Haifa - A decision by Israel's new education minister to halt the performances for high school students of a controversial play, inspired by the life story of an Arab who murdered an Israeli soldier, has rekindled a fierce debate in the country over the limits of artistic expression.
The minister, Naftali Bennett, says it is inappropriate for the state to expose students to a play that humanizes a killer and disrespects the family of the victim.
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Critics, however, warn against censorship, saying the new nationalist government is limiting the freedom and vibrancy of Israel's democracy.
The issue emerged when the family of Moshe Tamam, a soldier who was abducted, tortured and killed in 1984, discovered that the al-Midan theater in the city of Haifa was staging a play inspired by the prison experience of his killer, Walid Daka, a member of Israel's Arab minority, and that it was being shown to high school students as part of their state-funded culture and arts program.
Ortal Tamam, the niece of the murdered soldier, choked up with tears as she described her feelings about the play, entitled "A Parallel Time."
"We are just saying a very simple thing: Don't fund this play. Our government shouldn't be the one to fund this play and honestly I don't understand all those people who think that someone who kidnapped a 19-year-old kid should be called a hero," she said.
Bennett immediately ordered the performances be stopped, saying Israel should not be funding or endorsing something so offensive.
"I support pluralism and have no desire to interfere with culture and arts," Bennett told The Associated Press. "The question here is whether the Ministry of Education in Israel should pay for school children to go see a play that shows sympathy to a murderer and a terrorist."
"And my answer is no; I wouldn't expect America to send its school children to a play that shows sympathy with Osama Bin Laden and so the same thing will not happen in Israel," he said.
The controversy comes on the heels of Culture Minister Miri Regev's threat to halt government funding for a small theater after its founder, an Arab Israeli, refused to perform in a Jewish West Bank settlement. Regev says she will also examine financial support for other institutions that attack the state.
Both Bennett and Regev are prominent figures in a new government that is backing a number of measures opponents say are aimed at stifling critics.
Israeli artists have come out against the measures, saying the country's pluralism is strong enough to cope with artistic performances that get under its skin.
Salwa Nakkara, the artistic adviser of al-Midan, said some 700 students have already seen the play and had in-depth conversations about it.
She said those who were attacking it hadn't seen it and were motivated by political interests that were harmful to freedom of expression. "This is contradicts a state that considers itself democratic," she said.
Bashar Murkus, the writer and director of the show, defended the play, saying it shows the "human angle" of the prisoner.
"Neither side treats him as a human being, but on stage it's beautiful and important to look at the human depth of each prisoner," Murkus said.
Columnist Ben-Dror Yemini said that the freedom to provoke was "the heart and soul of democracy." But to have the government fund and promote a controversial play was something else and he said Bennett was justified in his actions.
"They want to claim that Israel is criminal? Let them claim. They want to stage a play inspired by a terrorist, a murderer or a rapist? Let them do it. But why do they think that Israel's citizens have to fund their vilification of the state?" he asked in a column on the Ynet news site.
"They want to drink from the well into which they are spitting."