This email is in response to the “Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art” (COPMA) letter attacking Theater J. The reaction of some in our community to Obama’s Middle East speech suggests that we need Theater J now more than ever.
It saddened me to see the COPMA letter. It is yet another example of the closed-minded fear to which our community is vulnerable. I write as as someone who was mentioned in the letter along with all the other panelists who participated in post-show discussions after the play, “Return to Haifa,” and as someone who has always been proud of my Jewish heritage. An active member of my synagogue, I have long been involved in the greater Jewish community, working as far back as the early 1980s for the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee, and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. I am also raising my children to be proud that they are Jewish and over the past several years our family has celebrated both our sons becoming bar mitzvah.
Those who wrote the letter think they are helping Israel and the Jewish people. The opposite is true. They are hurting the prospects for a peaceful, 2-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and trampling on the values that define us as a people.
Theater J, with you as its courageous and creative artistic director, advances prospects for peace and understanding through the Voices from a Changing Middle East series of performances and after-show discussions. Is it anti-Israel to bring to a U.S. Jewish community stage the work of an Israeli artist, like the playwright who adapted, with some significant modifications from the Palestinian novella, “Return to Haifa” ? Is it anti-Israel and anti-Semitic to be open and honest? This play explores difficult issues for both Israelis and Palestinians. Some Israelis and American Jews may not want to hear that Israel has faults and that there were Jewish actions in 1948 that terrorized Palestinians and forced many of them to flee. And some Palestinians may not want to hear that Jews, like the holocaust survivors portrayed in the play, are unwilling to abandon the dream of a Jewish state.
The only way forward is to understand that the people on the other side are human beings who want the same things we do – a good life for themselves and their children. Demonizing them as a monolithic force bent on our destruction gets us nowhere. When we label another group as the cause of all that is wrong, we box ourselves into a corner by creating a circular argument and a self-fulfilling prophesy. If, for example, we say we don’t have a partner for peace because Palestinians and other Arabs are by definition our enemies, then we will, indeed, never have a partner for peace because we will never be able to see them any other way, no matter what they do. Such intransigence breeds more of the same in those we characterize as incapable of change. Hardened hearts mirror each other and create a vicious cycle. This is the COPMA approach.
It ignores a more nunaced reality that offers opportunities for peace. I personally know many Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, who advocate nonviolence and are working with others here and in the region for a negotiated, sustainable resolution to the conflict for both peoples. Their Israeli counterparts include former heads of the Shin Bet and the Mossad, former military leaders and diplomats, and the son and daughter of slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Only when both sides open up can they move out of conflict. Theater J’s plays and post-show discussions – and I have been to many – facilitate this desparately needed openness by creating a safe space for listening, learning, and growing. It is not just Jews who listen and grow, but the Palestinian participants, too. They are challenged by a range of perspectives, including seeing Zionism through Jewish eyes. They see how emotionally connected many Jews are to Israel, how torn many of us feel over what is happening there, and how honestly we are willing to examine it and ourselves. Such candor encourages them to explore their own preconceptions.
This is not bashing Israel. This is asking questions and wrestling with it. This is what Jews do.
Whether at the seder table or the kitchen table on all other nights of the year, my grandfather, may he rest in peace, always taught me to ask questions, to try and see all sides of an argument, and to seek justice and pursue it. And he taught me never to see others as less than ourselves, for we, too, were once, and for many centuries have been, outcasts in a foreign land. This, he would tell me in his slight Yiddish accent, as he sat in his Bronx apartment under a painting of rabbis davening in their tallis and tfellin, is our heritage. These are the values that have sustained our people. Your work, Ari, and Theater J epitomize them.