An “Inside Look” at an Artistic Director’s Roundtable

Written by Stephen Stern

I met Ari Roth in the mid-90s when Arena Stage was producing his BORN GUIILTY and my wife Margaret (now Assistant Exec. at the Washington DCJCC) worked in Arena’s Literary Department. I am proud to have played a role in bringing him to Theater J and working with him on many things — especially his vision of exploring Israel and the Middle East with such colleagues and friends as Motti Lerner and Sinai Peter whom I’m been privileged to get to know here and in Israel. What follows is a somewhat irreverent “inside look” at an Artistic Director’s Roundtable discussion I put together for Ari and the theater. Every thing in quotes is actually a paraphrase from my fragmented notes, or my fevered imaginings.

Sunday July 1, as I am bringing up the panelists to introduce and start the post-show Artistic Director’s Roundtable, Jeffrey Goldberg (our moderator, New Yorker writer, extremely talented, well-versed in the Middle East, and a bit of a scheme ), pulls me aside and whispers, “Stephen, you told me it was a comedy… No, really Ron (Dermer, our observant Orthodox, American-born Israel Embassy economics counselor) is totally upset with the characterization of the settlers.”. “Jeff, I talked to him yesterday, he said the writing was powerful, but he would raise some sharp disagreements, but that’s OK.” “No, Stephen I know you want me to start with the play, but I am going to go right for the conflict – ask him right off if it’s outrageous politically and personally in its characterization of the settlers:” “OK Jeff, I wish you’d start with the characters and their dilemmas, maybe not so right in Ron’s face first thing– and you’ll get to the rest, but it’s your show now.”

So Ron absorbs the question and starts with a gracious thank you to actors and creative team for a gripping play and production – and then… “if this were 1986 when the play was first written, I could argue straightforwardly how wrong it is politically – but let’s look at this update “2012”, and starting back from 2000 and ongoing and see that it’s an even worse statement – from 2000, we had several years of unprecedented salvos of terror attacks on civilians, Sharon re-elected in 2003 by ridiculing his Labor opponent’s call for Gaza withdrawal, nine months later he announces disengagement and betrays the settlers – and not in return peace treaty (unlike in the show) he pulls out unilaterally for nothing but more terror – the settlers engage in democratic civil disobedience and are largely “a model of restraint”, which I think then and now is a central fact of settler leadership, while on the Palestinian side there is no fundamental acknowledgment of the Jewish right to statehood on whatever sliver of land.

Jeff, “Now, Ron, Gaza is not the West Bank in Jewish eyes and that’s a rather too benign view of settler actions and leadership. Of Ghaith ( Ghaith-al-Omari; Abu Mazen foreign policy advisor until 2006; Palestinian lead drafter of Geneva initiative, Jeff asks is there a Motti Lerner vision on extremism, a “peace movement” on the Palestinian side culturally or politically). From Ghaith “look we are in situation today where extremism wins, but there are some possibilities of clarity; it’s complicated, not enough self-criticism on Palestinian side – but actually politically quite a bit — culturally there is something like the film “Paradise Now” that looks at sources and costs of terror. We are in a dangerous situation of disintegration and absence of leadership. It’s either internal responsibility on all sides and back to a two state solution or more unimaginable disintegration threatening Israel, ourselves, and the whole region.”

Andy Shallal (our Iraqi-American Peace Café partner) after an exchange with Jeff on the comparative sturdiness of Iraqi and Jewish humor as a response to pain and despair , “as I watch I am writing in my head the play taking place down in the wadi within a Hamas family. The tragedy is that the narratives go forward with no reference to each other or the other’s narrative — with the coming of “the wall:, the Arabs and Jews become more and more invisible to each other. Jeffrey remembers his time during first intifada as an IDF guard of a Shomron settlement and asking a settler woman, “what’s the name of that Arab village 300 yards away”, and it was as if he’d asked her for a recommendation for a restaurant in Katmandu, she had no idea.

Ron goes further in stating his beliefs that no settler leader would be an enabler of the kind of actions seen in this play. “There is no moral equivalence here”. Baruch Goldstein was condemned by all of Israel. Why does Palestinian TV encourage five year olds to become shihads (e.g. Hamas appropriation of Mickey Mouse) even this very day?

Ghaith, “You’re trying to score debating points, (and it’s off TV) I want to talk about it differently.” And from Andy, “I see a mature, advanced society able to defend itself and develop, on the one hand… that is Israel. And on the other, a Palestinian society that has crumbled. We can’t just sit here and weigh each other’s pain. Dialogue starts with some extremes and then deepens.

Jeffrey then starts in on dueling questions about narratives – Do Jews have an historical right to live in the West Back, do Palestinians have a right to a state?

Ghaith, says there is a clear Jewish right to a Jewish state and Abu Mazen in the 2004 Aqaba speech (‘which I wrote”) clearly says so. Andy, “yes I recognize a Jewish majority state, but I think of the long future, maybe 2050, when the Arab Israelis have achieved full rights and have become a bridge to other Palestinians and Arab, then maybe there’ll be movement toward one state.” Ghaith, “fatigue on each side may be useful, maybe even the Gaza takeover is a clarifying – putting on notice leaderships in Israel and US and Palestinians and Tony Blair… Andy, “deepening dialogues can strengthen civil society structures that can be there when the time to implement peace is at hand.”

Ron, “the central obstacle is the ongoing Arab denial of Israeli right anywhere in any amount of space — when that kernel of right seeps into Palestinian society and takes hold, Israel will be ready to pay a heavy price for true peace. Arafat at Camp David even denied the existence of Jewish history on the Temple Mount”

Jeff, “having stated that you are both right, speaking ‘as a Palestinian’ for a moment, this is a people that experiences Israel not only through their TV screens but at checkpoints, disruptions of life and worse.”

In the Q&A, Ghaith says with Oslo we recognized the Jewish State, we made a 1995 security crackdown on Hamas, and what we in return was an ever more intense dose of settlements.

Jerome Segal (a long time “Jewish Peace Lobby” activist) cites the 1988 Declaration of Palestinian Independence, 5 years before Oslo, an acknowledgement of Israel and of rights of all the three great religions – and prods Ron, “but perhaps you are not aware of this.”

Ron Dermer, “I am fully aware, Arafat’s declaration was simply that Israel exists, not of its right to sovereignty. All the rights talk is fine, but was not recognition of a state.”

A questioner asks Andy to clarify – did you say in 2050, you envisioned a One State solution. Andy, “well, its’ even deeper than that. I look to a time when people don’t have to hide behind their own borders — actually it’s a One World solution.”

Jeff, “ah, so Andy, you are a neo-con” Then, Andy waxes lyrical on dialogue and building civil society infrastructure for cooperation. J.G. “ah, you are a neo-con and a poet!”

Norman Goldstein (Vice President of Jewish Federation for Israel and Overseas) asks “to each of you, if you were King for a Day, how would you put a solution in place?”

Ron, “I would link the peace process to democracy (having co-written a book on this subject with Natan Sharansky) – using outside leverage to work for democracy and help Palestinians build a democratic society”

Andy, “I would fire all the leaders and then lead” (or perhaps he said, then leave, I’m not sure from my notes… then either might work)

Ghaith, a simple piece of paper, two states, Clinton parameters, etc, etc, 30 seconds I’ll sign mine, you sign yours. If we wait, and do the good work only to build and democratize the next generation, it will be too late.

A final note first from Ron on economic development for Palestinians – an analysis that they need not to remain so dependent on government and governments for economic activity, though economics are only part of all that’s needed (Ghaith nodding his head the whole time). And Ghaith in closing, “it’s not so much the economics, it’s dignity in the broadest sense, we need freedom of movement and free markets, but we also need our state that allows us to have those.”

Some parting notes, Ron “thank you Stephen for inviting me. I liked the give and take. You remember I said that if I could sit with Ghaith for five minutes, we could solve the situation. You know they tell me he’s the Palestinian Sharansky.” Ghaith wished the day had been “less debatey”, and is looking to a show or two in the Voices from a Changing Middle East festival. Jeffrey and wife ran dutifully and rightfully home to be with their young children.

One postscript — over the next two days, I kept running into Ron Dermer around town. After introducing him to my father, I told Ron that I thought the energy and focus of this kind of give and take, however uncomfortable, was important and “good for Israel”. Ron replied the he’s a thorough (small d) democrat and strong artistic expression and discussion are vital, but as to the fate of Israel that was perhaps something else. At Theater J, I think we’re on to the kind of discussion that is needed among American Jews, with Israelis, and also with Palestinians and all those interested in a way forward to facing the Middle East and contributing to the future. I do think our dialogues, in their small way, are good for Israel, for the Palestine that will be, and for the growth here in Washington DC of awareness of our mutual humanity.

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