Staging Dialogue at Theater J: Negotiating Israeli Politics in Jewish Communal Encounters (Part 1)

Staging Dialogue at Theater J:
Negotiating Israeli Politics in Jewish Communal Encounters

An academic paper by Elliot Leffler
University of Minnesota · Class of 2014 · PhD in Theatre
May, 2011

On the night of March 25, 2009, crowds gathered both inside and outside the 16th Street Jewish Community Center in Washington, DC. Inside, people assembled in the 240-seat proscenium theatre for the staged reading of a new Caryl Churchill play and the community dialogue to follow. The play, entitled Seven Jewish Children, was Caryl Churchill’s response to Operation Cast Lead, the “Gaza War” that had concluded only about two months earlier. It had already stirred controversy throughout the blogosphere, as critics called it an anti-Semitic “blood libel” (Goldberg) and enthusiasts praised it as “beautiful, dense, elusive and productively provocative” (Kushner and Solomon). Theater J, the professional theater company at the Washington DCJCC devoted to “celebrating . . . the Jewish cultural legacy,” was presenting the staged reading, in addition to several artistic responses to the play, in order to catalyze a community dialogue about the issues that the play addresses (“About Theater J”). Meanwhile, outside the theatre, right-wing Jewish protesters gathered with large placards calling for Theater J’s Artistic Director, Ari Roth, to be fired.

It was neither the first time, nor would it be the last, that Theater J’s Israel-related programming would invite controversy. About two years earlier, Theater J had produced Pangs of the Messiah, a play by Jewish-Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, imagining a time in the near future when Israeli soldiers might remove right-wing Israeli settlers from their homes in the West Bank. Supporters praised the way that this “riveting performance” challenged its audiences “to confront and revisit critical questions of leadership, family loyalty, and fundamentalism,” while critics argued that it presented the Israeli settlers unfairly, without providing any insight to the historical, religious, or economic reasons that might legitimately motivate people to live in that area (Roth 2007). About two years after Seven Jewish Children, in January 2011, Theater J would once again spark controversy with its production of Return to Haifa, an adaptation of Ghassan Kanafani’s iconic Palestinian novella Returning to Haifa. The Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv had produced this play several years earlier, in a Hebrew adaptation by Jewish-Israeli playwright Boaz Gaon; now, Theater J hosted the Cameri to reprise its production (with a few changes) at its DC venue. In post-show discussions and blogged conversations, audience members discussed their understandings of Israeli and Palestinian history(ies), the pride and shame that Israel’s actions – historical and contemporary – have evoked, their concerns for Israel’s future, their sympathy (or, sometimes, lack thereof) for Palestinians, their hopes for the future of the region, and their frustrations with each other. Enthusiasts welcomed the project as a “conduit for peace and compassion” (Marks 2011), though critics charged Theater J of “promoting the Palestinian narrative at the expense of factual Israeli history,” and of downplaying the tragedy of the Holocaust (Samet 4).

These controversies have high stakes. Theater J is unique among American Jewish theatre companies in catalyzing political controversy as often as it does; patrons have rewarded the theatre at the box office for doing so, and critics have rewarded it in their newspaper columns, but detractors, too, have mobilized (Traiger np, Marks 2011 np, Roth 2011b np). The group of protestors that gathered outside the theatre in March 2009 have continued to organize under the name COPMA (Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art) and to pressure the Washington, DC Jewish Federation (a clearinghouse for Jewish charities) to cease funding any organizations that “denigrate Israel or undermine its legitimacy” (Samet 1). As the Federation took up this issue, it inspired many – across the country and indeed across the Jewish world – to consider how the American Jewish community ought to position itself in relationship to Israel. To what extent must we American Jews close ranks behind the policies of the Jewish state? Can the American Jewish communal treasury support an active questioning of Israeli policy? Is critique tantamount to treason? The dialogue has ricocheted around the national and international public sphere, eliciting coverage and commentary in The Forward, The Washington Jewish Week, The Washington Post, The American Thinker, and the Jerusalem Post – not to mention Theater J’s own blog.

Ultimately, in a recent (April 2011) decision, the Federation presented its ambivalent – some might say ambiguous – response. In a statement that implicitly supported the right of Theater J (and similar organizations) to raise concerns about Israel’s policies, it clarified that the Jewish Federation values “freedom of expression, robust dialogue, and diversity of opinion.” Yet, in an explicit statement that draws some institutional red lines, they added, “We will not support, assist or fund any organization that encourages boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel in pursuit of goals to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish State” (“Statement in Support of Israel” np).

It’s a small victory for Theater J. The Federation’s red lines around boycotts, disinvestments, and sanctions should cause them little fear (as they in fact actively nurture relationships with Israeli artists), yet the ambivalent stance underscores just how controversial their dialogue remains. “We’ve just finished a chapter in this controversy,” Ari Roth explained to me in an interview, signifying that other chapters remain to be written. “There are expressed words coming from Federation saying ‘we don’t want to hear about this anymore,’” he said, looking up at me with an expression that conveyed both empathy for the Federation and staunch commitment to his theatre’s programming. “And they’re gonna hear about it some more” (Roth 2011a np).

This paper examines the role of Theater J in catalyzing this Jewish-American communal dialogue about Israel through the plays it presents and the ways it solicits audience response. I begin by providing a historical context, tracing the portrayal of Israel within the Jewish-American theatre throughout the past six decades. In doing so, I investigate the ways in which Theater J’s programming choices seem consistent with, and mark a slight departure from, the trends of Jewish-American theatre history. I then turn to the Theater J blog, which I treat as an archive of the conversations that the plays provoked. Through a close reading of these posts, I argue that these events enable audience members to articulate differences of opinion that they hold, and by so doing, they open up a unique space to consider the internal divisions that we in the Jewish community rarely address. I suggest, in the conclusion, that Theater J is not deligitimizing Israel, as its critics suggest, but that it is doing something quite unusual: it is catalyzing a multivocal conversation about Israeli politics, in which American Jews of differing perspectives challenge each other to refine and reconsider their views.

(to be continued…)