Theater J backs away from disputed play

DCJCC CEO Carole Zawatsky believes that the play The Admission will serve as a catalyst for dialogue about Israel and the War of Independence. File photo
DCJCC CEO Carole Zawatsky believes that the play The Admission will serve as a catalyst for dialogue about Israel and the War of Independence.
File photo

Theater J and the Washington DC Jewish Community Center will not be producing the controversial play The Admission by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner in its full form. Rather, Theater J will present it as a workshop, inviting audience members to give feedback. In addition, the play, in workshop form, will not be shown 35 times as originally advertised, but 16 times as part of a larger symposium on Israel and conversations about Israel.

“The DCJCC is committed to presenting the work of Motti Lerner and The Admission and has heard many thoughtful voices in the community,” said CEO Carole Zawatsky. “The decision today is to give the work the context that the work and the audience deserve.” She asserted that the DCJCC has long been planning a series of thoughtful panels around difficult questions, such as how Jews talk about Israel and the War of Independence.

“The play is the catalyst for this very important dialogue,” she added.

The Admission is a fictional work set in Haifa in the spring of 1988. The main character, Avigdor, the wealthy owner of a construction company, was a colonel in the Israeli army during the 1948 War of Independence. His son, Giora, a lecturer at the University of Haifa, was wounded in the Lebanon war of 1982. As construction trucks turn up the soil and bones of the fictional Arab village of Jirin, Giora’s thoughts turn to the battle that occurred on the land.

The play takes its narrative in part from allegations that Israeli soldiers carried out a massacre in the Arab village of Tantura during the 1948 War of Independence, which has upset some people in the Washington Jewish community.

A small group called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) has placed ads, sent emails and posted on listserves their belief that community members should stop donating to The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, as the DCJCC, which houses the theater company is funded in part by the Federation.

Carol Greenwald, COPMA treasurer, maintains that the play should be canceled. “That would be the honorable thing to do, and that’s what people who give money to Federation expect. Anything else is a betrayal of why Jews have given money to Federation. Jews do not give money to Federation to spread blood libels.”

The Federation affirmed its “respect for the autonomy of beneficiary agencies and our strong belief that our community is — and should be — a “big tent,” said CEO Steve Rakitt. “We support the DCJCC’s decision to reformat The Admission to workshops, along with its continued commitment to open and constructive dialogue about Israel.”

Paul L. Scham, professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, who teaches the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and lived in Israel and worked at Hebrew University when the Tantura controversy was major news in Israel, read a draft of the play as well as COPMA’s letter.

“COPMA is certainly right that the play loosely follows the Tantura controversy.” But, he added, “COPMA’s letter of Oct. 2 gives a sense of the chronology of the controversy but ignores or misrepresents some crucial facts, thus presenting a seemingly seamless narrative in which everyone dealing with the issue considers it fabricated. That is emphatically not true.

The Admission raises serious issues that are well-known in Israel. Many of us feel strongly that Israel’s fate is bound up with our own as Jews. To censor and prevent a full understanding of the good and the bad in Israel does a disservice to truth, to art and to Israel, because supporting Israel should never be based on suppressing either truth or art.”

For her part, Zawatsky maintained, “I don’t believe a small group of people with very passionate ideas have the right to hold a community to their particular perspective. I do believe they have the right to be heard.”

“Everyone is welcome to be part of the conversation,” she added. “I invited members of COPMA to meet with me when I first arrived at the DCJCC.”

She stands by artistic director Ari Roth and Theater J, noting that it not only has a local and national reputation but also an international recognition, and that Roth “continues to be an outstanding example to others throughout the country.”

But Greenwald is not impressed. “You have chosen to repeat a blood libel against the Jewish people. Carol Zawatsky says this is a ‘great conversation’. What is the conversation? When people use Holocaust denial, it discredits those who say it. But when it comes to Israel and a Jewish institution, it somehow gets defended as ‘opening up a conversation.’ I’m saying, about what? A libel, about a massacre that never happened, should be debated? That there were death camps? That 9/11 was an inside job? This is the same level.

“This is such a betrayal of why people give money to Federation. Motti Lerner is lying through his teeth when he says he knows people who participated in the massacre. This charge of a massacre went to the Israeli Supreme Court as a libel case and was upheld as libel. The soldiers who were there [in Tantura] sued and won,” Greenwald said. “And this is what charity money is used for? DCJCC hires a PR firm to counter COPMA rather than admitting they were wrong.”

Lerner, in an interview via Skype from his home in Israel, said the idea for this play came when he was reading some of the latest information on what happened to the Palestinians living in villages in Israel in 1948. There were “700,000 Palestinians living in Israel before 1948 and after that, 80 to 85 percent of them were not living in Israel,” said Lerner, who was born in Israel in 1949.

All his life, he heard that the Arabs left their homes willingly. But in the past 20 years or so, historians in Israel have been looking into the matter only to find that some left out of fear and others left because they were forced to do so, Lerner said.

Lerner said he read information about the coastal village of Tantura, which has a beach near his childhood home where he spent a lot of time swimming. Finding out about a possible battle there, involving his neighbors, inspired him to write this play.

The Admission is “inspired by this event. It is not a documentary,” he stressed.

Roth bristles at Theater J being cast as a “viciously anti-Israel theater. It is a toxic mischaracterization. The 36 plays and about Israel each reflect something vital to talk about, and I think COPMA has done the Washington Jewish community a disservice.”

“Donors and people who love Israel have expressed concern, and because of COPMA, and because it’s been a damaging campaign, the DCJCC asked that it be part of a conversation about modern and Zionist history.” He hopes to add the play Golda’s Balcony as well as another work based on an Israeli memoir to the six-week festival.

The Admission was originally set to be produced in Israel by the Herzliya Theater. Theater J partnered with Herzliya to bring the play to D.C. “That was the imprimatur,” said Roth of the production, “happening first in Israel and then in the U.S.” Unfortunately, financial hardships caused the theater in Herzliya to close. Meanwhile Theater J had already committed to the cast and crew connected to the play.

According to Zawatsky and Roth, The Admission has been workshopped in several theaters in Israel including the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv. This new format for the play is based in part on how it is presented in Israel. Said Zawatsky, “What you do in Israel has great merit.”

The Admission will run at the DCJCC March 20-April 6. The festival will continue through April 27. For information about tickets, go to

Senior writer Suzanne Pollak contributed to this article.

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