An Israeli play that aroused fury from a right-wing segment of the Washington Jewish community opened to preview performances at Theater J last week without a ruckus.
The Admission, by Motti Lerner, which the group COPMA sought to have canceled, not only attracted theatergoers to the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, it spawned three discussions over the weekend about the content of the play and the question of civilian casualties at the time of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
As curtain time approached on March 20, a group of 15 Theater J supporters gathered outside the center. Carrying placards, they condemned what they saw as an attempt at censorship by COPMA.
“We don’t like an outside group trying to shut down the play and speak for the Jewish community,” said group organizer Andrea Barron. “There’s a struggle going on over what kind of criticism and dialogue is permissible.”
Karin Lee said she found it “distasteful” that COPMA applied financial pressure on the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington to defund Theater J and to show “only one point of view.”
“I take offense when the Jewish community tries to shut down discussion,” said Howard Sumka. “Jews have to come to grips with issues around the founding of the state of Israel.”
At issue in The Admission is whether the killing of Arab civilians by Israeli forces in the fictional town of Tantur was by design – hence a massacre – or the result of an overwhelmed Israeli force losing discipline. The play never comes to a conclusion. Instead it follows the protagonist’s search for the truth until he destroys his relationships with his family, friends and lovers.
Lerner wrote the fictional story in the shadow of the real Arab village of Tantura, close to where he grew up. He said he had heard stories of a massacre there, a charge that Alex Safian dismissed during a presentation Sunday at Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase. Safian, associate director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), also spoke on the subject at Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield.
Safian did not pay much attention to the play during his lecture. Instead he concentrated on what he said were inaccuracies in how the 1948 war is presented in academia, art and in everyday discourse. He rejected the assertion that Israel massacred Arabs, although he agreed that there were casualties.
“The main point is that while Israel is often put under a microscope as it is with the Tantura and the Lydda allegations, we need to pull the camera back and look at the bigger picture first,” he told WJW, referring to accounts of a massacre of Arabs in what is now the Israeli town of Lod.
He spoke of the 1947 U.N. resolution that divided Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. While the country’s Jews accepted the partition, the Arab world did not.
“They rejected the compromise. Had they accepted it, there would not have been a single Palestinian refugee and the state of Palestine would have been next to the state of Israel for the last roughly 65 years,” he said.
“I think that’s sort of a fundamental point that one has to remember when one is trying to indict Israel for this or that action during the war,” added Safian. “Israel didn’t choose war – Israel chose compromise and peace. The Arabs chose war and attacked Israel.”
Less than half an hour after Safian’s presentation, Motti Lerner was on the stage at Ohr Kodesh to talk about The Admission. He was joined by Sinai Peter, the play’s director; Ari Roth, artistic director of Theater J; Richard Miron, a journalist and diplomat focusing on the Middle East; and Rabbi Sid Schwarz of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, who moderated the panel.
Lerner said there is a defensiveness about the American Jewish community’s support for Israel, adding that he believes it is because Americans feel Israel is in a more desperate situation than it is.
“I felt that people are very defensive about Israel, and I heard from several people that the future of Israel is not guaranteed,” said Lerner. “I feel more confident about the future. That’s why I allow myself to be more critical of Israel.”
Though both synagogue events were civil, there were moments, especially during the question-and-answer sessions, when talk grew heated. Some in the audience accused others of name-calling and stifling debate.
The passions surprised Avital Glanz, an Israeli who serves as the Jewish Agency shlicha (emissary) for Ohr Kodesh.
“I was most amazed about how people are really emotional about it. Honestly, I think that we should talk more and be focused more on the future than the history if we really want to have a peace process,” she said.
Glanz said discussions in Israel of such issues are more candid than they are here.
“I think that in Israel, it’s much easier to have a more open discussion about these kinds of things because when you live in the environment, you’re actually experiencing it firsthand,” she explained.
The back-to-back discussions were a fluke of scheduling, said the congregation’s rabbi, Lyle Fishman. He was happy about the coincidence.
“I think there have to be more discussions like this,” he said.
“There have to be people who are willing to commit time, thoughtfulness and perspective to these important questions – not because ‘A’ would convince ‘B’ or ‘B’ would convince ‘A’ – but that both listen and recognize that there are multiple points of view on this issue.”
Dmitriy Shapiro is political reporter and David Holzel is a senior writer for WJW.