By Eric Rozenman
Before the campaign to portray Ari Roth as a martyr to freedom of artistic expression gains traction, let’s review:
Roth was recently fired as artistic director of the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center’s Theater J. His dismissal came not, as playwright Tony Kushner would have it, “because he refused to surrender to censorship.” It did not happen because Roth believes, in Kushner’s telling, in freedom of speech and freedom of expression.
Ari Roth had to go because anti-Israel exhibitions had become his theatrical pornography.
In 2009, Roth’s Theatre J gave a series of staged readings to British anti-Zionist Caryl Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children.” James Kirchick, then at The New Republic, said the 10-minute rant “draws a straight line from Nazi Germany’s mass murder of European Jewry to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, an old trope in the quiver of rabid Israel haters.”
Roth tried to camouflage “Seven Jewish Children’s” anti-Semitism in deconstructionist jargon. Calling Churchill a great writer to whom Jews should not turn a deaf ear, he termed “Children” an “elusive, evocative, wispy play that has mysteries in, and we are trying to decode them in a public discussion.” The late Herman Taube, Holocaust survivor, poet and novelist responded, “We have some Jews who, you spit in their face, and they say it’s raining.”
In 2011, Roth’s compulsion to “decode in public discussion”—translation: provide a Jewish-funded forum for pro-Palestinian propaganda—led him to stage “Return to Haifa,” based on a novella by Ghassan Kanafani. Kanafani was a senior aide to George Habash, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
The PFLP pioneered anti-Israel terrorism including airliner hijackings. It’s still a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, more recently involved in suicide bombings. Kanafani died in a car bombing not long after he was photographed working with members of the Japanese Red Army, whose 1972 attack on Ben-Gurion International Airport murdered 26 and wounded 80.
“Return to Haifa” was Israeli playwright (and Roth favorite) Boaz Gaon’s predictably sympathetic set-up about a Palestinian couple returning years later to their former residence, home after Israel’s War of Independence to Holocaust survivors. You remember the 1948 war, when Israel, defying the 1947 U.N. Palestine partition plan, invaded five Arab countries and attempted to drive the Palestinian Arabs into the sea? Oops, other way around—though theater-goers would be hard-pressed to remember if relying on any of Roth’s “elusive, evocative” manipulations of Israel’s past and present.
Early this year, Theater J featured “The Admission,” another Roth selection intimating that the Jewish state was born in sin. By Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, stuck on the same one note sounded by Gaon, “The Admission” pivots on an allegation of a massacre by Israeli forces of Arab civilians in 1948 at the village of “Tantur.”
Roth claimed, as the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) noted at the time in a letter published by The Washington Post, that he had to stage “The Admission” because “there is a debate that needs to be convened and not stifled.” But that debate took place in Israeli courts. On multiple occasions, they found the allegation of a massacre (at the real Tantura) libelous, the second time in an appeal before Israel’s Supreme Court.
It’s appropriate that Kushner promotes an effort to beatify Roth. The former’s own attitude toward Judaism and Israel is hopelessly conflicted. He’s said, among other similar comments, “I want the state of Israel to exist (since it does anyway) and I want the cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs honored and I want to shokl with Jews at the Wailing Wall and at the same time… I think the founding of the State of Israel was for the Jewish people a historical, moral, political calamity.”
As the door slams on Roth’s 18 years at Theater J and superficial lamentations arise over “censorship by the Jewish establishment,” it will be worth recalling a letter by Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek, in Potomac, Md., to the Washington Jewish Week about one of Roth’s anti-Israel productions. Weinblatt wrote, “I find it most disturbing that our local JCC would want to put on a play with such negative portrayals of Israelis and Jews and such harsh judgment. Why not just put on a dramatization of Protocols of the Elders of Zion?”
Theater directors across the country reportedly condemned Roth’s ouster as a blow against freedom of expression. In fact, his chronic productions of anti-Israel boilerplate amounted to personal license. Theater J is now free to be broadly creative—and representative—in Jewish-themed programs. And self-respecting Jews, their organizations, and their philanthropy no doubt will be on board.
Eric Rozenman is Washington director of CAMERA, the 65,000-member Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. A non-partisan organization, CAMERA takes no position with regard to American or Israeli political issues or with regard to ultimate negotiated agreements to Arab-Israeli conflicts.