Art has a power all its own. It has the potential to make us more humane, to teach and generate understanding and help draw us closer to something we’ve loved — like Israel. Art can be the gateway to a mature engagement with the country and with each other as we celebrate and grapple with its founding, and the challenges it continues to face.
The collective portrait of Israel that’s emerged on Theater J’s stage after more than 40 productions, workshops and readings comprises a growing mosaic undulating between the personal and the political; the religious and the secular; the Left and the Right. From Miklat, to Mikveh; from Yoni Netanyahu’s story in To Pay The Price, to the denizens of a Tel Aviv cafe before a suicide bomber strikes in Dai (Enough), we’ve engaged in long-running dialogues about the pressures on Israel as a democracy and about the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Theater J now has the deepest set of relationships with Israeli theatrical institutions and artists of any theater or community center in North America. With each production we deepen our community’s engagement with Israel and strengthen our connection to the state, its people and culture.
Along with this heightened community profile comes COPMA, mischaracterizing our attachment to Israel, impugning our relationships with its artists and cherry-picking from our body of work to present a distorted profile of our motivations. COPMA’s calls for financial boycotts of the Jewish Federation in hopes of defunding the Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s theater have represented a toxic form of community lashon ha-rah; a rhetoric of destructiveness that has needlessly aroused antipathies and sowed divisions in our community when our theater was offering quite the opposite; an opportunity to discuss vexing issues in a respectful, balanced intellectual environment.
Motti Lerner’s play The Admission is an homage to Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. The play, set in Haifa in 1988, follows an Israeli son’s efforts to defend his father from accusations that he was involved in an atrocity during Israel’s War of Independence. That defense leads to phoning IDF veterans who served in his father’s regiment. The soldiers refuse to talk. The son, Giora, continues to dig and uncovers secrets as well as uncomfortable realizations about his own actions and subsequent injuries suffered in Lebanon.
The fictionalized setting pays reference and bears similarity to an actual Palestinian village where such a contentious battle allegedly took place: the village of Tantura, which is now the site of Kibbutz Nachsholim, a few kilometers from Zichron Yaacov where playwright Motti Lerner was born. Motti remembers stories about Tantura from veterans who fought there. As a teenager, he heard about what ensued during the battle. He’s stayed close to the matter for decades. However, the play is less about this history than about how an unresolved past destabilizes a politically charged present.
Tantura continues to be a contentious debate in Israel despite a lower court ruling on a graduate student’s thesis about the ordeal (Note that COPMA incorrectly asserts that the Israeli Supreme Court ruled on Teddy Katz’s appeal. They never heard his case.).
Some, like historian Benny Morris, claim what happened at Tantura was not a massacre but rather a smaller-scale atrocity. The Admission lays out a possibility that atrocities may have taken place. What actions are understandable or even necessary? What is an acceptable cost of war? Lerner’s play acknowledges that the history of Israel’s War of Independence is complicated and complex. Such complexities continue to be shared in detailed testimonies by IDF veterans in the Israeli press, on websites like Zochrot, and most recently, by Israeli journalist Ari Shavit on the travesties at Lyddah (today Lod) in last month’s New Yorker.
Only through gross distortions has COPMA been able to make a case that The Admission (a play they have yet to see nor fully read) is destructive, as opposed to moving, cathartic, and revivifying.
Let us hear Lerner’s play. Let the conversations about it push us forward as a community into a deeper engagement with Israel’s past, present, and, let’s hope, a more peaceful future.
Ari Roth is the artistic director of the DCJCC’s Theater J.