A growing chorus of arts professionals are speaking out on behalf of fired Theater J artistic director Ari Roth, blaming his dismissal on a clash of artistic vision and censorship.
Thirty-four artists – including actor Theodore Bikel and playwright Eve Ensler – have signed an open letter to the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, “strongly” protesting Roth’s firing.
“We are outraged by the continuing censorship being imposed by the current DCJCC leadership on Theater J, internationally known as one of the most important American Jewish cultural institutions of our time,” the artists said in their letter.
In a separate letter, 61 artistic directors representing theater companies throughout the United States also denounced Roth’s firing, blaming the decision on artistic censorship.
In the wake of these protests, Roth’s former boss has come out with a more detailed statement on why Roth was fired, confirming what a source close to the matter told Washington Jewish Week last week.
“Ari Roth’s dismissal related to a pattern of insubordination, unprofessionalism and actions that no employer would ever sanction,” said Carole Zawatsky, CEO of the DCJCC.
“Ari Roth was not fired because of his politics or because of outside pressure,” Zawatsky wrote in a statement addressed to members of the Israeli arts community, a copy of which was sent to WJW. “Despite clear and written warnings about this insubordinate behavior Ari continued to disregard direction from the JCC management.”
Zawatsky’s statements were corroborated by two former board members of the DCJCC, the body that provides funding for Theater J.
“I feel terrible for Carole who was patient way longer than anyone else would have been – and yet Roth skewered her in the media as if she is against artistic freedom. She is for freedom,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbilityUSA.
It’s important to remember that Theater J is “the stage of the community, not just one individual set of political views,” Mizrahi said.
Joshua Bernstein, who was involved with Theater J while he served on the board of the DCJCC for eight years and is currently a member of the executive committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, called it disheartening to hear how Zawatsky and the DCJCC are being painted in the media.
“The narrative that is out there does not match [reality],” he said. “Carole went to great lengths to support Ari,” he said, adding that Zawatsky stood up for both Roth and the arts during many clashes with the board and the community.
“[Roth] is a great artist, but that doesn’t make him a great employee,” Bernstein said. “He was not interested in the goals of the organization. He was interested in his own goals, and that was evident for 15 years.” There was always tension between Roth and the JCC, he said.
“He’s a difficult person,” Bernstein said, adding that the way Roth has been attacking the DCJCC publicly since his dismissal “to me shows a great lack of professionalism.”
Bernstein stressed that Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA), a small group of area residents who have petitioned, picketed and taken out advertising decrying the JCC’s financial support of what they considered anti-Israel plays, did not play a role in Roth’s firing.
If anything, he said, COPMA “probably gave him job security” as the JCC didn’t want to be seen as caving in to outside pressure.
According to Zawatsky, the JCC offered Roth an amicable separation agreement with six months’ severance pay, as well as a press statement praising his work.
A search for a new artistic director is underway.
In a Dec. 25 letter, The Institute of Israeli Drama expressed its “fervent hope” that Roth’s successor will continue to promote Israeli drama by including works from both established and new Israeli artists.
“Israeli theater encourages freedom of expression, enables pluralism and open dialogue, which frequently includes plunging our fingers into open wounds in the knowledge that this [is] one of the strengths of a democratic society,” wrote Shimrit Rot, the institute’s director.
In an interview last week published in DC Metro Theater Arts, Roth said he hopes to set up a nonprofit entity in the H Street corridor in the northeast section of the District to be called Mosaic Theater Company.
Editor-in-Chief Geoffrey W. Melada and Senior Writer David Holzel contributed to this article.