A Discussion Every Night (and Day)

Last night Stephen Stern, our indefatigable Program Committee co-chair, who’s been so instrumental in bringing top-flight panelists to our theater show after show all season long (for many seasons running now), led the discussion himself together with five members of the cast (I was off celebrating an anniversary; number twenty-two for Kate and me). Steve reports that over 60 audience members stayed on a Saturday night (!) to talk and talk about our remarkably thought-provoking show. Today, Stephen, together with the rest of the Program Committee (co-chaired by Minna Scherlinder Morse), has put together a spectacular panel that presses on one of the most reverberating themes of PANGS OF THE MESSIAH.

The play, of course, eavesdrops on a family of religious settlers. We hear remarkably unguarded comments uttered by the family about their Arab neighbors. What’s it like for an Arab to hear these comments? Today we’ll ask in a panel entitled: “What Jews Say About Arabs and What Arabs Say About Jews: The Subtext of Living Together and Apart” with Andy Shallal, Peace Café co-founder, Busboys and Poets; Ghaith Al-Omari, senior fellow, New America Foundation, lead Palestinian drafter, Geneva Initiative; and the Honorable Ron Dermer, Minister for Economic Affairs, Embassy of Israel. The talk will be moderated by the razor sharp Jeffrey Goldberg, staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the superb book “Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide.”

Last week’s Sunday panel discussion was on the subject of “Sharing Jerusalem?” and, together with the author, Motti Lerner, the scholar Paul Scham, and peace activist Jim Vitarello, featured an extraordinary presentation from Philip Farah, a Palestinian Chrisitan American and member of the Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East Peace. Phillip prepared remarks that were striking in their honesty and their appreciation for what Motti Lerner’s script made him realize about the West Bank settlers about whom he thought he had a fixed opinion.

With Phil’s permission, we’re excerpting some of his remarks from last week. They’re very personal; extremely revealing; and they were deeply appreicated by our audience last week. Especially for the speaker’s first hand acquaintance of some of the prototypes in the play. keep reading

Comments of Philip Farah, Sunday, June 24, 2007, after the performance of PANGS OF THE MESSIAH:

“This play is a completely new thing for me. For me, as for all Palestinians, the word “settler” evokes evil. For us, the Israeli occupation is evil, and the settlers are the height of this evil. But this play draws you into the humanity of a family of people who care deeply for each other, who are struggling with familiar problems and emotions.

Some of the characters in the play are ones with whom I can easily identify on a human level, and I do. I actually quickly found myself identifying even with some aspects of the character of Benny. I was in an Israeli prison myself—for two months—of course for very different reasons (which were never very clear, but that’s another story.) While in prison, I met a young Palestinian man by the name of Mohammad O… Mohammad had an almost magnetic personality— calm, benevolent, and welcoming, and he was held in high regard by all his fellow prisoners. He became my chess partner in prison, and I soon learnt that he was responsible for an attack on a group of Jewish civilian picnickers at a Dead Sea resort, which left several of them dead. Many Palestinians would consider him a freedom fighter, just as many settlers would consider Benny a freedom fighter; and most Jews would consider Mohammad O… a terrorist, just as most Palestinians would consider Benny a terrorist.

In many ways, Benny’s character reminds me of Mohammad O…

Here lies the tragedy of both peoples, and other groups of people who have long traditions of suffering. A people who have suffered so deeply and for so long can develop a kind of Messianism. I call it the narcissism of suffering. To use a Christian metaphor: we carry our cross and wear our bloody crown of thorns for so long that we see ourselves as pure angels who can do no wrong. The rest of the world, who stood callously by while we were being crucified, has no moral authority whatsoever to judge our actions. We were baptized in the fire of suffering and anything we do to defend our tribe is holy.

Mohammad O…, like Benny, carried himself like an angel, and was viewed by his admirers as a hero. Violent, but an angel in the service of his people nevertheless. A candle, burning itself to give light to others.

Some of the characters in the play are aware of the rough edges of morality in their lives, but it’s a small and necessary price to pay in defense of the great cause of defending one’s family and tribe, and of being true to their timeless suffering.

The one thing I would have liked to see in the play is the day-to-day blindness of the settlers to the plight of their neighbors from the other tribe. The destruction of the Dome of the Rock is, of course, the ultimate violence to the purest symbol of a people—their religious and historical identity. But it’s only the culmination of a process of death by a thousand cuts—confiscation of Palestinian farmland; the stealing of water resources; checkpoints that humiliate and choke the daily business of making a living and transporting the sick; destruction of olive trees, etc. etc.

Nevertheless this was a play that does an excellent job of recounting how self-righteousness can lead to disaster.”

* * *

Quite on the other hand, we’ve had painful feedback from some of our friends in the orthodox Jewish community of greater Washington, DC. From a Tuesday evening discussion during previews, we heard respectful and still acute criticisms of this play’s “anti-settler agenda.” While there was agreement that everyone in the Jewish community should “face the tough questions about our being in the West Bank and our relationship with our Arab neighbors,” and that we must recongize that “of course there are Jews who are terrorists, and Arabs who are not;” there was this essential reservation about our production (and I quote from a heart-felt email received from the husband of a colleague and friend):

“Someone watching this play gets no sense of a committed Orthodox Jewish settler who does not believe in killing people to accomplish their goals, or who is someone with his head in the clouds, and unstable enough to commit suicide in the presence of his family he supposedly loves, like Shmuel. The notion of giving back land for peace is something that of course has been debated on religious terms (which is what the issue is in this play, since the characters supposedly do what they do based on religious beliefs), and while not agreed to by everybody, there is a very strong notion that land could be given back for a TRUE peace. This is the kind of conflict that is more real than whether or not it’s OK to kill Arab civillians in the name of keeping the West Bank. That question has a clear “no” answer to most people and is not a matter of debate or internal struggle.”

This contention is entirely valid. In the Berger family, we find not a typical settler family at all but a very particular one; a family that welcomes back a son-in-law who’s spent three years in prison for killing ten Palestinians in an act of Jewish terrorism. The play raises a legitimate question for all of us: How do we root out the malignant strains of violence from within our midst? And how responsible are we for the blind abetting of that violent strain?

Nevertheless, the pained reactions of our religious friends are heard by our theater. We know that families in our community have family members on the West Bank. We heard how the community gathered to sit shiva last year with the family of one of the young Maryland olim killed in the Territories, victim of an act of Arab terrorism. In making outreach to that same Orthodox community to come and see our play, we’re asking members of that suffering community to see a play about a family that suffers because of a terrorist, but that terrorist is not a Palestinian; it’s a Jewish terrorist. How painfully ironic is that to watch for the bereaved among us?

I think there’s a general recongition amongst our rather diverse audience on any given night that the issues raised by this play are among the most painful that can be uttered in a theater. Racism and revenege co-mingle to create an incredibly charged dialogue.

And that, of course, is one of the reasons why this play is so arresting.

And with that, I begin to pack for Australia…