Trouble comes and goes at the 250-acre Bread and Puppet Theater farm in Glover, Vermont. But for the past 20 years, the plight of Palestinians has been a constant concern for the staunchly anti-war, anti-capitalist cast, which has featured shows on atrocities in Vietnam, Central America, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. . As well as being the founder and director of Bread and Puppet, 88-year-old Peter Schumann, widely considered a genius in the theater world, is also a prolific painter who is said to have finished a painting or two a day on old sheets of given motel. Some of his paintings confront the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
On December 18, Bread and Puppet’s cross-country fall tour Circus Apocalypse Defiance concluded at the Theater for the New City in Manhattan’s East Village with a five-minute sideshow that recited statistics on civilian casualties resulting from Israeli bombardment in Gaza, but made no mention of the thousands of Ukrainians who had also been killed or injured in the past year. The Bread and Puppet broadcast also offered no hint that Israel had responded to the Palestinian missile attacks. As a puppeteer held up a sign that read, “Palestinians say,” the performers declared, “Palestine must be free from the river to the sea.”
“Almost every show someone would come out and in a few shows people would be shouting things,” said Josh Krugman, the theater’s fall tour coordinator and author of the Gaza Victims Act. “It made me feel like the act was strong.”
For his part, Schumann scoffed at the suggestion that the sideshow oversimplified the tragedy unfolding in Gaza.
“I don’t find it that simplistic,” said Schumann, who still speaks with a heavy German accent after more than 60 years in the United States. “These home-made instruments that are pulled [by the Palestinians] do not compare to the activity of the billion dollar Israeli army. They are deplorable but they definitely go beyond what Israel is doing. It is simplistic to compare the two. [As] if one is a war in reaction to another war. It’s not.”
Schumann may think that the Gaza bombs, or the “homemade instruments” as he calls them, are deplorable, but their role in the conflict is not part of the show. Bread and Puppet’s take on the security wall in Israel also ignores the impact it has had on suicide bombings.
Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, a pro-Israel educational organization, said the theater company promotes “misleading and one-sided narratives.”
“After Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the terrorist group Hamas took control of the territory and used it to launch thousands of rockets and missiles at Israeli homes and families,” Rothstein said. “This led to horrific wars between Israel and terrorists in Gaza, causing serious harm to civilians on both sides. Innocent Palestinians have suffered the most because Hamas is building military infrastructure, hiding weapons and launching attacks from civilian areas in Gaza.
Schumann has visited the occupied territories twice in the past 20 years, according to Krugman. In November 2006, he led a nine-day puppet workshop in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour, which inspired a series of his paintings combining Palestinian stories with images of the Warsaw ghetto. “I’m not saying what’s happening in Palestine is the same as what happened in Warsaw, but it’s definitely a reminder,” Schumann told the Vermont Weekly. Seven days in 2007.
Ian Thal, a playwright and theater critic who estimates he performed in three dozen bread and puppet shows in the Boston area between 2004 and 2007, decided to publicly sever his ties with the theater troupe during a rehearsal. for a February 2007 performance of The Battle of Terrorists and Horrorists. Thal initially thought the show was going to be a satire of the George W. Bush administration’s “war on terror,” but during rehearsals, American soldiers became members of the IDF. A wall closes in on the Palestinian women in the show.
“We were first asked to act out throwing rocks at the wall, then to act out knocking down the wall,” Thal wrote on his blog, adding that he thought the show’s depiction of the wall was simplistic and misleading. .
Bread and Puppet has devoted many productions to the issue of the Israeli occupation. A 2004 program focused on Rachel Corrie, the American peace activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to stop the demolition of a Palestinian home in the Gaza Strip. A 2017 piece was about Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
And in the summer of 2022, a half-hour show called The University of Majd claimed that 14 Palestinian prisoners were executed by Israelis in Ramallah in 2002. The show, which originally performed 20 years ago, told the story of a 19-year-old man named Majd Ziadeh who, the public is informed, was taken into custody “for being a man and a Palestinian”; we later learn that Ziadeh was convicted of participating in a drive-by shooting, but not as an initiator. A narrator quotes Ziadeh during his sentencing saying that he has the right to resist the occupation.
The execution allegation was based largely on emails sent by Ed Mast, a Seattle-based playwright and activist., and his partner Linda Bevis.
When asked if he had confirmed the execution allegation with a source other than Mast, Schumann first told me, “I don’t remember,” then quickly added, “I I’m pretty sure I did.”
Al-Haq, the Ramallah-based Palestinian human rights group, said it was unable to access its database to confirm the execution claim, but that he was aware of Majd Ziadeh’s incarceration.
Schumann said that Mast delivered his Palestine for beginners speak frequently at Bread and Puppet’s farm in recent years. In his lecture, Mast discusses the Six Day War and states that Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza but makes no mention of the mobilization of Egyptian forces in the Sinai, the Egyptian blockade of the port city of Elat or the military involvement of Syria and Jordan in the war.
Howie Cantor, who performed with Bread and Puppet for over 40 years and serves on its advisory board, is not a fan of Mast’s lectures. “He leaves things out and presents opinion as fact,” he told me.
Cantor is a maple syrup producer who sometimes plays bass at Bread and Puppet’s summer shows. He attended a rehearsal of The University of Majd last summer. “I doubted that was true,” Cantor said of the show’s running claims. “So I just thought, ‘I’m not even going to see this show. “”
Cantor is certainly willing to criticize the government in Israel. He helped create a side show in 1981 which he describes as sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians. But, after a visit to Israel while the war in Lebanon was underway, he abandoned his belief in pacifism and refused to perform on the show when he returned to Vermont.
When he tried to discuss the idea that theater oversimplified the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he was ridiculed “by people I love and respect.”
“They are my best friends in the world and I don’t want to have to tell them. It’s a tiny part of our relationship,” he told me.
But now he watches the shows in rehearsal before deciding whether or not to play with the band, as he fears the political content is not something he would want to be associated with.
“Playing in the band is also your show,” he said.