Public Comment

Politics and Theatre: A Too Comfortable Controversy

By Marc Sapir
Thursday November 19, 2009 - 09:49:00 AM

At the beginning of Caryl Churchill’s one act, Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, one can not determine the ethnicity or nationality of the voices that are conflicted about what to tell a young girl about the terrible tensions and conflicts in her life, the history of her people and the lives of those around her. Brought by Anne Hallinan and Patricia Silver’s Agora Theater to the Ashby Stage in a polished reading directed by Hal Gelb this play was contrasted with another—What Strong Fences Make, by Israel Horovitz—solicited by Theatre J in Washington, D.C., in response to Churchill.  

  After the readings, the audience was asked to engage with the plays as theater and to try to keep the political heat down. The discussion was not charged. Most of the questions and discussion pertained to Churchill’s play, which was written without characters—except the girl who is not allowed to be present. In an unusual playwright’s twist, Churchill left the director the task of dividing the script—a series of intensely emotional assertions contrasting what this little Jewish Israeli girl should and should not be told about her relatives in the Holocaust, about the Palestinians, bombings, destruction of olive orchards, the wall, about all the fears that abound in the lives of the adults—among any number of characters, men or women. The dialogue is at times heated as the characters discuss what is the right approach and the wrong approach to the young girl’s edification.   

  As Gelb pointed out in discussion, the play circles around the idea of fear as a manipulative social and political force that allows people to justify retributive brutality and to consider using even fearful intimidation of one’s own children as a means of justification of one’s own adherence to brutal behaviors. The play effectively evokes some of the polarity in the Jewish psyche and the Jewish community over Israel’s conundrum, but from the very first audience question there were those who wondered aloud whether one could produce a play purportedly about the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians without a single Palestinian voice uttering one word.  

  Indeed, the absence of the Palestinian voice does leave a telling void. This became clear when one audience member asserted that the dialectic in the dialogue held a certain universality that could easily be viewed as Palestinian or another people. In fact, a young Palestinian American actress in the audience herself thought that in the stark contradictions and angst within the Jewish Israeli passion that the Palestinian reality was represented. Having spent time on the West Bank last year, I cannot but differ strongly from this view. As usual in the U.S.-Israel paradigm about the holy land the backgrounded Palestinians are there but as props to discuss the “Jewish” dilemma, as if universal morality is solely a Jewish question.  

  I would venture that when any liberal—or progressive if you prefer the word—Jewish-American Zionist sees this play she/he will recognize aspects of Israeli thought and behavior that they abhor along with those they identify with. And while this may be a worthwhile dialectic to explore in the Jewish community, it does not even begin to touch on the perspective of a people whose existence and rights are less clearly recognized and barely given lip service in the United States than any other people on earth.  

  In showing how historical fears and anguish contribute to Israeli violence, the play is effective, if somewhat didactic. But one problem that does not surface is the actuality that Israel is today a largely American, and Jewish-American project and would have to transform into a more peaceful secular democracy without that support—from the U.S. I am reminded of how connected Jewish America has been to the development and shaping of the Jewish State every time I look at my 1961 Brandeis yearbook—I was class of ’63—which shows Israel’s first president, David Ben Gurion, as the honored guest at commencement the previous year. And then I recall that two of our professors in that time, John Roche and I. Milton Sachs, were key “liberal” Democratic Party advisors who helped create and defend the justification of the Vietnam war for Democratic Presidents—Roche at the time had a regular column in the NY Post—while they were also helping assure Israel’s power within the U.S. political landscape.  

  Of course there are many Jewish Americans who do not support the idea of Israel as a “Jewish” State, but many Jews do, even if/when they are uncomfortable with the way that Israel treats a people it has subjugated. And among the Zionists are some of the most powerful Americans including more than a few who hold duel Israeli-American citizenship—such as Rahm Emanuel.  

  The audience at the Churchill play reading, like most readers of this paper, was an audience that is generally aware of these contradictions. And yet the play allows an audience to simultaneously be repelled by the most eggregious and anti-social behaviors of the Jewish state but also to still accept the premise upon which the oppression is based—an untenable inequality, an untenable contradiction. 

  By leaving out the Palestinian perspective Churchill avoids the central question that would have been unsettling to any audience. This is known as Israel’s “existential” question and discussing it fully is as taboo as Salmon Rushdie’s criticism of fundamentalism was to the Ayatollah. Israel exists on land stollen from an indigenous people whose diaspora is not going to go away. And in the modern world the most rational and viable settlement of that contradiction involves a transition to an egalitarian state with full equality of citizenship rights for all peoples living there. Of course this is true anywhere in the world under any government.  

  As implied by the US Supreme Court in Brown vs Bd of Education in 1955, equality can never be guaranteed if there are different classes of citizenship—or non-citizenship—rights. This pertains to any religious—or ethnicity—based state be that state Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, or Christian. And no matter the pretense of fairness. And in this respect Israel—as a Jewish state— will always share more with the Ayatollahs, Christian fundamentalists and the anti-abortion Catholic Church than it does with the moral precepts of Judaism or democracy. Likewise, its brutalization of the Palestinian people will continue unabated until we force the United States—and other nations—to sever the military and economic ties that bind us to that tyranny.