A Very Different Letter from an Israeli – Living Here

(from Udi Pladott, an Israeli living in Georgetown by way of Richmond, VA, who attended our first preview on January 15, and now has been been back for several additional post-show discussions and last Saturday night’s Peace Cafe. This first note is written in the hours just after preview #1)

Hi Sinai,

First of all – as I said last night, I felt that your production was very successful; not only in that it was as moving and painful as the original novella, but also on its own, as piece of substantive theater. I was completely riveted to the characters and their respective dramas. Like other people in the audience, I also felt that this story is not served well by any amount of humor, but I also thought that this issue was given more weight than it merited in the post-show discussion. The humor was not what I felt was troubling in the play.

The departure from the original novella was not a neutral one; it was very clearly an injection of the Jewish national holocaust tragedy onto the stage alongside the Palestinian national tragedy. The Palestinian woman (Amal?) who spoke after the show mentioned how we appropriate everything, like making hummus our national food; but there is something more insidious here than claiming hummus as our own. In your production, the story turned from one about Said to one about Miriam, and one of the most compelling characters in your play, is Froike, who was not even present in the original novella. Your dramatic choices with respect to the original are making the statement that the Palestinian tragedy cannot be recognized and acknowledged unless it is juxtaposed with our own tragedy. I completely respect what you told me after the show – that there is a great achievement in this production in presenting the Palestinian tragedy to Israeli/Jewish audiences in any way; and still, I feel that – on balance – the price that you paid for this breakthrough may have been too high.

This brings me to my main concern, which was highlighted and reinforced by the Shaliach Anton’s closing remark in the discussion. He was there last night to contextualize your work for the American audience, and the context of choice was that Israel as an open and democratic society with completely free speech.

By having the Cameri stage Ghasan Kanafani’s “Return to Haifa”, Israel can proudly strut its fig leaf of democracy. That, I think, is the real moral stumbling block for your production. By presenting this very important piece in this particular, institutionally-endorsed, context, you contribute to the greater “Hasbara” [or Israeli propaganda] effort, which is directly targeted at undermining real criticism and real struggles for justice in Israel/Palestine. Keep in mind that I’m not just talking about the perception of Israel in the eyes of foreign audiences. Those very same Israeli audiences, who will for the first time hear the Palestinian story in your production, will come out of it feeling that they live in a pretty nice little country, where dissenting views are openly aired and tolerated – even celebrated on stage. These are probably not Israeli right-wingers (they will not see your show, will they?), but rather the Israeli liberals, the so-called new “National Left”: they will go to see the show and feel cleansed, and vindicated. It serves them with a dose of bitter guilt mixed up the familiar flavor of the founding story of the state of Israel, and the resulting cocktail is one that leaves the drinker feeling that the status quo may not be perfect, but it still makes sense; they can leave the theater with their a-priori world view intact. The message is in line with Anton’s “Israel is not the ‘brutal oppressor’ because of the tragedy of 1948”; it frames historical crimes as “mistakes”, and diverts one’s attention from the fact that the same ideology and policies that drove the atrocities of 1948 are still driving the Israeli side of the conflict today.

You mentioned last night that Israeli society has an easier time debating the contemporary military actions than merely acknowledging any wrong-doing in its founding years. I think part of the bitter pill for the national psyche would be the understanding that very little has really changed at the core of our side of the conflict; recognizing that “Cast-Lead” is a direct descendant of Sabra & Shatila, Kfar Kasem and Dir-Yasin is more than we are willing to admit. I think that packaging the Nakba with the Holocaust helps keep them bound up in the horrors of the distant past, while they are both still very relevant today, though in very different ways.

I want to reiterate that I very much respect your work, and the stand that you are taking; I do not mean to attack you or your work, or to undermine what you are trying to do; I just want to share how I feel it plays a role in the greater political arena.

I hope that my personal perspective is in any way valuable, and I hope this can start a fruitful conversation. I believe Shari and I will come by to listen to one or more of the post-show talks. I hope to see you then.

Udi

p.s.  I think my backlash was also probably influenced by my current reading: Chris Hedges’ “Death of the Liberal Class”. It chronicles the dismantling of the American “liberal class” (the Democratic party, academia, free press, labor-unions, liberal clergy and the arts) and its co-opting by the corporate power structure over the course of the 20th century. It’s a captivating and painful read, and he devotes some time to discussing the demise of political theater in particular and political art in general. It is deliberately un-objective, I think, and I whole-heartedly recommend it.

* * *

(we don’t have the translated version of Sinai’s response, written in Hebrew, to Udi’s email, but we do have Udi’s translated response) Dear Sinai,

I took to heart closing comment in your email, and I am sure that there’s a great deal of truth to it. I also think that the turning point between those two commenters – Friday night’s Udi and today’s Udi – was the Shaliach’s closing comment at the end of the post-show discussion. With a single utterance, he took your play – which was heartfelt, and challenging, and provoked shock as well as pride – and turned it into a fig leaf. While you were embarrassed at the flag-waiving, I was angered and outraged. That is why I turned to you from my seat at that very moment and called you – cried for you – to respond to his comment. Because this play is too important to be left in the hands of the Hasbara [propaganda] machine.

It was not my intention to outrage. I definitely did not try to argue that there’s no point in creating art in Israel, or its distribution abroad. I feel the exact opposite – that artists like you and Boaz (and Grossman and Folman) are the last line of defense that’s keeping Israeli society sane and guarding against out-of-control nationalism. I was not trying to argue for an all-or-nothing approach, but rather for a re-evaluation of the delicate point of balance you chose. Just like you choose the level of humor that you weave into the text, you can – as artists – choose the the different proportions for the two national perspectives. For example, there was one line in particular that struck me: “A child with no parents for parents with no child,” but I felt that its full meaning may have been lost on many in the audience. Kanafani included the Holocaust, but you augmented Froike, and diminished Sa’id. It is not fidelity or strict adherence to the original text that I am arguing for; I understand and appreciate the role and meaning of a literary and dramatic adaptation. But I think that an adaptation bears a burden that an original play does not: the obligation to interact with the original text and its various payloads. That dialogue with the original text carries its own meaning. It is completely understandable that Miriam is closer to Boaz’s desk (as she is to my ears), and maybe it is because of that closeness that I felt uncomfortable with her being the central character in the adaptation, as opposed to Sa’id, who was central in the original.

In any case, I may be wrong. I have been living here abroad for over 9 years and I see from this distance (and up close, when I visit) a country that’s becoming more and more violent and alien to me. The constant drifting of the values-discourse in Israel to the “right” may have simply pushed me to fortify myself increasingly to the “left”. One crucial piece of evidence that may prove me wrong about the role your play has in that discourse is the woman in the audience in the post-show discussion – that mother of two soldiers who refuses to let her sons watch the play until after they have completed their IDF service.

I greatly appreciate you taking the time to respond to my thoughts. This conversation is very important to me, both the one in the private sphere, as well as in the public sphere.

Lehitra’ot soon,

Udi