Panel Coordinator’s Reflections

We’ve been blessed on this production to have been fortified and galvanized by the efforts and energies of Theater J Council member Stephen Stern, a Producing Angel on RETURN TO HAIFA, who has additionally donated hundreds of hours as a programmer to help us create these 15 panel discussions to complement the run of the Cameri Theatre’s production. Stephen’s served as a frequent moderator as well and now he shares some ruminations on the panels and the run thus far. We thank him and his wife Margaret Hahn-Stern, from the bottom of our hearts for all they’ve done to make the Cameri residency a memorable one. And we’re so very mindful of their honoring the memory of Stephen’s father, Saul Stern, who passed away earlier this season and in whose memory these panel discussions are being presented.

I often speak of having seen Return to Haifa at the Cameri in Tel Aviv two years ago — with three Israeli cousins who in six decades experienced every unhinging aspect of the “matzav” (the situation or conflict).  The Cameri audience (like the nation) was largely Jewish, but also made up of dozens and dozens of (maybe twenty percent) Palestinian Israeli Arabs.  The stage darkened on a tableau of multiple parents surrounding a found and lost man/child – bewildered and torn.  The audience sat silently, sighed, and then we burst into thunderous applause for the emotional, artistic experience – for the recognition at that immediate moment — of the fractured human hearts we shared.

One cousin turned to me and said, “there it is, right there in front of us, the tragedy of the two peoples.”  I had sat with this same cousin seven Pesachs earlier, at her seder table in Holon with four generations of family, as news of the Park Hotel Pesach massacre in Netanya reached us (her son’s reserve unit was sent to Ramallah the next day).  The very same Park Hotel seder, annually attended by the widow of the man who saved my cousin’s seemingly orphaned husband from the post-Holocaust DP camps and brought him to his kibbutz. Thankfully, she had gone with other family for seder in 2002.
Really, there are far more than two “narratives” in intimate embrace in the play — and in the tragic/heroic totally unhinging interplay of a century or more of conflict between the Mediterranean and the Jordan.  I had done my reading beforehand and after visiting the Cameri said to my friends Sinai and Ari, it needs to come to Theater J.  I am proud (in the memory of an exemplar of civic engagement, my late father Saul Stern) to play a major role in putting together and participating in the post-show discussions.
I do so from a core Zionist commitment that the founding of the State of Israel was about rescue, its founding is indeed the “dawn of redemption” of the Jewish people, civilization, and nation.  But fulfillment in the glorious light of day must derive from the true genius of Zionist acceptance of partition – humble, difficult and dangerous implementation of two sovereign states for two peoples between the river and the sea. And requiring reciprocal steps by the often defeated, and often demoralized Palestinian national movement, that yet rises up time and time again in ways to me both hopeful and terrifying. There are facts and desires and disputed pieces of historical truth that those whose passion lies in that place all carry.  In order for me to assert my connection to — and belief in  — Israel to Palestinians, I must look them in the eye and understand the sense of dispossession and disinheritance they feel in their hearts and minds and in their daily lives.  To feel how unhinging it is to them to know that the land must be divided with another people with claims they dispute, but who along with them are there to stay.

I engage through the path of Jewish public introspection, directly and openly sharing it with all who come to Theater J. I believe it is inspired by the heart and soul of Israeli culture and discussion. To share it with Americans, Jews or any community with which we engage (even in some enmity) full-throatedly, no holding back — is to me demonstrably the most powerful tool against delegitimization of the State and existential threats.  But here I stray into the weeds of certainty of mind, of advocacy – when it is the fractured heart that this adaptation speaks to most eloquently and I think most usefully.
The humanistic genius of Kanafani was deepened for us by Georgetown professor Elliot Colla at the Tuesday the 25th post-show discussion.  Kanafani wrote in 1969 as a proponent of armed struggle against Israel in the wake of the humiliating military and moral defeats for Palestinians and the Arab world of 1948, and the novella ends with a call to arms.  But it is a call to arms set against a brilliant Palestinian introspection – he examines a “returning” a process not a conclusive act of return — a painstaking moral examination of pain, loss, connection, and Palestinian moral and national questioning.  He presents a vision of Haifa history of sudden overwhelming attack leading to the loss a child – but also an encounter with the pain and loss of the Holocaust survivor Miriam – the beginnings of a reckoning with the stories, with the life of the Other.
Many Palestinians and Arabs who have come see this play can scarcely give any credit to the achievements of Israeli society or democracy.  Many of them see the State almost exclusively as an instrument of pain and dispossession of Palestinians.  And this is where fractured hearts and certain minds have great difficulty in hearing the other.  Others reach out, make strong Palestinian and national claims – keeping alive the peoplehood of their diaspora with those who have stayed on the land.  But they are in active struggle (with themselves, with us) to come to terms with the other people with claims, who exercise the only fully sovereign (though mightily contested) rule between sea and river.  These Palestinians recognize the achievement of the heart of Boaz Gaon the Israeli adapter, who 40 years on wrote within his own Israel of Jews and Arabs – a rendering that aspired to listen to Kanafani’s passionate claims but present them from his Israeli perspective,  in our times.  I am troubled by and respect Palestinian anguish as they speak of feeling their modern classic novella –presented on the Cameri and our stage – as  being one more possession appropriated – rather than the inclusive interpretation for our times that seems to me Boaz’ intent.
But Boaz’ genius is the opening of hearts, not the resolution of the counterclaims of fact and history.   Those are the trade all too often of zero sum game opponents — who truck in exclusivist claims. Although those claims reverberate in both Kanafani’s novella  and Gaon’s adaptation, the achievement in both is in grounding them in the human capacity for empathy, amidst the rage and confusion.   I am gratified when our Palestinian-American friend Jamal (on last Tuesday’s panel which I moderated) thanks a “Zionist Jew” for a new opportunity to encounter Kanafani. And I listen as he acknowledges the importance of the play, for only an Israeli audience – and with passion tells of his own peoples’ travails and claims of injustice.  But even more gratified when he returns for a second time, and say my God, this speaks to Palestinian hearts and minds as well – and talks of the empathy flowing, moved by the meaning of Jewish victimhood as well.
Udi is an Israeli long time resident of the US who has attended many discussions and is on this blog with his anguish about Israeli denial of Palestinian suffering. Udi, don’t write off the engagement of those who count themselves as “defenders of Zion”, who praise Israeli democracy, in encountering the Palestinian narrative and its claims.   The schlichim (emissaries) of the Makom education branch of the Jewish Agency are about re-inventing the relationship of diaspora Jews and Israel – with full open-ness and I have worked usefully with them for years to enable just the kind of frank exchange about Israel you find missing.   You’ve deemed it aimed at subtly enabling the worst of hasbara (propaganda, entrenching one-sided claims and papering over offenses done to the other) – I feel it’s more on a deep path to Jewish and Israeli public introspection that I’ve advocated above.
I am troubled by exclusivist Israeli historical claims I’ve heard in some onstage discussion and from occasional outbursts in the audience, accusing us of putting lying history on stage.  I know they come from people whose accomplishment I do admire, people who do acknowledge the achievements in empathy of this play.  But I fear that here we lovers of Israel are unhinged.  It does not serve Israel to offer an imperious, defensive account of the eyewitness partial truths of a very young girl whcich are presented as definitive — case closed. For such proponents, the two days of April 1948 in which the vast majority of Haifa’s Arab population fled in panic is totally a product of Arab perfidy, agents with loudspeakers exhorting Arabs to leave while Arab armies came in and would slaughter the Jews when the British left, the Jews were heroically begging the Arabs to stay…etc.  Never mind that there is real historical research (and not just by left wing “New Historians” or Palestinian adversaries) and knowledge widely being debate and refined in Israel. Yes, there were preparations for coming war, Arab militias operating, some incitement of Arab populations.   But what of Jewish and Arab leadership negotiations, a jewel of past Haifa cooperation (not begging) that faltered under the preparations for war.  Of the British suddenly leaving weeks in advance of departure.  Of the superior Haganah organization seizing on this situation.  Military action from the high ground of Jewish neighborhoods.  Irgun and Haganah operating in Arab and mixed neighborhoods below.  Combat and routing of Arab militias throughout these neighborhoods and the center of the city – and the recent memory of Deir Yassin for Arabs (atrocities from the other side fueling Jewish determination).  Sudden all out war, neighborhoods caught between the high ground, and the sea – and the ensuing panic and flight, real death and loss of civilians, and the human waves funneled inevitably to the sea and evacuation.  This is the real stuff of historical debate active in all circles in Israel.  This discussion, correct me where I’m wrong, add real knowledge to historical interpretation of claims and blames — is alive and well in Israeli historiography.
But Return to Haifa is not an occasion to sort out all historical and political claims.  It is deeply truthful art that opens fractured hearts to the fractured hearts of the Other.  I have seen on several occasions the effusive, entrepreneurial Noam Semel, introduce each of the cast of Return of Haifa, and tell something about  them and ask them to share a bit of their stories.  The thrilling mosaic of Arab and Jewish Israel is there before you – a vibrant, thriving creative State, that is deeply shadowed by what remains unresolved on the ground, and in hearts and minds.  Each night before I participate in or witness the post-show discussion, I at least witness the last 10 minutes of this production.  From Said’s final speech of defiance that ends the novella through the elegiac coda of mothers and fathers and boy who sleeps at their feet.  My heart is stirred and I am exhilarated each night with sorrow and with hope