By: Petra Chase, Arts & Culture Editor
Content warning: mentions of genocide.
On January 11, Vancouver’s landmark performing arts festival, PuSh, announced that The Runner, a play by the Montreal-based group Human Cargo, would be cut from their programming. The play tells the fictional story of an Israeli ZAKA (search and rescue) member who saves a Palestinian woman, creating contention in his community. While art that deconstructs prejudice is valuable, context is crucial. Platforming a story that depicts Israeli saviourism at a time when Israel is committing a genocide against Palestine can have dangerous repercussions, especially considering how western media misrepresents Israel’s war crimes as self-defense.
PuSh initially defended their inclusion of The Runner. The playwright and director Christopher Morris, stated the play confronts “fear and dehumanization” of Palestinians, and addresses the “need to see the humanity of others.” Fundamentally, though, coverage of such topics needs to be informed and guided by the communities who are systemically subjected to this dehumanization. UK-based Palestinian artist Basel Zaraa said he couldn’t agree to have The Runner show alongside his immersive exhibit, Dear Laila, at PuSh. Dedicated to his daughter, the exhibit reconstructs Zaraa’s childhood home in a refugee camp. His family story involves being exiled by Israel from Palestine in 1948. Zaraa’s lived experience as a Palestinian who cannot return to his homeland offers crucial insight into the experience of someone who’s the subject of The Runner’s moral debate.
As an organization who claims to commit to building “reciprocal relationships,” with Indigenous communities “on this territory and beyond,” PuSh should have consulted Palestinian perspectives earlier. The Indigenous communities of Palestine have lived in harmony with Jews, who also have ancestral ties to the land, long before Israel besieged Palestine. PuSh should have considered the example of Victoria’s Belfry Theatre, who had cancelled The Runner a week before, after a petition called it “a story of Israeli settlers in a dehumanizing exercise of whether Palestinian and Arab life is of value.” Whether someone’s life is worth saving shouldn’t be an ethical question. It shouldn’t have had to come to an ultimatum from Zaraa and further pressure from activists in order for them to finally make the call. However, PuSh still set a good example by listening to Palestinian voices and changing their minds, while being transparent with their community about it being a “difficult decision.”
Media representation is important because it influences how people see certain identities, and can perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Zaraa stated, “Palestinians appear in The Runner almost exclusively as perpetrators of violence. While the Israeli characters are vividly portrayed, the Palestinian characters don’t even have names, and barely speak.” Works that dehumanize Palestinians shouldn’t be viewed or platformed. Preventing this is crucial at a time when mainstream western media devalues their lives.
Local activist Fatima Jaffer, who read through the script, provided insight into the perspective of the public rather than an artistic standpoint. Because a similar portrayal of Arabs and Muslims was used in post-911 rhetoric to spread Islamophobia and justify US wars in the Middle East, there needs to be a priority to “make sure Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians are well represented” from the eyes of audiences who may have preconceived notions about Palestinians.
Furthermore, there is a misconception that cancelling The Runner was antisemitic. Antisemitism is prejudice and discrimination against Jewish people, and is unacceptable. However, antisemitism shouldn’t be conflated with anti-zionism, which means opposing the state of Israel’s illegal occupation. The Runner was not cancelled based on the Jewish identities of the characters or team. While Morris himself wrote The Runner to criticize Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, he also perpetuated negative representations of Palestinians. It is irresponsible to depict a story from the perspective of a ZAKA member, since ZAKA have systematically given false testimonies of the October 7 Hamas attacks to help justify Israel’s brutal retaliation.
What stood out about PuSh’s announcement was it involved statements from both playwrights, Morris and Zaraa. According to fellow PuSh playwright Marcus Youssef, both artists are “extremely supportive of the PuSh leadership team,” which demonstrates a strong commitment to solidarity with artists.
The International Court of Justice case has announced that Israel “take immediate and effective measures” to provide aid to the people in Gaza. It’s crucial that artistic platforms are being used to prop up narratives that promote a path to a peaceful and liberated future, by listening to Palestinian artists. Showing The Runner would cause more harm than good.