By his own admission, Motti Lerner, the 65-year-old Israeli playwright whose play The Admission opens today at Theater J, “would have been naïve” if he “didn’t expect protest or objections” to the airing of his work.
“We have similar protests and objections to the subject in Israel,” he said Tuesday in Washington.
“The subject” is that the history of Israel’s birth was not as clean-cut as once generally believed. While it is still the valiant story of a small, highly motivated Jewish community securing independence by beating an Arab invasion to a standstill, that fight had a civilian toll on both sides.
The Admission is a fictional story about “the subject,” the tale of a man’s grappling with the events of 1948 and a massacre his father took part in as a soldier fighting for independence, said Lerner. And in an interview, the playwright seemed comfortable with bringing up sensitive subjects. Another of his plays, The Murder of Isaac, about the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, drew protests when it was performed in Baltimore in 2006, he said.
But after opposition mounted against The Admission by various groups in the greater Washington Jewish community, Theater J scaled back the production and reduced its number of performances.
Lerner called the move “a compromise we can live with. I really admire [Theater J] and their courageous initiative to present the play.”
The playwright has staged workshop readings of The Admission in New York, San Francisco and Tel Aviv. With the Theater J performance, “the play has never been so close to a full production.”
In those earlier workshops, the Arab village where the massacre took place had various names. For the current production, the village is Tantur, a near equivalent to Tantura, the Arab village close to Lerner’s own boyhood home, and the site of a battle in 1948. In the 1990s, claims surfaced of a massacre in the real Tantura, but many historians discount those versions of events.
Lerner, however, maintained that a massacre of Arabs happened there.
“I was born not far away from the place where it happened. From my childhood I heard these stories,” he explained. “It was part of the discourse for me. I didn’t need to wait for a historian to discover it.”
Of the change of name in his script, Lerner said he wrestled with the issue.
“I was not quite sure about choosing the name,” he said. “The play is fictitious. At certain times I was wondering if I should choose a name like Tantura.”
He finally decided that “it would be a pretense if I chose another name. We are talking about Tantura. But the play is fictitious. That’s why we say Tantur.”
Asked if the fine line he drew between life and fiction might be confusing, Lerner said, “When people discuss the play without seeing it, there might be confusion.”
He said he hopes the play leads to “constructive discourse” and “more honest dialogue between the Israeli Jewish community and the American Jewish community. I think we do need your criticism. I want to hear your criticism out loud.”
Carol Greenwald, an organizer of COPMA, the group that opposed the staging of the play, has plenty of criticism – not of Israel, but of everything to do with The Admission. She said she won’t attend the play. “I’ve already read it,” she said.
In an interview Tuesday, Greenwald asserted that there was no massacre in Tantura; the results of two libel suits in Israel on the subject prove it, she said.
“Why is it so important for [Lerner] to impugn the Israelis with a massacre,” she said, “and how is it advancing anything?”
She and COPMA members have called The Admission a “lie.” Asked if COPMA would have the same criticism if the village in the play had been called Deir Yassin, the site of a long acknowledged 1948 massacre of Arabs by Jewish forces, Greenwald was just as adamant.
“If he had named it Deir Yassin, I would have said the same thing,” she said. “Why is a Jewish organization with Jewish charity money putting this on?”
Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth said in final preparations for the opening, he and the artists are trying to preserve the production’s “workshop aesthetic. It remains a minimalist endeavor.”
Although the artists’ impulse is to hone the work, “we are firm that we are preserving its unfinished quality,” he said. In its incompleteness, the performance is an invitation “to open the history books.”
“History is unfinished,” he added. “And this [play] is no definitive, final statement.”