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Playwright Christopher Morris performs during a production of his play, The Runner, at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.Dylan Hewlett/The Canadian Press

For years, the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival has been a highlight of Vancouver’s arts scene. I once called it a “beacon of avant-garde light in the dead of winter.”

I won’t be calling it that any more. The festival has now added to the darkness of this already tragic, oppressive season.

Last week, PuSh decided to cancel its planned performances of the Canadian play The Runner at the Simon Fraser University Woodward’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. The one-person play, written by Christopher Morris, has received rave reviews, including from The Globe and Mail’s J. Kelly Nestruck in 2018.

It tells the story of Jacob, an Orthodox Jewish volunteer whose job is to retrieve body parts in the aftermath of accidents or terrorist attacks in Israel, so Jewish bodies can be buried whole, as religious law demands. In the play, Jacob makes the decision to save a Palestinian woman who was shot in the back after it appears she fatally stabbed an Israeli soldier. As Jacob points out, it’s possible she did not do it.

“She’s a person, a teenager, a girl,” he says, as he is chastised for helping her. That his decision is controversial is part of the critique the play levels at Israel, as I see it.

“It’s inhumane what we’re doing,” says Jacob. “It’s not Jewish!”

The Runner was programmed long before Oct. 7, 2023, when Hamas launched its horrific terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens, provoking the terrible, deadly response by Israel that has since killed more than 20,000 Gazans, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. So was a planned March run at Victoria’s Belfry Theatre.

I have not seen The Runner, but I’ve read the script. I see it as a heartbreaking and nuanced contemplation of the issue and, in fact, a criticism of Israeli attitudes and actions toward Palestinians.

The context has changed, but that has only made The Runner more relevant, one would think. But also controversial. In Victoria, there was a protest, the theatre was vandalized – and the Belfry caved earlier this month, cancelling the production.

At the time, PuSh doubled down, vowing to move ahead with The Runner. (Full disclosure: before the debate erupted, I had agreed to moderate a post-performance panel; I had to withdraw for reasons that had nothing to do with the controversy.)

I spoke to Michael Boucher, the director of cultural programs and partnerships at SFU Woodward’s, after the Belfry pulled out. He called the decision “artistic intimidation,” and said that he did not want to capitulate to it. “I think the arts have lost their backbone if they’re questioning this,” he said at the time.

Mr. Boucher declined to comment after PuSh’s cancellation, but the festival made clear that its statement was “fully independent” from the curatorial viewpoint of SFU Woodward’s.

PuSh’s reversal came about because the Palestinian-British artist Basel Zaraa said he would pull his art installation Dear Laila from the festival if The Runner remained.

So curators capitulated not to angry audiences, but to an artist. Among the subsequent outrage expressed on X, formerly Twitter, was a post suggesting that a more apt name might now be the Push Over Festival.

The more than 380 people who signed a petition calling for PuSh to cancel the play include artists, authors, and booksellers. What kind of world are we living in when it’s artists who are calling for art to be censored? How is this different from calls to ban books?

One of the issues the petition cites is that the play exacerbates ugly historical tropes representing Arabs and Muslims as terrorists, and notes that all the Palestinians in the play, including the woman Jacob helps, are nameless.

I happen to disagree with the first concern, but that’s just my opinion. As for the second concern: if this is the criteria we are going to use for banning works of theatre, programmers are going to have to get busy cancelling all sorts of plays that offer less-than-fleshed-out portrayals of characters.

Also, if we’re doing this now, I wonder how Canadian theatre is going to handle The Merchant of Venice. You can twist yourself into all sorts of artistic knots about Shakespeare’s tragedy, but the fact remains that Shylock, the Jew, is a despicable character. In her book People Love Dead Jews, Dara Horn argues that the play is antisemitic, and yet people like herself have “felt obligated … to contort this revolting material into something that excused it.”

We keep showing it because it is great art. We discuss its problematic portrayal of the Jewish character. We let audiences decide.

Unless the bullies decide for you that you can’t see it – and the very people who are supposed to stand up for artistic freedom capitulate to those tactics.

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