Thursday, March 26, 2009

Seven Jewish Children

The Mitzvah at Theatre J

Seven Jewish Children was performed last night at Theatre J. Marrianne and I attended the 10-minute performance—a reading really—part of a package of other short readings and a longer discussion about reactions to the play and to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A group of people, not organizationally identified, picketed Theatre J, which occupies space in the Q street building owned by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, DC. Describing the play as anti-semitic, the demonstrators opposed its performance in a building supported by donations from the Jewish community.

In a discussion after the play, some theatre-goers expressed discomfort about the demonstrators. “I felt threatened as I walked in,” one woman said.

But in truth, the demonstrators were a pretty peaceful, unassuming lot, whose presence was not in the least bit surprising. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, with origins in the early 20th Century, and particularly in the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel (for competing views about this event see Yom Ha'atzmaut and Nakba Day), has been the center of an increasingly polarized discussion within the Jewish community for many years.

A characterization of that polarized debate, which would be both succinct and accurate, is very nearly impossible. But, in general, the most visible ends of the debate within the Jewish community assert one of two positions:

1. Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people. The security and safety of all Jews, Israeli or otherwise, depends on the continued survival of a Jewish state with secure borders, or

2. A Jewish state in Israel will never be secure as long as it refuses to deal justly with a displaced and oppressed Palestinian majority in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

On the continuum between these two positions lie dozens of other points of view and proposed solutions to the conflict. More often than not, the discussion between opposing points of view breaks down, frequently accompanied by frustration, anger, mutual rejection and name-calling.

Those who consider themselves mostly strongly pro-Israel sometimes describe those who express solidarity with displaced Palestinians, or even sympathy for Palestinians, as self-hating Jews. An existing web variation on this is the S.H.I.T. (self-hating, Israel-threatening Jews) List.

On the other hand, some Jewish activists on behalf of Palestinian self-determination describe Israel as an apartheid state and regard zionism as a vestigial form of colonialism. Though I think that zionism is, in theory, simply Jewish nationalism, there is nothing simple about a nationalism that is attached to a homeland where no purely Jewish state has existed for more than 2000 years, if ever.

And though a form of apartheid exists in Israel, I find the description of Israel as an apartheid state unhelpful in most discussions. Still, you could find my name on the S.H.I.T. List, if you bothered to look, and I am an absolute believer that a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must include Palestinian self-determination (however complicated that might be to define and implement).

In that context, I am sure of only a couple of things about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If we do not solve this problem peacefully, it will end with the near complete extermination of the Palestinian people in their historic homeland and the abandonment of an historic Jewish commitment to seek justice as a matter of faith. Arguably, no action taken by Israel to date has led to a secure homeland for Jews.

For both Jews and Palestinians, there will be either a peaceful resolution to this conflict, or Palestinians and Jews, as we currently understand them, will cease to exist. This is a problem of enormous size, and solving it is not guaranteed. Our best tools in this struggle will be openness, flexibility, persistence and peaceful confrontation with each other and ourselves. Anger, hatred and rage are our most dangerous enemies.

In light of all this, I have written my friend Ari Roth, the director of Theatre J, the open letter below:

Dear Ari,

A few comments on last night’s performance of “Seven Jewish Children.”

First, it was an exciting evening. The play is thought provoking. Theatre J staged it well and the audience/performer discussion afterward was rich, nuanced and only a beginning.

Second, I fear there were so many different elements injected into the evening’s program, the discussion, itself, was too compressed. This is only a mild criticism. After all, in order to identify a tiny bit of common ground on which a substantial portion of the entire Jewish community and friends can agree, we will need many, many more such discussions. The discussion last night was a model for more.

Though some members of the audience felt that playwright Caryl Churchill possesses a disqualifying contempt for Jews, Israelis and historical accuracy, I think that the audience in attendance included exactly the people Churchill hoped to reach.

One case in point: Professor Amitai Etzioni, whose life spans a childhood in Nazi Germany, service with the Palmach during the creation of the state of Israel, and a distinguished academic career in the United States. Etzioni dismissed the first four parts of the play as a “seduction,” the last three as “propaganda.” He rejected the notion that Churchill had anything meaningful to say to him.

But I viewed the play as a desperate and artistic effort by Churchill to speak honestly to Etzioni and other zionists who occupy a point on the discussion continuum far removed from hers. She attempted a kind of stripped down realism, using the entirely plausible comments of parents trying to puzzle out a way to speak to their child about a variety of moments in Jewish history, including pogroms, the establishment of the state of Israel and the invasion of Gaza.

I perceived the structure of the play as part of Churchill’s attempt to move away from fundamental disagreements about “facts.” But those disagreements were precisely the ones cited by Etzioni and others in the audience who accused Churchill of enormous distortions and even an anti-semitic blood libel.

Given the response, it must be acknowledged that in some ways the play fails. Churchill’s target audience did not hear her. They rejected her message. But in the dialogue it provoked, Churchill’s play succeeds. She might have wished for more understanding, but I suspect a more fundamental goal of the play was to be part of the discussion. The play easily accomplishes that goal. And I suspect that Churchill will try again, exactly the response that the problem we are facing requires.

We are, all of us (playwrights, producers, professors and audiences, struggling with a central issue of monumental proportions here. And we will ultimately solve the problem or it will consume us, Palestinians, Israeli Jews and American Jews, and non-Jews everywhere who believe that they cannot stand silent in the presence of a historical injustice.

In closing, let me congratulate you and Theatre J for being a place where art confronts the most problematic elements of our collective lives. I’m sure you are suffering some personal attacks for your decision to produce “Seven Jewish Children.” To my mind, doing so was and is a mitzvah, a gift to the Jewish community and to a world that longs for peace with justice.


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