A way to heal after the Theater J fight


The fight over Theater J opened deep wounds in our local Jewish community and beyond. Jewish activists protested when then-director Ari Roth staged plays that portrayed Israel in a harsh light. Roth threatened to establish an alternative theater company. The D.C. Jewish Community Center fired Roth, alleging insubordination. Ninety artistic directors from around the country accused the JCC of censorship. Angry words were heard from all sides.

There is a possible solution to bridge the communal divide by addressing everyone’s concerns and sensitivities.

Much of the criticism of Theater J focused on the staging of “Return to Haifa,” a play adopted from a short novel by the late Ghassan Kanafani, a senior official of a terrorist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Kanafani was the PFLP’s official spokesman; he authored its platform; and he was founder and editor of its newspaper, Al-Hadaf.

Although he was also a novelist, Kanafani made no separation between his writings and his PFLP activities. He has been quoted as saying: “My political position springs from my being a novelist. In so far as I am concerned, politics and the novel are an indivisible case and I can categorically state that I became politically committed because I am a novelist, not the opposite.”


The Obama administration, like the Clinton and Bush administrations before it, regards the PFLP as a terrorist organization.President Obama’s position is based on the fact that the PFLP has carried out hundreds of terrorist attacks against civilians, including some in which American citizens were murdered.

On December 27, 1969, PFLP members attacked an Israeli bus, killing Leo Holtz, a Holocaust survivor from Brooklyn. On February 23, 1970, the PFLP shot up a bus of American Christian tourists south of Jerusalem, killing Barbara Ertle, a pastor’s wife from Granville, Michigan. On May 30, 1972, PFLP terrorists gunned down 25 passengers at Ben Gurion Airport, including 14 Latino American members of a visiting church group from Puerto Rico. The list goes on and on.

While accusations are hurled back and forth between the JCC and Theater J and their critics, these innocent victims have been lost in the shuffle. Who today remembers
Reverend Angel Berganzo and the other members of the San Juan church who were so cruelly massacred by the PFLP ? The victims have been forgotten, and their families left to shoulder the burden of their loss by themselves. Their suffering deserves our compassion.

Over the years, 42 of the 50 states have adopted some version of what is known as a “Son of Sam” law, to prevent murderers from profiting from their crimes. (The first such law was passed in New York, to stop the infamous “Son of Sam” killer from receiving royalties from his autobiography.) That important principle can help us show the way to achieve some closure in the Theater J controversy.

The Philadelphia branch of the Religious Zionists of America, a leading voice for terror victims, has established a fund to help victims of PFLP terrorism. The JCC should donate the proceeds it received from the performances of “Return to Haifa.” Perhaps Ari Roth would consider donating to the victims the equivalent of whatever fee was paid, directly or via the playwright, to Kanafani’s estate to adapt his novel to the stage.

Mr. Roth should also urge those 90 artistic directors who have come to his defense to contribute to the terror victims fund. Their support for the principle of freedom of artistic expression is admirable. But they should not ignore the victims of the terrorist whose estate has benefitted from the performances at Theater J.

And all sides should pledge to refrain from ever again staging performances that would yield profits, even indirectly, a terrorist or a terrorist family.

Nothing can be done to bring back Mr. Holtz, or Mrs. Ertle, or the 14 Latino American tourists. But we can help bring some small measure of consolation to their families–and at the same time mend fences in our own badly-divided community.

Nathan C. Moskowitz, MD,PhD. is a neurosurgeon and artist who lives in Silver Spring, Md.

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