As HAIFA Closes and We Revel in its Success, We Return To The Panels and Unfinished Business

Israeli “shaliach” and Israel Engager Anton Goodman is a new friend, both personally and of our theater. He said some important things as the first respondent to the Cameri’s RETURN TO HAIFA performance following the January 15 first preview. But as the talk-back went on, some in the audience grew more more critical of some of Anton’s remarks. And they said as much, on the blog. Anton responds here.

In my closing remarks in the first talkback to Return to Haifa I contextualized the play as not only opening a raw wound in our history but also celebrating the freedom of speech in Israel. I have found the immediate and subsequent pushback to this comment interesting and would like to share my thoughts and respond to the detractors.

The State of Israel is a complex entity; sweeping generalizations and national branding just don’t work. A good example of this is the production of Return to Haifa in DC. The play opens raw wounds in Israeli history, coloring us as the oppressor and the oppressed at the same time. It challenges the classical 1950-80’s Zionist approach to the War of Independence and could be seen as undermining our National legitimacy, yet the play’s visit was sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of Israel; and the Jewish Agency of Israel was proud to work with the production. If Return to Haifa is some kind of underground “Green Revolution” against the establishment, then why is the establishment supporting it?

The Cameri and Sinai Peter may revel in Udi’s description of them as “the last line of defense that’s keeping Israeli society sane” but they are hardly an institution under fire. Udi mentions Folman and Grossman in this last line of defense with the Cameri, this is also apt, David Grossman being one of the top selling authors in Israel and Waltz with Bashir being one of the highest grossing films. These are the kind of facts which make Udi’s claim that Israel has only “a fig leaf of democracy” unpalatable. While I do not wish to be judged by the standards of the rest of the Middle East I do suggest that a look, even a glance, at what is currently going on in Egypt gives us a better understanding of what a fig leaf democracy looks like.

In fact, this attempt to brand Israel as a rogue abuser of human rights, plays directly into the hands of the far-left in Israel who adorably want to be seen as renegade liberals standing up against the big brother regime. Boaz Gaon calls to understand that we are all human, Israelis & Palestinians, and we are much closer to each other than we are willing to admit… While there is some value to this shallowness (at least it isn’t negative) I applaud the Palestinian Professor who stood up enraged at Boaz and Sinai for Zionizing and Judaizing her narrative. She said that the Israel has stolen Palestinian land, food and now this we have stolen Kanafani’s text. I couldn’t agree with her more. Return to Haifa showcases an attempt to infuse the Palestinian narrative with the Zionist, and I applaud it, but don’t think that this is any different to more mainstream Zionist works. It is a different flavor of a Jewish Israeli approach to the legitimacy debate. The Palestinian Professor objected to the play as it gives legitimacy (albeit subtextually) to the Jewish State. This might be a post-Zionist work, but post-Zionism uses Zionism as its starting point.

While Udi presents himself as some kind of North Korean dissident, fighting the regime from afar, the truth is that his voice would be worth much more in the State of Israel than it is out. It is not just Israeli culture which alters in essence while in transit to the US, also the criticism of Israelis. To stand up for what you believe in and where you want your nation to go is patriotic and sometimes heroic, to do this while no longer a member of that society is defeatist and condescending.

I will not apologize for my patriotism or my Zionism and neither will I be categorized as intellectually dishonest. I love my country because she is beautiful and ugly, wonderful and terrible, liberating and oppressing – and most of all because we have a self-awareness of our faults. I believe in a Jewish State living peacefully, even collaboratively, amongst a sea of Arab States. I believe in a Jewish State that treats her minorities as brothers and sisters, and as integral partners in the Jewish character of the State. I believe that this is a long, frustrating, dangerous, uplifting, sometimes contradictory but always life-enhancing journey, and it is my privilege to be a part of it.

One thought on “As HAIFA Closes and We Revel in its Success, We Return To The Panels and Unfinished Business

  1. I was fortunate to see Kanafani’s “Return to Haifa” and more recently Brown’s “Promise” in this series of “Changing Middle East Festival: Portraits of Home”.

    I have comments both on the plays and on the discussion format.

    Based on my experience and that of some of the blog posters, I come away feeling that the most personally dramatic part of the experience was not the plays – but the group discussion afterward. This is problematic to me.

    I wonder if for formal discussions in future festivals, with such experienced and committed panelists and audience, there could be a trained moderator or a clear announcement at the start of the aims or rules for discussion. For example, in the format and dynamics for the discussions I participated in after the show “Return to Haifa”: the title for the panel discussion was “dual narrative,” yet, as I was trying to point out, compelling narratives generally involve conflict, while our discussion supposedly sought reduction in conflict, or peace. (I also understand that we were filmed, without it being clear how the film would be used, and without anyone of us in the audience reading or signing any waiver. There was some oral announcement about it, but I couldn’t hear it.)

    “Return to Haifa”: I wonder if, instead of arguing about dual narratives, we could envision and debate about the two alternative future societies. Would it be good or bad for Israelis or Jews to visit a West Bank or Palestinian house and argue about it there (reversing what we watched in the play)? How should the peoples live together? I am a Zionist because Israel is the only country where Hanukah and Passover could be national holidays. It is the only country where there is a majority Jewish population. So my sense of the Jewish state’s essential value, unlike the play’s argument, relates only indirectly to the Holocaust. My own opinion is that the main purpose of a Palestinian state as part of a peaceful two-state solution would be to provide self-determination and a decent life for Arabs already living on the land, not necessarily to allow tens of thousands of Arabs to “return” to Israel. One participant in the audience lamented that there was no stand-alone Palestinian narrative offered, as if the theater were responsible for offering it. Locally, my vision of the future would be for an Islamic Center in Washington, or similar venue, to present a play about the Mideast in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, as even-handed as some of Theater J’s efforts (perhaps a “Palestinian narrative,” or perhaps Lessing’s “Nathan the Wise”) and make it a production comfortable for Jews to attend.

    “The Promise”: About this play on the Balfour Declaration, several in the audience commented that they could not connect with the characters. I think it fitting to consider “Fiddler on the Roof,” another play that references pogroms and concludes with a character leaving for Palestine, and think of why that play works better. Some also observed that the most emotionally poignant part of the story – the relation between young husband and wife and the romantic triangles including the Prime Minister – seemed to have almost nothing to do with the play’s supposed subject, the creation of the Jewish homeland. I was favorably impressed at how much director and actors could accomplish in such a short time: blocking on the stage and memorization of lines. And it occurred to me that the title of the play, “promise,” refers not only to the British promise to the Jews, but the husband and wife’s promise to each other. Thus the final departure of the husband, the ambiguous parentage of the little girl (like the contested parentage in Kanafani’s play), all give an eerie new light to the playwright Brown’s interpretation of British commitment to the early Zionist project. And the wife, staying in Britain to tend to and build the new house, reminded me of the parents and the old, contested house in “Return to Haifa”.

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