2005, but officially opened in 2006. Since then the theater has started the first professional acting school in Palestine, we hold photography classes, film classes, creative writing, computer literacy, we do drama therapy. If you can imagine, in a refugee camp post traumatic stress is huge, and particularly [among the] youth, who grew up with some of the harshest fighting in the second intifada. So we hold drama therapy, in fact there is  a stygmatism against mental health practices in Jenin, it is seen as weak to go to mental health. So through drama therapy we can reach as many of the youth as we can in a kind of subversive way. People don’t really see it as going to psychologist. And its very important, the violence, anger, frustration, physical effects of post traumatic stress- stutters, all sorts. So through this work we do what we can to counteract that.

The goals of the theater are several, which build into one- the idea that we provide a safe place for children and youth, not just children and youth, I mean we’re open to adults, anyone, but we concentrate on children and youth to come and express themselves and talk about whatever- talk about the occupation, talk about society, talk about domestic violence, talk about just growing up and what its like to be a teenager. So we provide a safe place where people can do that. The idea of them expressing themselves is also then to create a narrative, and to take the message of these people, and the Palestinian cause out to the world, but in a professional way. That’s why we give the courses and the training- to do it in a professional way. So instead of just getting the message out in whatever way, we create professional theatre shows, professional films, professional photography exhibitions that then go out to the world and spread the message. The other idea of this as well is that we create an honest dialogue with the world, in that we’re not just the classic propaganda machine of occupation occupation occupation. We’re also not afraid to talk about the problems that are inherent in our society- domestic violence and so on, like I said, the subjugation of women. And the point of this as well is so that we fight for the freedom of all people, but also so that when we go to the world and we talk, it carries more weight, because people see that we are honest. Instead of just having the narrative that alot of people just block out in the world, of just hearing about occupation, we find another way to get to people, because we talk about all women’s rights and children’s rights. And then obviously that leads into the rights of all people under occupation. So there’s that.

One of the things we’re trying to build now is reconnecting Palestinian civil society, which has become so fragmented. I mean, you have obviously the West Bank, inside ’67, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and then the diaspora around the world. Palestinian civil society is really fragmented. Even in the West Bank there’s a stygmatism against people in refugee camps from people in cities. And then the thought is that to really be able to have a united Palestinian political front, then Palestinian civil society has to be united, otherwise it’ll just always fall down. Now this can be done in many ways, business and sport can do their part, but culture and art can really help. So the idea is that we are starting a moving theater company that will tour to refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, tour to Gaza, we want to start bringing groups from there here. We already do, with Alice in Wonderland, part of it is about breaking borders- we were busing people in from Haifa, from Netanya, from Nazareth, from Yaffa, buses of people were coming in to Jenin refugee camp to watch theater. It’s already starting to break borders.

And then really, all of these things come into the all encompassing, overall- freedom. Hence the name Freedom Theater, it’s all about freedom for everyone. And we don’t particularly advocate a political stance. We don’t go Hamas, Fatah, PFLP. We don’t do one state, two state, four state, six state, whatever. We advocate the freedom of choice, freedom to be able to choose what political affiliation you have, choose what solution you want to have. There’s not even any choice there for people to choose what solution they would like to see in the conflict. so that’s our thing, its about freedom, hence the name.

I’m sure you know our recent history- in April Juliano was murdered, less than 100 meters from the theater. We don’t know who and we don’t know why. And it put us here into quite a crisis, obviously, we didn’t just lose a friend, we lost the central structure of the management system, and also the artistic side of things, he was the director. And then also his wife left understandably- she gave birth to twins just two weeks after his death, and she didn’t want to come back, and that’s fair enough. And she was the main fundraiser and we lost her as well. So the theater went into quite a crisis. But we are still recovering from it, we started working again, i mean we have had two tours, we had one tour to France, the guys left this morning to Germany, Austria and Switzerland. We have another tour going to America, so we’re getting back, but its really fucking hard work, understandably. and then also the Israeli army getting on our ass as well has been not very helpful.

Can you tell us more about that?

Well the first event was about a month and half ago. At about 3 in the morning I got a phone call saying the Israeli army was coming, smashing windows, and very promptly got detained at the back of the theatre. They were throwing rocks at the windows, smashing the windows, and Ahmad, who is the security guard, when he went out he was confronted by Israeli soldiers who were like ‘lift your shirt, drop your trousers’, they detained him as well. And they proceeded to take Adnan, our location manager and head technician, and Bilal Saadi he’s the head of our board, they took him to Jarlemagne [sp?]. And initially they gave the normal rubbish excuses, like ‘theyre acting against the security of the region’. We then found out they are supposedly doing an investigation into the murder of Juliano. But then i dont count investigations where you kidnap people and treat them inhumanely, treat them to sleep deprivation- for a week they didn’t sleep- and then you try to get them to confess. Like this they work. That’s not an investigation, that’s trying to pin it on somebody.

Why do you think the IDF is cracking down on you at this particular time?

It’s very weird, i mean i dont know, the ins and outs of the security system are bits of a whole…there’s many theories. One theory is that members of our Swedish foundation board took part in the Gaza flotilla, i know he was questioned about the theatre’s involvement in the Gaza flotilla, there is a boat named after Juliano…that’s one theory.

Another theory is that the Freedom Theatre does do very much to dispel alot of Israeli propaganda. That’s one of our other fights. We use theater and culture as a form of resistance in two ways- there’s getting this message out and counteracting the Israeli propaganda, which is huge with large amounts of money behind it. And also as you know the occupation isn’t just about taking land, destroying homes, arresting people, killing people, it’s also about destroying an identity. Like you talk to the Zionist settlers, even people in the Knesset- they all say there is no Palestine, there’s no Palestinian, there’s no such thing. And this is where theater and culture come as a form of resistance, because it shows look! There is a Palestinian, there’s a Palestinian culture, what the fuck. And this doesn’t mean showing 100 year old traditional Palestinian art, which we incorporate in all our work, but its just a vibrant culture and community. Culture and art progresses, it changes, it transforms, and that’s what happens here as well as anywhere else.

So ideas like Black Box Theatre are quite new, but the idea of storytelling is very very old in Palestine and the Arab world, and music as well as dance. It’s there, Palestinian culture is there and that’s what we’re doing, we’re showing it. And also to counteract Israeli propaganda is a big thing. Jule as he was was a massive weapon, because he was an Israeli Jew who counts himself as Palestinian, he had served in the Special Forces in the Israeli army, but yet he was here living in Jenin refugee camp, working against the occupation. Arna as well was in Palmach, she was the driver for one of the most right wing Zionist groups during the war in ’48, and also hearing her sister talk about a massacre in Beer-sheva, where they massacred 300 Palestinians in a mosque, and how proud her sister was of this…

So could the IDF’s crackdown have something to do with the UN vote, and worries of a new Palestinian resistance springing up in Jenin and elsewhere?

It could well be. It could actually be that they are doing an investigation into the murder of Juliano, but then as a side bonus, they say ‘oh we can fuck the freedom theater up a bit!’ Also, after Juliano’s death it was shown how much support the Freedom Theatre has in the world, and not just people. Politicians, organizations, media as well- how much support the Freedom Theatre has- and that some of the most dangerous things for Israel, is showing that places like the  Freedom Theatre can reach really far. Recently with the attacks so far, we’ve had the actor’s union in Britain, actor’s unions in America, France, Germany- its made it to Parliament in Britian, France, Germany, Sweden, at least- congressmen in America as well- people phoning in the Israeli embassies, and sending them letters all the time, asking them what’s happening, what are you doing to the Freedom Theatre- the Israeli embassy started sending back replies, which I’ve never seen before! I’ve never seen the Israeli embassy reply to these kinds of letters, they just go whatever, fuck you , we don’t care. It feels like we’re hitting a nerve, and we try to harness that. We’re starting a community website, which is like a social networking site based around the Theatre and then based around culture and art to do with Palestine, and from here, the idea is connecting people, connecting people all around the world who are interested, and want to do something, in a social networking forum, and talk to each other. And the more people meet in this kind of context, the stronger this movement can build. And our work in the Freedom Theatre is building this movement inside Palestine. Building the idea of making the third Intifada an Intifada of culture and art, along with the normal demonstrations and things, but really using culture as a means of dispelling all these things, dispelling peoples views in the world of the Palestinians. Palestinians aren’t terrorists. This is what the Freedom Theatre does. Zakaria shows that you can come here, as a Jew, as an Israeli, and if you’re against occupation, then you’re welcomed as a friend. It’s not like we’re throwing Jews to the sea.

Speaking of the third Intifada, Juliano said in April 2006, around the time the Theatre was officially founded- “In Jenin – especially in Jenin – something is happening, in the good sense of the word. There is a universalist discourse, an international happening. Zakaria Zubeidi’s influence has led to a international campaign around a new kind of resistance…we want to be part of this third Intifada which is on the way in a way to hopefully influence at least some of the people in Jenin camp, towards non-violent, cultural international resistance.” Do you think this movement in Jenin is even stronger today? Right now the theater is recovering from a big trauma since Juliano’s death, but it has survived even larger traumas- the whole Stone Theater was destroyed! Arna died and it got back on its feet! So is there an even stronger hope today?

I mean yea, i think so. With what’s happened in the last few months we still have problems, we still struggle, really struggle. But the Freedom Theatre is stronger than whatever can be thrown at it. Whatever, the Israeli army can come and take us all, but the Freedom Theatre will keep going. The people here really have the ideals of it, the resolve to carry on, and more and more people come. We’re not looking for a fix after one year, four years, six years- we’re looking at generations here. These children outside are five and six, those people are eighteen, nineteen,we’re working with these generations. So in ten fifteen years, when people see the Freedom Theatre is here, still fighting, people will start realizing- more and more people will join this idea. Palestine is overrun with organizations that come in and go, come in, do a short project and leave- the flash mob of NGOs come in, do something nice, get a nice booklet out of it to send to the EU donors and then fuck off. That’s not what we’re about- we’re here to continue, so we have to show people we’re here to continue. And that means being here for ten, fifteen , twenty years. And that’s what will hapeen.

What’s the refugee camp like now, I mean the massacre was 9 years ago-

I wouldn’t say massacre. Alot of people in Jenin refugee camp-


-would not like it being called massacre, especially people like Zakaria. It was a battle, and the massacre would mean that the Israelis came in and killed everyone. Jenin fought fucking hard, and Jenin was where many of the israeli casualties came from. But after that the camp rebuilt, I think you’ve gotta look at the second Intifada as a whole- people lost hope after the second Intifada. That’s the biggest battle with bringing people into organizations and ideals like the Freedom Theatre- first you have to give them hope. Even when I was here during the end of the second Intifada, even when the resistance was being beaten, the Israeli army was finishing them off, the PA were then coming in to clean up afterwards and keep the peace after the Israelis- even towards that, when people knew things were coming to an end, because it was still a fight, there was still a bit of hope. But a few years later, a few years of the PA and of nothing changing, people don’t know what they want, they don’t know hope. Palestinian statehood is a new thing, and so on and so forth, but most people in the refugee camp are rather apathetic to it, because they don’t feel that its gonna do anything for them. There’s a real apathy to it.

Do you think the UN vote for Palestinian statehood could have a positive effect for the resistance?

The best thing it can do is try to isolate American-Israeli policy more. To succeed it has to get through the UN Security Council.

This bid for statehood could mean alot for the refugees in Jenin camp and elsewhere, if the right to return is brought up.

The legal implications- they haven’t thought it through enough. It’s a great symbolic event, but they haven’t thought it through. There’s huge implications with the PLO as well- because making the PA the sole representative of the Palestinian people in a Palestinian state, what happens to the refugees in Lebanon , Syria, all over the world? That was the point of the PLO, to be the representative of Palestinians wherever they are. Also , how could the PA- which is a subsidiary organization of the PLO, who started the PA- how can the PA take over from, dissolve the PLO? There’s loads of stuff they haven’t thought about. The best thing we can hope for it is to isolate American-Israeli policy. If 144 countries say yes we agree to the Palestinian state, and there’s 2, 3, 4 that say no…

But is there a positive hope for things like the Theatre right now? Because if there is no hope for a violent revolution, a cultural 3rd intifada would promote the image of a Palestinian people who are strong, and have the means and desire to express themselves…

Yea completely, it’s all about that. It’s about fighting for the rights of people, and not just that, its about dispelling the Israeli propaganda and showing that Palestine is a mix, it’s varied…we are from a refugee camp but we have people from the cities, from Ramallah. When we go out we don’t just do shows, we do talks, alot of talks. In Germany something insane, like 6,000 people will come out to the show and stay for the talks afterwards. Also we have to get to the people who aren’t pro-Palestinian- we have to bring in people in the middle, people who are apathetic, people who don’t care one way or the other, and then we have to start to work on people who are pro-Israel- its a tug of war, isn’t it?

How did you get involved with the Freedom Theatre?

I was living in Nablus about six years ago, and while I was there the guy I was with had a friend who was working at the Freedom Theatre, and after being in Palestine I decided I wanted to come back with a more long term project. So  i heard about the Freedom Theatre, and my background is in theatre, as a technician and production manager, so i contacted him and said i wanted to come out, and teach, and he said great, so i came out and lived here for a year, and then after i left i came back and forth for different projects, and after Jule was murdered I came back.

What is a good way for people, both in Palestine and internationally, to support the Freedom Theatre?

The obvious way is money. But alot more than that, when we start this community website, people can get involved in this. You can do blogs, you can do groups…then we’re starting up a UK Friends Of the Freedom Theatre, and the American Friends Of are really strong, they’re amazing, and the fundraising they manage to do is just phenomenal. And the people they reach- they reach congressmen, senators, big media people, they’ve really got it sorted. And these contacts with senators and politicians- when things happen, when people are taken from the Freedom Theatre by the Israeli army, and the manner they are taken, we can tell people about that. It’s a common thing for people to be taken in the middle of the night in this way in Palestine, there’s nothing new there, but because it was the Freedom Theatre we’ve managed to highlight it. So people get interested because its a theater, it doesn’t seem so politically controversial to be involved with a theatre, but then once they’re hooked, we kick them in the face with what the occupation is. And then also we want to tour to UK in the future, so UK Friends would help organize that, and can organize events for the Freedom Theatre- we can send you films, and you can organize an evening about Palestine maybe also based around the Freedom Theatre. Arna’s Children is always a good one to show. And one of us may be available to come speak at your event.

One struggle is against the occupation, but there is also the struggle within Palestinian society itself, as you said, there is alot of conservative religious resistance to having coed lessons, and even depicting a pig in Animal Farm, and some even speculate that Juliano may have been murdered by that kind of-

Yea, there’s also speculation that Jule was murdered for 3 million dollars, and he didn’t have 3 dollars…regarding speculations, we don’t deal with it. We’ll deal with the facts when we know who and why. We have often had threats against the theatre, against our activities, dealing with boys and girls on stage, things with Animal Farm, depicting animals as human, all these things, but they’ve never been so serious. Even after Jule’s death we had death threats immediately after, the week after. But it was the same kinds of things- foreigners leave, the theatre out- this group was using the situation. There is a small group of people who really don’t like the theatre, and they write these letters, and stick them in the mosque, and whatever, each to their own, we don’t count them as much of a threat. The largest thing in the camp is apathy. Apathy or slight fear, like there is fear of being associated with the theatre, we have had someone killed, lots of people arrested- and you have the extremes, you have people who absolutely hate us, and people who love us. So this kind of demographic isn’t anything particularly that we concentrate so much on. It’s always gonna be there, there’s always gonna be people who don’t like us. Hopefully there will be more and more people who like us, and who feel safe and comfortable to be involved with the theatre. I mean, they send their children here! During Ramadan we had 300 children in the theatre watching a show. So if they send their children here obviously they aren’t worried about it, whether they wanna get involved or not.

So this whole thing of women mixing and so on and so forth is a very touchy subject, a very difficult one to explain. I am a foreigner, I’m from Britain, but the majority of people working with the Freedom Theatre are Palestinian so you very much can’t have this idea of imposing Western ideals on a Middle  Eastern population. It’s not that at all, it’s that these people believe in freedom for everyone. And it’s the same in the camp- it’s not like we’re going out on the streets and telling all these conservative people that they need to buck up their ideas. We’re just here and we show what an alternative is, we show that men and women mix and nothing bad happens, we show that people are equal, that children can come here and not be beaten, that there is another way and that if people want to come and have the support of the Freedom Theatre they can come. I saw a great event two years ago when we had some neighbors, some people from the camp come to the play, and they were fuming that one of the girls was j0king about having sex with a boy, and they were fuming, kicking off saying ‘all women in the theater are whores’…the best thing was the women! A very conservative woman was straight up in this guy’s face, telling him what’s what, telling him to get lost, that her and her daughters are here in the theatre and they’re not whores. Another 19 year old girl stood up to a guy 3 times her size, a violent guy, standing up to him and eyeballing him- it was an amazing thing to watch, that these women felt powerful, felt able to stand up for what they believe in. That’s what were here to do- its not like its Western culture or its Eastern culture, these are basic ideas, ideas of freedom and equality.

Is it important as you said, to sidestep the usual debate that happens when you start talking about the occupation, by attacking the problem from other angles?

Definitely. There is so much in Palestine that needs attention, and the thing is that people in the world get very bored very easily of conflicts like Palestine, unless its constantly in the news, and even then…and they back off as soon as it seems a bit controversial- like ISM is a controversial organization, you could say. Really, they’re not, they’re just an organization that works against the occupation in a very on the ground way, and a very getting arrested way. But the thing is, people in the West back off a bit from that. With ISM, the most people who will hear your media updates are ex-ISMers, which is important, i mean ISM reports also get to media quite often, which is good, and thats very important. But we still also have to come up with these ways to catch the people who back off a little bit fom the more controversial things- like hearing that people frm the ISM have been killed. Israel paints a very black picture of ISM and also its very easy for the Israeli propaganda to lump ISM with extreme environmental activists in France. Charges of anti semitism as well. But everyone- we get it, I am an anti semite supposedly, and all i said was i’m going to Palestine’, i just called it Palestine and i was called an anti semite! Some people in the West still have no idea what Palestine is, what the conflict is about- but food autonomy, if they are a farmer they know about food autonomy, so that sparks their interest, and if they hear about it in Palestine they think- this isnt fair!

And the right to education, also , its a gateway in for people’s understanding-

Yes, I mean alot of people back off from this thing about Palestinians being killed and arrested, and the wall, because they think ‘oh its Israel defending themselves’. So with these people its through stuff like food autonomy, like water consumption in the Jordan Valley, the water consumption is on a par with a disaster area!

Yes, its a 33-1 ratio between settlers and Palestinians.

Yes it’s mad. So stuff like that is a way in for these people. they read about it, and they get more into it, and they get involved.

A big problem with the Freedom Theatre and life in general here in the West Bank involves freedom of movement and the right to travel. What sort of repression in this regard have you experienced?

I tried to take two technicians from here to Britain four years ago, I had a four week work placement with them, everything was arranged, and it was refused by the British government- but this could have come from the Israeli government. They didn’t believe the grants would come back, but what can you say to that? They will? Most recently, we have had big problems with our third year group that will go to America in September. Problems with them being arrested and interrogated, one is still in prison now. Also they have all had to have visa application meetings with the American consulate. The American consulate doesn’t come to the west bank, so these students have to go to Jerusalem and Jordan. Jerusalem is alot easier. In the past these students have never had problems getting to Jerusalem, and suddenly- stopped. None of these children can go, they are all perceived as a security threat. And again, two of these students have been refused American visas- one of these students went through the Jordanian border, and got through the Israeli security, and then the Jordanian security turned him back. Its not only that the Israelis have this anti Palestinian thing, its the whole world’s security services. the Jordanians can be worse than the Israelis.

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