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The Murder of Isaac by Motti Lerner not yet in Israel
By Mr. Motti Lerner

Motti Lerner Born in Israel 1949. Studied mathematics and physics at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Studied theatre in various theatre workshops in London and San Francisco. In 1976-1979 wrote and directed plays for experimental and street theatres. In 1979-1984 was director and dramaturg at the Khan Theatre in Jerusalem. Since 1984 freelance playwright and screenwriter for the major theaters and TV channels in Israel. His plays have been produced in the U.S, England, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Australia. Teaches “political playwriting” and “community theatre” at Tel Aviv University.
In 1992 was writer in residence at The Center for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies in Oxford. In 1994 won the Prime Minister of Israel Award for Writers. In 1997 was Visiting Professor at the Drama Department, Duke University, North Carolina. In 2000 participated in the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa. He frequently lectures at European and American Universities on various issues regarding Israeli theatre and especially about Israeli theatre and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. E-mail: motti@macam.ac.il  


The play takes place in a Ministry of Defense rehabilitation center for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) cases in Israel, some of whom have been there since the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, to the present day. Although the center is run as a semi-open hospital with no military atmosphere, the patients are not allowed out as they are incapable of functioning outside.
As part of their therapeutic treatment the patients have written and produced their own version of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak (Isaac) Rabin. The plot that describes the political events that caused Rabin’s assassination is not written in a documentary style, but rather as dramatic – poetic events that do not deal with current political processes, but which try to examine in-depth the phenomenon of war as part of human culture: the fact that Man is resigned to war and its horrors, accepting it as a part of his life; the fact that religious fanaticism was and is grounds for innumerable wars; and the fact that nationalistic and racist fanaticism still constitute a central component of our culture at the beginning of the third millennium.

THE MURDER OF ISAAC  A Play in Process

The play deals with the assassination of Israel’s former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which befell after he gave a public speech at a peace rally on November 5th, 1995, in Tel Aviv. (Isaac is the English version of Yitzhak.) The play was produced at the Municipal Theatre in Heilbronn, Germany, in 2000, directed by Johannes Klaus. It was subsequently produced as a workshop production at CenterStage Theatre in Baltimore, directed by Irene Lewis, and at the ACT Conservatory in San Francisco in 2002, directed by myself. The play is currently in redevelopment  process  in Tel Aviv, .

The idea to write about the assassination of Rabin resulted from a dialogue I had with Mr. Omri Nitzan, the artistic director of the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv. We discussed the issue a week after Rabin was murdered. We knew very well that such a trauma must be dealt with in the theatre, but we quickly realized that at that time it was too early to do it. We didn’t have enough perspective, and the anger was still too raw. We talked about it every once and again afterwards, and we kept waiting for the moment when we would feel ripe and ready.

In 1998, after three years of dialogue, it finally seemed that there was enough perspective for a start to the writing. Right from the beginning, it was rather clear that a realistic play about the assassination cannot be written. Whatever could be said realistically has already been said in the press, in speeches, and in books. We felt that the play must reveal a different point of view that would enable us to discover the hidden streams in the public consciousness that supported the murderer, and that would enable me to discover why this murder was so traumatic for me personally.

I felt that in order to do so, I needed a way to distance the plot of the play from the actual event. The distance was necessary for me as writer, but it was also crucial for the audience – who felt no further need to deal with direct interpretations of the event.

The first idea was based on the fact that Rabin died about 30 minutes after he was shot. I thought to base the plot of the play on his hallucinations about his own murder during these last 30 minutes. Unfortunately this plot framework wasn’t very useful. It was still too direct and it didn’t distance me at all. It actually created a cloud of constant pain that immediately became an obstacle for me.

The second idea was to distance the plot in time and place, and to write a play based on the Biblical story of Gedaliah Ben-Ahikam, the last governor of the kingdom of Judea, who was assassinated by “right wing” fanatics in 586 BC. (See II Kings 25.) This story seemed a great vehicle for writing about fascism and fanaticism in Israel today. But after some research I felt that I was avoiding the real issue. My initial goal was to expose the current political infrastructure that led to the murder of Rabin, and it seemed clear that the circumstances that led to the historic assassination of Gedaliah Ben-Akhikam were very different. After few weeks of work I dropped this idea too.

In the third phase of the work, I began playing with an idea that wasn’t very original. It was inspired by the play Marat/Sade, written by the German playwright Peter Weiss. The idea was to write the play as if it were taking place in a closed clinic for people who suffer from shell shock – or as it is defined in the psychological literature, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). These people might not have suffered physical injury, but the war trauma has hurt them so badly that it reappears daily and ruins their lives. They can’t live outside the clinic because of their anxieties, aggression, and lack of concentration. I had the feeling that this place could be a great metaphor for the Israeli society, which has been suffering consistently for more than fifty years from postwar traumas. This point of view was strong enough for a start to the writing of the play. The play immediately got its basic form: The inmates of the clinic are presenting a play that they themselves wrote about the murder of Rabin. The next phase was to find the characters and start writing some scenes. Quite soon after the beginning of writing, I realized that these suffering characters have much sharper observation of the reality then I had. They are also much more courageous than “normal” people in expressing their observations. I soon found out that I could put into the mouths of these characters words more true than “normal” people will ever dare say. Exploring the reality of life in Israel through the eyes of these inmates was a great adventure for me. I discovered more and more truth that I couldn’t see through my own eyes.

Rabin was murdered because of the agreement he had signed with Arafat. The murder was an expression of the rejection of this agreement – not only by the murderer, but also by a large part of the population that in effect had the same opinion. The play has become a tool to observe the anxieties and the horrors that exist within so many of us and don’t allow us to seek peace honestly and decisively.

The surprising truth that these inmates have revealed to me was that all the wars we fought in the last 30 years were not really necessary. All these wars could have been prevented. All the agreements that were achieved after these wars could have been achieved before the wars. It means that all the young people who died in those wars, died in vain.

What do I expect from the production of the play? I’m not naïve. I know that it will change neither the fate of the Middle East nor the results of the next elections in Israel. It’s very difficult to change people by plays in the theatre. We must be aware of that. But nonetheless, we mustn’t lose hope. Books and plays and films do create a change. Sometimes the change is very small. Sometimes the change is hidden. Sometimes the change is so deep that we can’t see its traces on the surface. But even if this change is very minor, even if it’s hidden, it’s worth attempting.

From the reviews of “The Murder of Isaac”, produced by the Heilbronn Municipal Theatre, Germany

… With his “The Murder of Isaac”, Motti Lerner has written a heartfelt plea that adopts an unequivocal pro-peace position. He also mercilessly settles accounts with the “hawks” who harbor dreams of Israel as a superpower…

… The subject raised by Motti Lerner in his play is not only of unparalleled importance and urgency, it also arouses worldwide interest… The actors are totally at one with the issue…

… Lerner’s psychodrama reveals his opinion on many of his countrymen: they prefer war to the peace that still causes them greater anxiety than going into battle… Perhaps the play should be packed up and taken to the arena in which the events took place: perform it in the city square in a totally alienated action. Perhaps in this way the Israelis will be able to identify themselves in its distorting mirror, and perhaps they will come to know themselves anew…

… The framework set by the play is vast, powerful and gets under one’s skin… The characters are molded with love. The sad and beautiful songs and the humor cause poetic alienation. Lerner mercilessly shapes the demagoguery of the other side: the political opposition, the settlers, and the Orthodox…
But the course of events does not leave the audience for a moment. The play forces each of us to take a stand on his or her place in the course of history, even if we know beforehand that the events will end with death. Yet the play’s conclusion is till shocking. Although the play is over, the murderer fires one more time, this time with real bullets. In Israel, as in any other radical country, it appears that even the rehabilitation process is murderous...

… Lerner has written a pessimistic, merciless play. The actors reveal their vulnerability, fears and prejudices… Lerner’s play deals radically with the subject of uncompromising radicalism, the same radicalism that gave birth to a fanatical killer. This is an Israeli play that needs its relevant audience, the one that suffered in the historic course of events…

The shock on the audience’s faces was apparent even during the interval. What had taken place on the Heilbronn Municipal Theatre’s stage touched everyone. Lerner shapes Isaac as a politician who deeply believes, to the depths of his soul, in his mission of peace. Even Yitzhak Rabin did not want to believe that he would be assassinated, “In the end, a Jew will not kill a Jew,” as his wife Leah said at the play’s premiere.

… Impressive and depressing…

… Motti Lerner presents Israel as an arena of post traumatic stress disorder casualties, extremist Right-wingers, moderates, or Left-wingers: radical and filled with hatred. He frequently employs macabre humor to describe the different political positions and their terrible result: the shattering of hopes for peace. But this is not only a play that provides an accurate and pessimistic insight into the State of Israel’s present difficulties. This play has international validity thanks to the clarity and sharpness with which Lerner describes the defeat of humanism by egotism, the thirst for power, apathy and foolishness. He shows how extremism is harnessed for the benefit of political interests and how it is ignited and disseminated. How difficult it is to deal with simplistic prejudices with only the truth that is so complex and abstract…

Epilog :After 9 years… 

Nine years  have passed   since  Rabin was murdered. Tragically, the play seems to be still relevant. We are still facing political moves which are being rejected by blind fanatics; we still hear loud voices using the name of God in order to justify their support in endless war. We still see war as a natural choice to solve conflicts – and not only in this region – also in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Israeli society hasn't learned its lesson. It is probably not the fault of the theatre people who most of them, I believe, support peace. But isn't it the failure of all of us, theatre people here, that the Israeli theatre has hardly confronted the issues of war and peace in this region in the last 9 years? Have we really fulfilled our responsibility for our audiences to use the theatre stage in order to explore these issues, and by doing so create a deeper public discourse? Were we really courageous enough to look at who we after 4 years of terrible bloodshed in which more than a 1000 Israelis and 2,500 Palestinians were killed? Unfortunately I think we were not.

It is very ironic that few days ago I got an e-mail from an artistic director of a theatre in Washington DC, asking for the play to consider it for the next season – in order to open it for the 10th anniversary of Rabin's murder. A literary manager of a theatre in Baltimore wrote me today: It is TERRIFYING how relevant it becomes, both in the specific and in its more abstract observations and arguments. Horrible. The play will be publish soon by Playwrights Canada Press – Perhaps the interest in the play abroad will create an interest in it here.

Related Links:

  • The Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies
  • Yitzhak Rabin – Nobel Lecture
  • Read more by Motti Lerner
  • The Assassination
  • Plays by Motti Lerner in our Resource Center

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  • Motti Lerner

    Yitzhak Rabin ( 1922-1995 )

    The Murder of Isaac at the Heilbronn Municipal Theatre, Germany

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