Staging Dialogue at Theater J (Part 3) – The Community Conversation About Israel Outside the Cultural Sphere

from Staging Dialogue at Theater J: Negotiating Israeli Politics in Jewish Communal Encounters  by Elliot Leffler, University of Minnesota

(the essay starts here, and continues with part 3 below)

The Current Conversation (Or Lack Thereof)

In a 2010 article in The New York Review of Books, Peter Beinart argues that the major institutions that shape public opinion in the American Jewish community have actively discouraged an open conversation about Israeli politics.  By “defending virtually anything any Israeli government does” and publicly discrediting the human rights group that critique government policy, organizations like American-Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League set a tone for Jewish-American rhetoric that elides critical thought and nuanced conversation.  They have created a dogma for the Jewish community of what it means to be pro-Israel – a dogma which allows for little dissent (Beinart np).

Inside the primary local institutions of Jewish life in the US – synagogues – Jewish communities often speak the tropes that are modeled by the national organizations, or elide the conversation entirely.   In part, this is because we think of the synagogue primarily as a space for prayer.  When we pray, we speak in unison, move in unison, and refer to ourselves in the first-person plural, nurturing a sense of one-ness or communitas.[1]

([1] “Communitas,” according to anthropologist Victor Turner, is a sense of invigorating, inspiring unity catalyzed by community ritual (Turner 1982 47-48).)

As we do so, we inherently discourage dissent.  (The same resistance happens at other ritual gatherings, in which the ritual event also promotes a sense of communitas: Shabbat dinners, Passover Seders, family reunions, etc.)  Moreover, the pro-Israel symbolism within synagogues (flags in the sanctuary, Israeli art in the lobby, prayers for the State of Israel, etc) enables us to avoid an explicit conversation of how we differ in our feelings about Israel.  These symbols preserve a sense of peace and cohesion in the congregation, as they allow members of a wide variety of ideological stances (left-wing Zionists and right-wing Zionists, for example) to adopt the same symbolism.  We foreground that which we have in common, and privately, we nuance those similarities in very different ways (Cohen 18).

Anthony Cohen suggests that this ability of community to contain discordance is its “great triumph.”  This allows community members to establish a commonality that need not amount to a uniformity (20).  But, if there is no opportunity for community members to discuss, challenge, and refine their ideas, then Zygmunt Bauman argues that community becomes an oppressive place, in which we sacrifice freedom (to think independently) on the altar of communal security (4-5). As I argued in the previous section of this paper, the individuals who comprise the American Jewish community feel an increasing need to discuss and to question Israeli policy.  The emergence of more and more explicitly political plays about Israel throughout the past three decades attests to that need.  But rather than developing this dialogue in institutions that might accommodate a range of opinions, the Jewish community has largely splintered into opposing publics: a right-wing public that circulates its ideas through AIPAC, the ADL, the magazine Commentary, and other institutions, and a left-wing counter-public that circulates its ideas through the NIF, Americans for Peace Now, J Street, and the magazine Tikkun. This bifurcation into separate public spheres has impoverished the Jewish communal dialogue, creating a dual set of dogmas rather than establishing a dynamic space of open conversation and questioning.[2]

([2] A public, according to Michael Warner, is a space of discourse that organizes itself around an uptake of texts and a circulation of responses to those texts.  For instance, the right-wing Jewish magazine Commentary has a readership that engages with each other, through Commentary (and perhaps also through press releases from the ADL, AIPAC, and other Jewish organizations).  This readership constitutes a public.  I’m suggesting that left-wing Jewish organizations and publications, such as Tikkun, have created a counter-public – a public with a subordinate power status that organizes itself in opposition to a dominant public (Warner 2002).  Thus, the discourse largely takes place in two separate spheres. )

Theater J’s programming suggests that perhaps theatre can succeed where other institutions have failed. Plays that express a political opinion – or a number of conflicting opinions – engage audiences in a version of the dialogue that generally seems elusive within the American Jewish community.  Daniele Klapproth argues, after Deborah Tannen, that the process of watching a play is cognitively an active process of narrative involvement: as audience members make sense out of the images and sounds that originate on stage, they participate in a joint interactional achievement with the performers.  They engage in a silent conversation on issues they have been unable to discuss at their synagogues or their other Jewish gatherings.  In producing plays like Pangs of the Messiah and Return to Haifa, and staging readings like Seven Jewish Children, Theater J stimulates this nonverbal “conversation” with its audiences.

Yet Theater J also goes a step further than this silent conversation.  It has structured its programming to include extensive post-show discussions after every production of controversial plays like Return to Haifa and every staged reading of plays like Seven Jewish Children.  The theatre then supplements these conversations, which often last an hour or longer, with periodic “Peace Café” programs in which patrons gather with drinks and snacks to discuss the issues further.  Afterwards, the interactive Theater J blog is available for a continued conversation.  Thus, audience members can extend the conversation – a conversation which began as a tacit but active cognitive interaction with the performers – into a verbal and written engagement with other members of the Washington, DC Jewish community. 

In his Washington Post review of the Seven Jewish Children reading, theatre critic Peter Marks writes about this political conversation with enthusiastic fascination.  He called the event a “watershed in the evolution of immediate dialogue between a political play and its audience,” and noted the “engaged, thoughtful crowd” that participated in that dialogue.    Perhaps most significantly, he wrote, “Listening to the sharp give-and-take became as integral to the experience, in fact, as listening to the eight fine actors seated around a table, reading from Churchill’s script and the scripts of two other playwrights” (Marks np).  This sentiment reflects the belief, developed by Nicolas Bourriaud, that one might assess a work of art not in terms of its aesthetics, but its relational aesthetics – the relationships and discourse that it catalyzes among the people who see it. Art is relational, Bourriaud argues: it exists not as an object, but as “an arena of exchange,” a “state of encounter” (105).  Its purpose is to catalyze a “social interstice” – a “space in human relations,” nestled among our everyday encounters, that gives us an opportunity to transcend the inherent limitations of those encounters (104).

I only personally attended one of these post-show discussions, so I cannot speak much from first-hand experience about the discourse that transpired.  But looking to the Theater J blog as an archive can accomplish two things: First, to the extent that bloggers reference the conversations that transpired, and continue conversations that began in that space, it can provide a sense of the “relational aesthetics” of these events.  Second, to the extent that the blog is used by bloggers who did not attend the events, and gravitate towards it as merely a venue for ideological debate, the blog can give us a sense of just how petty, arrogant, and angry the debate about Israeli politics can become when it is not anchored in these relational aesthetics.  In the section that follows, I will look to the blog to examine both of these phenomena.  First, I will examine one conversation on the blog that references and continues a dialogue that began during the post-show discussion after the first performance of Return to Haifa.  I look at this blogged conversation as a “metatext” – a term that Laura Edmondson uses to describe the secondary texts that people generate around the creation and performance of a theatrical production (Edmondson 2009).  My intention, in examining this blogged metatext, is to assess the relational aesthetics of the event – the way in which the event catalyzes relationships and initiates a conversation. Then, I will examine another conversation on the blog that took place after the staged reading of Seven Jewish Children.  This thread, dominated by bloggers who seem to have not attended the event, reveals how incredibly fraught the Israel-conversation can get when it goes online, unanchored by carefully-crafted relational aesthetics. It is, in some ways, the “negative space” of the conversation that Theater J is trying to cultivate, though it happens within the online space that Theater J has established.[3]


[3] “Negative space” is a concept borrowed from visual art, in which drawing any shape is said to define both the subject itself (the shape) and its negative space (the entirety of the page outside of that shape).  Both the subject and its negative space thus can be understood to define each other.  I am using the term, after performance artist Natsu Onoda Power, to refer to the alterity of a subject that exists just beyond its boundaries, thereby giving shape and definition to that subject (Onoda Power np).