On U.S. stages, Israeli and American artists espouse humanism in a world of violence.
You cannot not talk about it. You cannot hide it inside a basement and hope that no one will find out. There will always be someone—a child, perhaps, armed with the courage of intense precocity—who will set about exorcising “the beast.”
In Momik, the Gesher Theatre of Tel Aviv’s fanciful adaptation of the first section of the Israeli writer David Grossman’s bestselling 1989 novel See Under: LOVE, everyone in Jerusalem refuses to tell Momik what happened to them “Over There.” For this nine-year-old boy, the son of Holocaust survivors who emigrated to Eretz Yisrael from Poland, “Over There” is someplace mysterious, unknowable, incomprehensible, unspoken—and yet this beast is not locked up. Growing ever stronger in the present, it could re-emerge: As Momik’s neighbor cautions, “The Nazi Beast can come out of any kind of animal if it gets the right care and the right nourishment.”
Imagining the Nazi Beast as a mythical monster that tortured the people he loves, Momik vows to free his parents from their fears and nightmares—their silences. Momik’s hunt to dig up and retrieve the buried collective past becomes a distorted recreation of the Holocaust as he understands it: In the cellar of the house, the boy has locked a hedgehog, a kitten and a young raven in cages as “prisoners of war.” In an attempt to form a sensible narrative out of an event that adult survivors would rather forget, Momik lures his great-uncle, Anshel Wasserman, another survivor, into the dark basement. Once a successful writer of children’s books under the pen name “Scheherazade,” Wasserman was interned by the Nazis and later spent 10 years in an asylum. He has moved in with the family in Jerusalem during the Hebrew month of Shebat in 1959—a year before the capture of Adolf Eichmann.
“I’m going to reveal my biggest secret to you now,” the boy tells Wasserman. “I’m raising a Nazi Beast, like those that tortured everybody ‘Over There’—to tame it and stop it from torturing people. But nothing happened. No Nazi Beast came out. Bella said the beasts could smell Jews. I come here all the time, but I must smell differently.” Anxious that he isn’t Jewish enough, Momik adds, “So I thought I should bring a real Jew here, someone who actually came from ‘Over There’ for the beast to smell him and come out. Can you help me? I can’t face the beast alone.”
Momik went on a two-week North American tour this past March. Staged by Gesher’s artistic director Yevgeny Arye as if it were a magic-realist dream, Momik was forged in the Jewish homeland in 2005 and performed by Gesher’s troupe of mostly immigrant actors from the former Soviet Union in the Russian language with English and Hebrew supertitles. Dedicated to the state of Israel’s 60th anniversary, Gesher’s piquant adaptation of Grossman’s sprawling novel conjures the disturbing aspects of the collective response to the tragedy that befell displaced European Jews, refugees and survivors. For almost a decade after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, silence reigned in regard to the Holocaust. (It was not until the 1955 trial of Israel Rudolf Kasztner and, more significantly, the trial of Eichmann for crimes against humanity that the wounds of Jewish self-reckoning were opened.) The consequences of this silence are devastating for the young Momik when Wasserman, one day, suddenly disappears. A sort of transference occurs in which, through the act of reconstructing the Holocaust through narrative, Momik begins to identify with the lost, surrealistic figure of Wasserman, whom the Nazis could not kill, no matter how many times he’s gassed or shot. The beast plagues Momik’s dreams. He suffers a kind of mental breakdown from which he never fully recovers.
Compared to films, television and perhaps fiction, plays appeal to a narrower set of audiences. Nevertheless, their cultural meanings are reinforced, ritualized and naturalized by revival, repetition and performance. Widely acclaimed as one of the first works of fiction to cope with the legacy of the Holocaust in Israeli culture from the perspective of a second-generation Israeli-born writer who is not a survivor or the son of a survivor, Grossman’s novel testifies to a subtle ideological shift in the country’s ability to articulate, criticize, dramatize and reflect on its experiences. Momik’s appearance on stage is a reminder of the greatness, perseverance and beauty of Jewish culture. But along with celebration comes a double recognition: Grossman’s son, Uri, was killed on the day prior to the cease-fire in Lebanon two years ago. In his eulogy, Grossman wrote, “We, your family, have already lost this war. The state of Israel will have to do its own self-examination.”
As the seemingly eternal conflict between Israel and Palestine goes on, Israeli novelists like Grossman, along with Israeli playwrights such as Motti Lerner and Ilan Hatsor, have stepped forward to preach that writing and theatre can play a productive part in furthering a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Grossman’s body of work has been inseparable from the new culture of self-questioning that seems to be gradually pervading U.S. and Israeli discourse at this moment of unprecedented crisis. His 1988 novel The Yellow Wind, for example, was a landmark in Israeli culture for its probing, sympathetic portrait of refugee life and terrible conditions in the occupied West Bank. Since the first intifada, which initiated a struggle for statehood in the occupied territories that continues to this day, Grossman has spoken out consistently in favor of a two-state solution, as well as the necessity for Israeli and Palestinian writers to look at their war-ridden world through each other’s eyes.
“In this situation,” Grossman writes in a 2005 essay “To See Ourselves…,” “so many Israelis and Palestinians persuade themselves that the people standing before them are evil by nature and evil in essence, a sort of existential, almost cosmic evil, which turns against them out of a pure malice that has no rational justification. In this situation we all develop and concoct ideologies to justify what we do…. We are so mired in the distortion that we almost do not really register the actual price we are paying for living through four generations now in a life parallel to the life we could have lived, the life we deserve.”
To American observers and media-watchers, the blurb on the poster for Ilan Hatsor’s Masked—“an Israeli play about three Palestinian brothers”—was a surprise and an object of curiosity. How is it that an Israeli has taken it upon himself to humanize the conflict by giving voice to the dilemmas Palestinians face living under Israeli occupation? Add to this astonishment Masked’s successful commercial run at DR2 Theatre, the Off-Broadway venue owned by the veteran theatre producer Daryl Roth, where it played for 180 total performances from July to December.
Considering the public outrage that descended upon New York Theatre Workshop when the company decided in March ’06 to postpone (or, as others have argued, censor) the politically explosive play My Name Is Rachel Corrie, there was every reason to fear that Masked would once again rile up the over-alert sensibilities of unsympathetic American Jews who refuse to see the Palestinian perspective portrayed on stage. A heated debate, however, did not transpire. Hatsor’s gripping, claustrophobic drama about three Palestinian brothers locked in a life-and-death confrontation over deception, conflicting values and family betrayal during the first intifada does express sympathies with the Palestinian Arabs it depicts, and it does reflect some truths about the ugly realities of Israeli occupation. But Masked, director Ami Dayan noted in the program, “is not a pro-Palestinian play. It is not a pro-Israeli play. It is a play about human beings forced to make brutal choices in a time of crisis. Please put aside preconceptions, agendas and political doctrines.”
In its earnest attempt to move beyond the specifics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Masked is a classically rendered drama. Unlike My Name Is Rachel Corrie, a manifesto that proffers a one-sided case against Israel, Masked leans on Greek drama elements to unravel a universal message; the play’s West Bank setting, as reviewers have noted, could be any besieged city (Sarajevo, Johannesburg or present-day Baghdad) where a military force has pitted brother against brother. “I didn’t imagine them as Arabs or Palestinians, but brothers torn apart by larger forces,” Hatsor has said in an interview. “I asked myself, ‘What would happen if this was my brother?’” All respectfully drawn, the three Palestinian men in Masked too-neatly occupy and articulate the differing positions on the occupation: Roughly, middle brother Na’im violently opposes it, the oldest brother Daoud has thrived in it, and the youngest brother Khalid hasn’t made up his mind whether he is for or against it. Na’im, a hot-headed militant who fled to the mountains after the three men’s seven-year-old brother was killed by an Israeli soldier at a forbidden rally, has come to tell Khalid that Daoud is suspected of being a traitor and collaborator with the Israelis—that he is about to be interrogated by guerillas of the resistance faction, and Na’im has an hour to find out if Daoud is, in fact, one of the informers. The guileless Khalid is basically the one who cleans up after both his brothers’ messes (the play’s first image: his bloodied hands scrub the blood-spattered back room of a butcher shop). Khalid tries to broker a solution without blood. A bloodless solution, however, eludes the familial dispute.
Since Masked packs an array of angry, desperate voices that are trying to achieve some measure of honor and nobility in an increasingly nihilistic situation, it was not subject to accusations of unfairness, propaganda or imbalance. The play’s tragic lineaments, in which there is no peaceful solution and no way of escaping destiny, serve to ennoble a group of Arab figures who, in most plays about the Arab-Israeli conflict, are rendered as largely faceless pawns, helpless victims or suicidal terrorists, if they are pictured at all. Beyond the melodramatic tensions inherent in the plot, one explanation that has been offered for the positive reception of Masked is the savvy contextualization to which audiences were regularly subjected. In the U.S., plays about the Middle East aren’t allowed to speak for themselves as artistic expressions, without the battery of post-performance discussions and structured community engagements that would “contextualize” the show or present a “balanced” perspective on the issues the play raises. The theatre’s role, in our culture of managed crisis, is to kick-start engaged conversations, more serious than are heard in the din of traditional daily news.
Written 18 years ago in the middle of the first intifada, Masked is, of course, caught in a time warp. If it seems as relevant today as it was in 1990, that’s less because of any prescience on Hatsor’s part than it is a reflection of the escalating Israeli-Arab conflict, which offers no foreseeable resolution. Masked avoids making any overt political statement or moral judgment in the dialogue. But its catch-the-snitch-plot—detailing one Arab’s search to protect his family through accommodation with Israelis, which crosses the line into collaboration—cannot but powerfully resonate with anyone who is versed in the Gordian knots of Middle East politics. This is true especially among Arabs who define their struggle in terms of self-determination, autonomy and resistance. In fact, the Israeli-American Dayan was motivated to import Masked into the U.S. because of Hamas’s surprise victory against its rival Fatah in the Palestinian legislative elections of January ’06. No doubt, the producers’ burden was eased by media reports in July ’06 about Israel’s impressive bombardment of Lebanon, including Beirut’s airport and two Lebanese army bases near Syria (in response to Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers). With the shift of public opinion against Israel, whose military response was criticized as too savage and outlandishly disproportionate, dissent was seething in the air. A door was opened that allowed the opportunity to figure the Israeli Defense Forces in Masked as unseen oppressive forces. In light of current events, Hatsor’s depiction of the occupation’s awful toll on an Arab family—in which oppressed people lash out fatally against each other rather than at their oppressor—becomes emblematic not of a holy war of Israelis versus Palestinians, but of the factional struggle of Fatah versus Hamas.
What’s fascinating about Israeli writers like Hatsor and Grossman is that they have ceased to directly address the Israeli-Palestinian struggle in their plays or fiction. After years of violence, military attacks, bombings and innumerable truces, which have frayed Arab sympathy, allegiances and sense of hope for peace, Grossman has admitted that his recent fiction has moved inward (though he has not stopped speaking up, in his essays and op-ed pieces, in support of a two-state solution). Hatsor, who continues to oppose the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, has switched to writing mostly comedies. “I think you can write tragedy only when there is hope,” Hatsor told the New York Sun. Quite likely, despair has contributed to a retreat from engaging in politics. “In a mental climate such as this,” Grossman wrote in 2005, “the very act of writing a story or a poem—even if you’re not at that moment writing about ‘the situation’—instantly becomes a tiny act of protest, of defiance; an act of personal definition within a reality that threatens to wipe us out. When we write, or imagine, or create even a single new combination of words, we manage to overcome—for a little while—the harshness and arbitrariness of the ‘situation.’ We give life within a reality that so easily wipes out life.”
One outstanding Israeli dramatist has stood his ground, however. Motti Lerner, the author of Pangs of the Messiah and The Murder of Isaac, has been one of Israeli theatre’s strongest, most combative voices of conscience—to the point that he has been sometimes accused of being too abrasive or of Jewish self-hatred. Playwrights (not just Israelis), Lerner writes in his essay “Playwriting in Wartime,” need to reinvestigate the role of God in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and probe deeper into “our accepted narrative of the history of Zionism, the establishment and consolidation of the state of Israel.” Lerner continues, “The Israeli narrative serves the self-image of many Israelis, thus reinforcing their identification with their state, but it does not serve the advancement of the peace process. If Israel seeks peace it must accept its responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian tragedy. We must apply the principle of ‘Truth and Conciliation’ that was successfully employed in South Africa. True conciliation can only be based upon a true definition of the history of the conflict. We must investigate the creation of the refugee problem, correct the false narrative we have created for ourselves, and help theatre audiences to contend with their past without repressing matters and without bias.”
Because of his political commitment, Lerner can afford to play with fire. Within America’s identity-based politics—a culture that prizes “authentic” voices and in which wrestling with difficult topics such as the Holocaust or the Israel-Palestine conflict is seen as the particular privilege of those citizens who have a personal investment or a firsthand connection to historical events—Lerner’s tough, sagacious stance can be uncompromisingly hard on his own people. His Pangs of the Messiah, whose English-language premiere took place last year at Theater J in Washington, D.C., reads as a critique of religious Zionists, embodied by the fictional family of Rabbi Shmuel Berger, who are members of the right-wing Gush Emunim group of settlers in the West Bank and who regard the land as their God-given right, not to be relinquished without a fight.
Set in 2012, the play imagines the corrosive depths of such a hard-line fight from the perspective of settlers eager to dedicate their lives to their homeland. A peace treaty, brokered by the Americans, is about to be signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, an imagined agreement that would trade land for peace, create Palestinian state borders according to a revised version of the 1967 lines, grant Palestinians the right of return and enforce the removal of the settlements. In effect, Berger’s extended family of eight West Bank settlers stands in for all the pioneers of Eretz Yisrael. In Lerner’s play, Berger, an aging King Lear–like leader of the settlement movement, is forced to reckon with the legacy of violence that his teachings have unwittingly fostered among the members of his community. Although the family is united in its opposition to the treaty, Berger puts his faith in nonviolent methods and political maneuvering to derail the accord; on the other hand, his son Avner and son-in-law Benny advocate aggressive retaliation, radical approaches and violence against the Israeli army. Benny, for instance, was imprisoned for killing Palestinians with roadside bombs.
Almost the flipside of Masked , Pangs of the Messiah dramatizes the schisms of a fundamentalist community. Written about 20 years ago, translated from Hebrew by Anthony Berris and updated for last year’s D.C. production, Lerner’s fast-paced, thriller-like plot imagines an implosion of zealotry in which the Zionist settlers seem to be more suspicious of and more furious at their own government (as well as at the U.S.) than at their Arab neighbors. Caught in the middle are their frustrated or compliant wives and the innocent Nadav, a mentally challenged, simple soul who is building his own house down the street from that of his parents. To drive the play’s point home, God’s words of biblical prophecy from the book of Genesis were inscribed on the floor of the living room set (by Kinereth Kisch) in Sinai Peter’s production (“Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, I will make your name great”). Throughout the play, the characters literally tread on God’s promise to give Abraham the land of Israel.
Although Lerner’s storyline feels ripped from the headlines, Pangs of the Messiah reads as an apocalyptic projection of a tragic but ultimately optimistic view (after all, Lerner has the temerity to imagine that in the near future a peace accord could be realized in the Middle East). An unblinking chronicle of the mindset of settlers on the front lines, Lerner offers a provocative warning of what could happen if relentless fanaticism and extremism are left unchecked. Similarly merciless is The Murder of Isaac—Lerner’s strident, talky, Brechtian drama about the assassination of Israel’s former prime minister, Yitzhak (Isaac) Rabin, set in a post-traumatic-stress ward for the disabled veterans of all of Israel’s wars. Both The Murder of Isaac (which had an American premiere at Baltimore’s CENTERSTAGE) and Pangs of the Messiah adopt a pro-peace stance, a challenge to Israelis to examine their own prejudices, preconceived ideas and a nationalistic fanaticism that motivated innumerable wars. In these two plays, Lerner argues that what is being maintained right now is a frightening edifice that perverts Jewish values and manifests injustice against ordinary Palestinians.
“Brotherly comradeship is always a tempting feeling,” Lerner states. “But by joining the consensus, does the playwright fulfill his obligation to himself and his art? I think that the answer is no. It seems to me that the playwright must act to the best of his ability to form an opposition to this consensus. He must offer a different view of reality, a view that negates continuation of the war.”
While secular Israelis seem determined to expose every last garment of the nation’s laundry, it is very difficult, at this moment, to grant ordinary Palestinians their humanity on U.S. stages without someone insisting that the words “suicide bomber” and “Hamas” need also be uttered in the same breath. It is as if the Palestinian population were made up almost entirely of terrorists. It is also very challenging (and chilling) to speak about Israel’s wrongdoings. In the view of anti-liberal Jews, to believe that all human problems are amenable to negotiated solutions, that all people can be united in a spirit of brotherhood, is to weaken Jewish resolve in the face of Arab rejectionism—and to give anti-Semitism a new lease on life. Liberals, according to this reasoning, cannot admit the existence of real evil—of a beast beyond the reach of reason.
Add to this intractable quagmire America’s vexed interests in the Middle East. In the American culture so very little has been reported, discussed or deeply understood about what real life is like in the occupied territories—so few of us have actually traveled there to witness reality with our own eyes—that all that we’ve got are these two competing moral geographies, driven by ideological rhetoric, wracked by anger and bitter suspicion, sedimented by age-old presumptions, and occluded by the cycles of violence and trauma of an almost eternal war.
“The Middle East,” says Melani McAlister in Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945, a study of the invisible significance of that region of the world to Americans, “has been arguably the single greatest source of fear and concern for U.S. policymakers, largely because a range of groups in the region, from Islamist movements to Palestinian nationalists to Israeli settlers, have used violent tactics in their political struggles.” What makes it complicated and confusing to map the Middle East for Americans, McAlister states, is that “finding out about the Middle East meant learning—at the same time and in ways that cannot be fully untangled—how to respond to it, emotionally and politically, and specifically as an American.” Complex forces are at work in how people learn about a world that is not immediately around them, and what is both dangerous and powerful about theatrical representations is that culture matters, and at the same time cultural discourse threatens to raise the specter of doubt and dissent within. Beyond travel and literal face-to-face meetings, cultural productions play a significant role “in making the Middle East meaningful to Americans, particularly after 1945, when the United States dramatically expanded its political, economic and military power in the region,” McAlister states.
Instead of allowing cultural encounters that would offer alternative views, there is only a catalog of disruptions, a litany of re-articulations of fear and insecurity in an unstable global environment. Long before the flap over Rachel Corrie, in 1989, the late producer Joseph Papp had cancelled a planned appearance of el-Hakawati, a Palestinian theatre company based in East Jerusalem, just days before it was supposed to arrive in New York. More recently, New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas was besieged with demonstrations and complaints (from the Anti-Defamation League of Connecticut) when in 2002 it presented the Ramallah-based al-Kasaba’s Alive from Palestine: Stories Under Occupation, even though, like el-Hakawati’s piece, that play is the opposite of militant.
If merely inviting actual Palestinians to tell their own story elicits rancor and charges that Israelis are being stereotyped and demonized, often the pressures being exerted take place away from the spotlight. U.K.-based American playwright Naomi Wallace, who collaborated with the Iowa City–based writer Lisa Schlesinger and the Palestinian writer AbdelFattah Abu-Srour on a Brechtian play with music, Twenty-One Positions: A Cartographic Dream of the Middle East , recounts an alarming story about a Minneapolis dramaturg who accused the three writers of supporting terrorism. When Twenty-One Positions did premiere this past February at Fordham University, in association with the Public Theater, this poetic, unsentimental play about a Palestinian American who travels to Bethlehem from Cincinnati to locate his missing brother was lambasted, during a symposium, as not belonging to the category of art because it did not give both the Palestinian and Israeli characters their full due. It was as if art were obligated to meet journalistic standards.
This past December, Aaron Davidman, the artistic director of Traveling Jewish Theatre of San Francisco, reported in a blog that he and the Sundance Institute Theatre Program faced intimidation from a plastic surgeon prior to a Los Angeles reading of his probing new solo play A Jerusalem Between Us. Commissioned and produced by Theater J in Washington, D.C., the play publicly tries to untangle the competing narratives of the current struggle in Israel and Palestine. Before having seen or read it, the surgeon disparaged everyone involved in the reading and wrote in an e-mail, “The last thing we want to do is offend the local Jewish community by showing some progressive lefty self-hating Jewish propaganda.” In the current climate, even a serious Jewish-American artist, forged at a young age in a progressive Jewish summer camp, whose eloquent solo play wrestles with the nature of his own response to the Israel-Palestine question, is seen as not above reproach. The surgeon, adds Davidman, “didn’t hear the very personal story of an American Jew who loves Israel deeply and fears for her survival.”
There is a good reason that a preponderance of shows about Israel and Palestine has taken the form of solo pilgrimages: Dialogue allows for “the other” to be heard. As Eitan Bar-Yosef asks in “‘I’m Just a Pen,’” a brilliant dissection of why David Hare chose to perform his own journey in Via Dolorosa : “What makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the only topic that cannot be rendered into a dramatic form relying on actors, those specialists hired to ‘do the speaking’ for the playwright?” The wish to address spectators personally speaks to an orientalist desire to offer the most candid firsthand testimony possible, an urgent claim for reliability that evokes images of a wanderer coming back from distant lands and speaking with total strangers at the fireside. “There are sounds you hear in Tel Aviv and Ramallah that are not just about images of violence and headlines,” says San Francisco–based beatbox performer Yuri Lane of his solo show, From Tel Aviv to Ramallah . “I use mime, beat boxing, acting and dialogue to show daily life. Each city is bombarded by its own soundtrack, rhythm and melody. This show is about the hopes and dreams of these two guys, one Jewish and another Palestinian, who are separated by the green line. The show is not political, but it obviously brings up the politics—you can’t avoid it.”
Given the intractability of the conflict, to allow for empathy with “the enemy” is to risk suggesting a parity that doesn’t exist and causes feelings of constriction and suffocation. In Between This Breath and You , the last play in Naomi Wallace’s trilogy Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East , produced at the Public Theater this past April, a Palestinian father stalks an Israeli nurse who recently had a lung transplant. The man’s son died in an Israeli raid, and he is convinced that she is carrying the soul of his departed son. The event seems inconceivable, ridiculous, utterly insane, perhaps offensive. But it did happen, Wallace states. The play is based on a true story. In the grip of anger, heartbreak, violence and pain, it is painfully difficult to believe that the destinies of Israelis and Palestinians are already inextricably linked—the land itself defines both tribes. “There’s no Palestinian inside me,” the nurse decries. “You mustn’t fight the constriction,” the father tells her. “You must welcome it. The short breaths you take are rigid and only make it worse. You must slow your breath down. Let it gather its force again.”
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