Staging Dialogue at Theater J (parts 4 + 5) – The Blog as Metatext: Constructive Conversation/Negative Space

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 parts 4 & 5 below – footnotes appear at end – “Works cited” appears at the end of part 2 and will be reposted together with the paper’s conclusion later today…)

The Blog as Metatext: The Relational Aesthetics of the Post-Show Conversation

Ari Roth, Stephen Stern, and Shirley Serotsky, who organize the post-show discussions at Theater J, generally invite a guest or a panel of guests to initiate the dialogue.[1]   At the first performance of Return to Haifa, Anton Goodman, who works as a shaliach (liaison) for the Jewish Agency, filled this role.[2]  As he recalled in a follow-up blog post, Goodman described the play as “opening a raw wound in our history but also celebrating the freedom of speech in Israel” (Goodman np).  Others in the audience were offended by his focus on the liberalism and inclusiveness of the State; this felt inappropriate in light of a narrative that was (at least in part) challenging Jews to acknowledge the way that their society “appropriate[s] everything” from Palestinians (Pladott np).  He was offering a particularist take on a narrative that seemed to challenge Jews to engage in a more universalist critique of Israeli policies.

A Palestinian-American woman (who prefers to remain anonymous) stood up to challenge Goodman’s framing of the event, suggesting that the play itself was an Israeli appropriation of this iconic Palestinian novella.  One blogger who attended the discussion observed, “Though she did not intend her comments to be accusatory in any way, I still felt tensions rise in the theater as she spoke” (McDonough np).  This Palestinian-American woman then wrote an email to Ari Roth, which he posted on the blog with her permission, clarifying her position.  She opened by calling the production “extraordinary,” and ended her email by appreciating Roth’s manner of facilitating the discussion, his personal warmth, and his “inclusive way of handling things.” But in the middle of her email, sandwiched between these compliments, she critiqued the ways that the Palestinian narrative is presented as “secondary” to the Israeli narrative; at times, she felt like the humorous remarks of the Jewish protagonist served to “minimize” the pain of the Palestinian couple (Roth with Anonymous np).

Udi Pladott, a Jewish Israeli who attended on the same evening, and who has been living long-term in Virginia, recalled her comments in his own blog post.  He, too, opened and closed with compliments to the theatre, yet he also expanded on her critique, saying “In your production, the story turned from one about Said [the Palestinian protagonist] to one about Miriam [the Israeli protagonist] . . . Your dramatic choices with respect to the original are making the statement that the Palestinian tragedy cannot be recognized and acknowledged unless it is juxtaposed with our own tragedy.”  He charged that the Cameri Theatre was contributing to a self-congratulatory ethos within Israel that celebrates its open-mindedness while “undermining real criticism and real struggles for justice.”  He described the play as a “cocktail . . . that leaves the drinker feeling that the status quo may not be perfect, but it still makes sense.”  Tellingly, Pladott ended his note with the self-reflection, “I have been living here abroad for over 9 years and I see from this distance (and up close, when I visit) a country that’s becoming more and more violent and alien to me.”  With this comment, he attributed his emotional distance from the particularist narrative of the Jewish State to his emerging American identity.   (Pladott np).

Stephen Stern, an American Jew who serves on the Theater J Council, then responded to Udi on the blog.  He politely challenged Udi’s American-universalist distancing from the Jewish-Israeli mainstream, challenging him to consider the ways that mainstream Israeli views are becoming increasingly sensitive to Palestinian concerns.  “Udi,” he pleaded, “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.”  He pointed to the efforts underway, both in the Israeli academy and “in all circles in Israel,” to complicate the founding narrative of the state and to wrestle with what that revised history might ethically entail (Stern np).

Finally, Goodman himself wrote a post, responding to the Palestinian-American woman approximately two weeks after the event.  He validated her concerns, restating them in his own words and acknowledging that they constituted a valid critique of the play.  “Return to Haifa [sic] showcases an attempt to infuse the Palestinian narrative with the Zionist [one],” he wrote, “and I applaud it, but don’t think that this is any different to more mainstream Zionist works.”  In other words, he appreciated the play for the very reason that she disapproved: because while it complicates the Zionist narrative, it ultimately leaves that narrative intact.  He acknowledged how problematic that is from the Palestinian perspective, but affirmed his right, as an Israeli Jew, to adopt this particularist frame of reference.  He also invited far-left Israelis, like Udi, to join him in working through their universalist tendencies through the particularism of Jewish discourse and decision making within the official infrastructure of the Jewish State. “His [Udi’s] voice would be worth much more in the State of Israel than it is out,” he challenged.  “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” (Goodman np).

I have traced this conversation at length because I think that it provides a sense of the metatext that Theater J is trying to help write.  Far from “undermin[ing] Israel or denigrat[ing] its legitimacy,” as COPMA charges, this metatext shows Jews struggling with how they might square their particularist Jewish identity with a universalist, American concern for the human rights of Palestinians.  The relational aesthetics of the event allowed a Palestinian narrative (the play itself) and a Palestinian-American woman to “make a claim” on the Israeli and American Jews gathered in the theatre that evening – and these relational aesthetics then brought together a left-of-center American Jew, a far-left Jewish Israeli living in America, and a centrist Israeli living in America to publicly consider that claim.[3]   As they do so, they engage respectfully yet boldly to consider how that claim might impact their particularist Jewish identities.

The Blog as Negative Space

A publicly-accessible blog is a complicated space to manage, as it can be used by theatre-goers and non-theatre-goers alike.  Thus, in addition to marking the relational aesthetics of Theater J’s programs, their blog can also mark the kind of heated, virulent discourse that typically characterizes Jewish communal dialogue about Israeli politics as it occurs online.  In this subsection of the paper, I briefly take up one such thread that occurred after Theater J’s staged reading of Seven Jewish Children.  I do so in an attempt to mark the negative space of the discourse within the walls of Theater J: while this discourse does take place on the Theater J blog, I believe it is possible only because these bloggers have not encountered each other face-to-face within the relational aesthetics of a the Theater J event.

On March 26, 2009, the day of the second staged reading of Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children, Ari Roth posted J Street’s endorsement of Theater J’s event.[4]  This post inspired a thread of 79 responses, most of which were posted between April 5 and April 9.  Four voices dominated this conversation: one, who posted under the alias “levi9909,” self-identified as an anti-Zionist, and the other three, who posted under the names “Michael Levy,” “Jacob,” and “zkharya,” sustained an argument with him that went on for over 23,000 words (that’s about 4 times the length of this paper, up to this point).  The exchange mostly considered whether or not levi9909, as an Anti-Zionist, was necessarily an anti-Semitic Jew.  Some of these writers knew each other from debates that they had waged on other websites, and referenced those debates to acknowledge that they recognized each other.  Their encounter grew more and more charged as the bloggers wrote, with the four writers exchanging insults almost as much as arguments: they referred to each other as “racist,” “insane,” “demented,” and “monumentally ignorant.” They taunted each other with jabs such as “No one is smearing you. You smear yourself everytime [sic] you open you mouth or use a keyboard,” “You are so consumed with fear and hatred of people who oppose Israel you say the most ridiculous things,” and “You’re cluttering up the thread so badly I’m finding it hard to keep up.”  They referred to Churchill’s script, but never to the event at Theater J, leading me to believe that they were not there.  Perhaps some of them were in the protest march outside the theatre; perhaps they do not even live locally, but were drawn to the blog by the national and international press coverage that the event generated (Roth 2009 np).

I recognize the spirit of this conversation.  I’ve been part of many such conversations, mostly on facebook and various blogs, at times when I have tried to respond to friends’ posts about political events in Israel and Palestine.  As we carefully avoid the political discussions about Israel within our synagogues and other “offline” Jewish gatherings, it tends to erupt with pent-up anger in these online spaces. Cyber-discourse, which enables people to interact without encountering each other face-to-face, also enables people to reduce and objectify each other with great ease.  The face-to-face encounter, according to Emanuel Levinas, enables people with different worldviews to address their differences with humility and respect.  It forces them to recognize the “irreducible alterity” of the Other, and by so doing, it obligates them to consider their perspectives (Levinas 161, Davis 47-48).[5]  Through the avoidance of this intimate encounter, cyber-debate releases people from considering the emotional and ethical impact of dismissive, condescending, and violent language, and prompts a debate that generates more heat than light.  

Theater J’s blog is vulnerable to being overrun by this type of bombastic, angry discourse, so some might argue that Theater J has become a part of the problem. I think, rather, that the seepage of the general online discourse into Theater J’s online space clarifies the enormity of Theater J’s challenge as it tries to cultivate a different type of dialogue.  The theatre is trying to establish a space between the “communitas” of the synagogue, in which there is little room for debate, and the digital sphere, in which people feel little need to respect, listen to, or be challenged by differences of opinion.  Through works of art that challenge the dominant narrative in the Jewish community, and carefully moderated post-show discussions, Theater J tries to provoke what Sonja Kuftinec calls “productive dissent,” eliciting differences of opinion that might respectfully “perturb the notion of community as fixed or univocal” (Kuftinec 2009 349, Kuftinec 2003 20).  The angry, 79-post dialogue on their website is actually the “negative space” of this productive dissent; it represents the alterity of the desired discourse that exists just beyond the boundaries of that discourse (and occasionally seeps in).

_________

[1]   “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).  

[2]   These guests include Jews and non-Jews, including many Palestinians.  They generally have professional positions in NGOs or universities that enable them to speak from a highly-informed position, but rarely have anything close to “celebrity status.”  For a full list of the guests that initiated the post-show discussions after Return to Haifa, see http://bit.ly/lXQK0j.

[3]   The Jewish Agency is an international organization that works to nurture relationships between World Jewry and the State of Israel.  It functions as a sort of umbrella organization for other Zionist organizations, and employs Israelis like Goodman (many of whom, like Goodman, were born and raised outside of Israel) to live in, and reach out to, Jewish communities around the world on behalf of the State.

[4]   I use the word “claim” here as a reference to Veena Das and James Thompson, who  describe the way that articulating one’s pain “makes a claim for acknowledgement.”  When one person tells another, “I am in pain,” it functions as an appeal to them with ethical implications.  (reference Thompson Performance Affects).

[5]  J Street is a left-wing, “pro-Israel, pro-peace” Political Action Committee.  Despite the similarity of their names, J Street and Theater J are unrelated organizations.  COPMA accuses Theater J of having an unofficial relationship with J Street, pointing out a number of J Street speakers who have appeared on Theater J’s panels.

[6]  When Levinas writes about the “face-to-face,” he is not simply referencing a literal, face-to-face positioning of bodies.  Rather, he is discussing an ethical positioning that occurs when people encounter each other in a way that enables them to appreciate both their humanity and their essential difference.  It is certainly possible for human beings to literally meet “face-to-face” without truly engaging in a Levinasian “face-to-face” encounter.  However, I’m suggesting here that the online inability to meet “face-to-face,” even in a literal sense, makes a Levinasian “face-to-face” encounter unlikely.