The Torah tells us that Jews must love the stranger. That commandment has been raising tough questions for Israel in recent years as it faces a growing refugee crisis. The state, founded and maintained as a homeland for Jews and Jewish refugees, today sees a new wave of refugees crossing its borders: Africans fleeing countries in the midst of civil war or in political or economic crisis. Israel is grappling with the political, social and moral fallout of welcoming the stranger into its midst, raising serious moral questions for a nation that prides itself for its high moral code.
Promised Land, a new documentary play by young Israeli dramatists Shachar Pinkas and Shay Pitovsky, is the third installment in Mosaic Theater’s at times controversial Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival. Mosaic does not shy away from statement-making and troublesome works — and in a week that has seen the cancellation of another Israel-related play, Julia Pascal’s Crossing Jerusalem at a JCC in Miami, the Voices festival makes a passionate case for independent theater companies presenting works that wrestle with the issues Israelis, Palestinians and others face, rather than stifle the debate.
Promised Land, created and premiered in Hebrew in 2011 by a young troupe affiliated with Habima, Israel’s national theater in Tel Aviv, was revived there in 2012. If Israeli theatergoers are not fearful and contentious about confronting their toughest issues at home, why are American Jews?
In Promised Land, which runs only through Sunday in Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s bare-bones rehearsal hall, a series of vignettes capture three refugee stories. Each represents a different stage of Israel’s refugee crisis: there’s a child, Nadak, and her mother running from city to city in Israel, barely staying one step ahead of authorities; Ali, a young Sudanese husband separated from his wife and infant child and jailed in Israel for illegal entry; and Emmanuel, fleeing Sudan with a group of fellow children after seeing his father murdered by rebel soldiers.
Each story is wrenching on its own. Presented together, interwoven with other monologues and dialogues from Israeli officials, ranging from the mayor of Eilat to cold bureaucratic interrogations by low-level Israeli immigration officers, the aggregated materials paint is a compelling and heart-rending portrait of a problem that has no easy solutions.
Director Michael Bloom gathered a youthful but powerful cast of seven area actors. Designer Andrew Cissna pushed the stage into a corner of the raw room, a chain-link fence serving as a backdrop and a holding cell, while his harsh lighting beat down at times like the desert sun or the antiseptic fluorescence of sparse interrogation rooms. The 70-minute production moves swiftly through these multiple narratives, as the cast members play multiple ensemble roles in the shifting landscape that follows the characters from East Africa to the Holot Detention Center in the Negev to a charity store serving refugees in Tel Aviv.
For this U.S. production, Mosaic has included a brief prologue and epilogue, which is meant to illuminate and universalize Israel’s refugee crisis for American audiences. We learn that not since the end of World War II has the world seen such a large number of people in flight from their homelands, seeking asylum and moving from Africa, the Middle East and other locales to Europe, North America and possible havens around the world.
Israel, the play noted, was the first signer of the 1951 U.N. refugee convention, meant to ease the plight for those in flight. Between 2006 and 2013, 65,000 African refugees have entered Israel illegally. While Israel has its unique Law of Return, it applies only to Jews and émigrés of Jewish ancestry. Strangers, refugees of non-Jewish African or other descent, must be granted asylum or face deportation.
The play’s epilogue shares the actual immigrant genealogies of the cast members: one had ancestors from Palau, another, Gambia, a third had a grandfather survive the Holocaust to later become mayor of Havre de Grace. We are all, the writers insist, just a generation or two removed from being refugees ourselves.
One of the writers’ most galvanizing torn-from-the-headlines quotes came from a rabbi speaking at a refugee rights rally in southern Israel: “Thirty-six times in the Torah we are commanded to love the stranger, because we were once strangers in the land. You don’t repeat something 36 times in the Torah unless it’s really important.”
Promised Land, by Shachar Pinkas and Shay Pitovsky, through Feb. 28, Mosaic Theater Company at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW, Washington, $20-$50. mosaictheater.org