Yom Kippur Talk, On The Dramas of Admission (part 2)

…Let’s look at a slightly more successful effort to integrate oppositional positions. It is Emma Joseph’s charge to reconcile the jumbled legacy of her once revered grandfather now revealed to have been a Soviet Spy.  In Amy Herzog’s After The Revolution, Emma, like Sophie in The Argument, is confronted with an unexpected surprise. For Sophie, it’s the positive pregnancy test. For Emma, it’s the news that a book is going to out her grandfather.

Jeff, PB and Megan on couch

Her father and uncle sit her down to deliver the news. And we can immediately see Emma deflect — refusing to accept the news.

BEN.
In your, uh. Research, or in class. Did you ever come across the word Venona?

EMMA.
I don’t know, rings a distant bell.

BEN.
Soviet cables, between the U.S. and Russia during World War II. Some people got lazy, reused pages from the code book, it allowed American intelligence to decrypt some thousands of cables. This was known as the Venona Project.

BROTHER LEO.
A few years ago a lot of this information was declassified.

BEN.
…There’s a book coming out, it’ll be in stores soon. It uses the Venona source material to name American spies for the Soviet Union in the Forties.

EMMA.
Okay … And?

LEO.
Dad was named. He has a two page entry.

[Emma’s first response is fascinating.]

EMMA.
Okay. Wow, that is – wow. So what’s our strategy? How do we fight it? We should issue a statement before it’s reviewed. Have you been in touch with family members of other people who were named – or even better, are some of them still living? We need to move on this, it’s fifty years later and / they’re still-

LEO.
Emma, hold on.

BEN.
She’s right, it’s exactly what I’ve / been –

[BEN IS NOT ACCEPTING THE NEWS EITHER]

LEO. She doesn’t understand yet.

EMMA. What don’t I understand?

LEO. We’re not going to contest it. Because it’s true.

WHILE WE WATCH EMMA FURTHER INVESTIGATE THE HISTORY, BOTH OF THE ACCUSATION, AND OF HER GRANDFATHER’S TESTIMONY BEFORE CONGRESS, we see Vera, Emma’s grandmother, with an even more pronounced reaction:

Nancy & Meg side view

VERA.
He told me about that filthy book, I know all about it. It’s the first time in a year and a half I’ve been glad Joe is gone, so he never had to see that. Disgusting, Emma. It’s just disgusting.

(Goes off for plums — comes back with some, they eat them…)

VERA.
Now isn’t that delicious?

EMMA.
Grandma, I didn’t know until a few days ago that Grandpa was a spy. I’m hoping you can help me understand better what he did, and why he did it. (Pause.)

VERA.
Well. I’m not a rah-rah American. So. (Brief pause.)

EMMA.
What does that mean?

VERA.
Just that I’m not a rah-rah American. If I were a rah-rah American I would see it one way, but I’m not, so I don’t.

EMMA.
I don’t think you have to be a rah-rah American to question the ethics of spying.

VERA.
That word again.

EMMA.
He passed government secrets to Soviet agents, / what else should I call it?

VERA.
Listen, Joe was a member of the Communist Party, you know that. Anybody with a beating heart and a half a brain was back then, that’s hard for people to understand nowadays, because people have become so … whaddayacallit. Apathetic. But it’s true. And the Russians were really the ones fighting the war, not us, and some people were very happy to sit back and let them die, even some people in the Party, and some people like your grandfather were not. You’re talking about ethics, well, those were his ethics, not to turn his back on his comrades who were fighting fascism.

EMMA.
So you’re saying his allegiance wasn’t to the self-interested U.S. government.

VERA.
Right!

EMMA.
It was to Stalin. (Brief pause.)

VERA.
Listen, you – he – a lot of what you hear about Stalin in this country is propaganda, it’s / not –

EMMA.
Oh, Grandma!

VERA.
There were a lot of wonderful things about the Soviet Union! The papers would never report that because they didn’t want the American people to know the / truth.

EMMA.
Vera, / you can’t do that, you can’t pick and choose –

VERA.
And whatever else you want to say, the fact remains that it was really Stalin and the Russians who were stopping Hitler from killing all the Jews!

EMMA.
Stalin was slaughtering Jews in his own country, and homosexuals, and / dissidents.

VERA.
Well, we didn’t know that then! And I still don’t know how much of all that is true. (Pause.)

EMMA.
I should tell you that I’m thinking of making a public statement about this before the book comes out.

VERA.
What?

EMMA.
I may / make a –

VERA.
I heard you. What kind of public statement? The kind where you defend your grandfather against those bullies? That’s what I hope you mean, Emma Joseph.

EMMA.
It may not be as simple as that.

VERA.
Well, the question is which side are you on, that’s the question.

The questions for Emma are, will she shut down The Joe Joseph Fund, or change its name, or quit. Or carry forth and fight for justice for Mumia Abu Jamal? Can she hold onto pieces of her legacy?

Can she achieve a synthesis? Can she bring others around to appreciate her understanding?

Does she stay angry at Dad and grandma? Her grandpa? What kind of send of justice does she have?

We’ve had some amazing responses to the play already. Let’s discuss this further. The dilemma faced by each member of the family.

(And we have a wonderful discussion, picking up on themes you can read in the student subscriber comments on our After The Revolution postings. We refer to Emma’s character — her refusal to not judge her grandfather for his perjuring himself; for the act of espionage; her insistence on calling the act “dishonorable,” even at the very end.

And yet her clearly evincing pride and emulating his values. His commitment to social justice.

A comment is made, quoting Rabbi Noah Fabricant, the associate rabbi at WHC. He’s quoted as saying, “In modern Judaism, we pick and choose.” Clearly Emma is doing the same with her legacy.

Only not everyone feels that from Emma. Interesting.)

* * *

I want to add a non-American perspective to this, first expressed at one of our post-show discussions earlier this week, expressed by Professor Fran Buntman, a sociologist from South Africa, now at George Washington University:

“I was very struck by the audience member who spoke to the self-righteousness of the characters in the After the Revolution. I think she is 100% correct (especially Emma, Ben and Vera), and I also think that so often admission and contrition is so hard because it involves separating out the ways in which we have been wronged and are wrong, and that both can (& too often do) coexist.

There’s much I like, admire, and perhaps even adore about Archbishop Tutu but I don’t buy his take on forgiveness, nor the pressure he put on victims to pave the way to the future. On one level, I’m not sure I even know what forgiveness means; I think I prefer ideas like understanding, assimilation (not in the’ Jews assimilate’ sense, but rather integration, coming to terms), finding peace with x or y despite wrongs, learning to live with x despite y, transcendence, struggle.

In the 1980s, Tutu sought the justice of Nuremberg for those who committed apartheid’s sins, crimes, and atrocities. However, in the 1990s, in embracing the political settlement that ended apartheid and ushered in democracy, he revised his position to say that the country could not survive Nuremberg-type justice, and proceeded to lead the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Here’s what I wrote in that regard in the attached chapter*:

“In 1981 Tutu promised at the funeral of assassinated anti-apartheid lawyer Griffiths Mxenge that “justice will be done”[1] (so we learn from the book “Recovering from Apartheid’). As TRC chair in 1996, however, he argued that “if justice is your last word, you’ve had it”[2] (from the book “The Ultimate Test of Faith.”. If true justice was sought, it would only come “with ashes.” Victims would have to accept this pragmatic calculation in order to make the future possible.

[1] Rosenberg, T., ‘Recovering from Apartheid’ (December 18, 1996) The New Yorker, 86-95.
[2] Gevisser, M., ‘The Ultimate Test of Faith. (April, 12, 1996) Mail and Guardian, 12.

In essence, what I take from Tutu is that victims and victimizers often have to inhabit the same space or chart a (more or less) shared future.

Therefore, if the victim requires a true reckoning with the past – acknowledgement, apology, punishment or at least reparation/repair – the wrong doer will not accept that and instead one will have continued conflict and what amounts to a scorched earth policy for the next generation. So we compromise for the sake of the future.

We discuss The Law of The Excluded Middle. How debate tends to insist on either total one answer or the other. One is either completely correct, or completely incorrect. (“The law of excluded middle can be expressed by the propositional formula p_¬p. It means that a statement is either true or false. Think of it as claiming that there is no middle ground between being true and being false. Every statement has to be one or the other. That’s why it’s called the law of excluded middle, because it excludes a middle ground between truth and falsity. So while the law of non-contradiction tells us that no statement can be both true and false, the law of excluded middle tells us that they must all be one or the other.”)

We amend that to discuss The Imperative of the Included Middle. It’s a concept we make up. But we run with it!

4.

“What is the way forward?” It’s a question we’ve asked at Theater J ever since the inception of our Voices From a Changing Israel Festival in 2000 when we first produced David Hare’s Via Dolorosa. As he travels throughout Israel, The West Bank Settlements, Gaza and Ramallah, he hears from a cascade of different individuals each deeply living by a different political and spiritual orientation. And David Hare keeps asking, “What is the way forward?”
We’ll be asking it this season as well, as our Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival collaborates with Arena Stage on spring programming, as they produce the world premiere of Camp David by Lawrence Wright, and we produce the world premiere of Motti Lerner’s The Admission?

It is about a terrible accusation and a family’s defensive recoiling from said accusation. And then slowly research is uncovered. Documents are revealed. People begin to talk and others begin to stonewall. Admissions are uttered. How to interpret the actions that have been conceded? What is to be done now? How will the family be delivered? How might the country be healed?

A Note from the playwright

The writing of the play was inspired by the conquest of the Arab village Tantura by the Israeli army on May 23, 1948 and by the controversy among Israeli historians about the possibility that Israeli soldiers committed a massacre during the battle or afterwards. But since all the characters in the play and its entire plot are fictitious, the name of the village was changed to Tantur .

[At least three Israeli historians wrote different versions of the conquest of Tantura: from the right, Yoav Gelber; from the center, Benny Morris, and from the left, Ilan Pappe.]

We begin at a restaurant… During the first intifada… Avigdor has paid for all the renovations to the restaurant. As his construction company has begun surveying

Azmi:
We’re eating now, dad. Go put the fish on the grill.

Samya:
I’ll do it.

Azmi:
He’ll do it. (To Avigdor) Today we have grilled eggplant. Pickled mushrooms. Shrimp. Calamari. All fresh from this morning.

Giora:
(to Avigdor) That’s your third glass, dad.

Avigdor:
If you’re not going to drink, I’ll drink the whole bottle myself.

Ibrahim:
(Pouring wine to Giora) about Tantur, Abu Giora. Why are you
building in Tantur? All of a sudden?

Avigdor:
It’s a small country, Ibrahim. People build everywhere.

Ibrahim:
I’m from Tantur, abu Giora. I was born there.

Azmi:
Enough, dad

Avigdor:
What do you say? From Tantur? When I was a kid, I used to go down there with friends, with canteens and sleeping bags, we used to drink from the spring and rest under the fig trees.

Ibrahim:
But why dig there? It’s forbidden.

Azmi:
Cha’las. We’ve already heard this story. Go put the fish on the grill.

Giora
(to Avigdor) What is he talking about? We don’t have the permits?

Avigdor:
(to Giora) Of course we have.

Ibrahim:
The earth won’t let you dig there.

Azmi:
We’ve already heard this too, Dad.

Samya:
Let him speak. They’re building on his village.

Azmi:
He’s going to put the fish on the grill right now.

Ibrahim:
(Exploding) It’s forbidden to build there! I am saying “forbidden.” The stones are screaming “forbidden.” The skies are crying “forbidden.” And you’re not listening.

Giora:
We’ve been talking about this plan for years now, Ibrahim. It’s the neighborhood that will be named after my brother.

Ibrahim:
(To Samya) Tell him not to dig there.

Azmi:
Let’s go to the kitchen, dad. (To Avigdor) I told you he wasn’t feeling well. (To Ibrahim) Now’s the time to climb trees? Who will pick you up when you fall?

Giora:
What’s the problem? Why is it “forbidden?”

Samya:
(To Ibrahim) Sit down, drink a little water. (She seats him, and turns to Avigdor) His house was there. He goes there every holiday. Maybe you could just explain the plans to him.

Ibrahim:
(Standing) I’ll die before he digs there.

Avigdor:
(Standing) I think it’s best if we go.

Ibrahim:
(Barring him) You will listen until I’m through.

Azmi:
Be’chiatak, Yabba. Dachil Allah.

Giora:
(To Samya) What’s going on with him? What does he want?

Ibrahim:
It’s him. He was there. It’s his face. Those are the eyes. Every night I see him. For forty years.

Giora:
(To Azmi) What the hell is he talking about?

Ibrahim:
There. In the yard of the mosque. He shot them. All of them.

(Ibrahim grabs a knife from the table and lunges at Avigdor!)

Samya:
Stop, dad! Drop the knife!

Giora:
Let go of him!

Azmi:
Dad!

Ibrahim:
Son of a bitch. Ten years I’ve been cooking for you. Ten years I put food on your table, and the whole time my heart was bleeding!

(Ibrahim stabs Avigdor in the shoulder before Azmi and Samya pull him away. Blackout.)

Like Emma, Giora’s first reaction is one of incredulousness, he is compelled to defend his father. He insists that Avigdor press charges for the attack. Can’t understand why, after all the generosity, Ibrahim would turn on his benefactor.

And yet Giora is torn. Engaged to Neta, a jewish woman who works for his father, he’s nevertheless had a deep connection to Samia (Ibrahim’s daughter) for years. He loves her. But she’ll never marry him; because he’s Jewish — even though she loves him too. Their relationship has been its own Gordian knot. Giora is in knots following Ibrahim’s accusation and his father’s hospitalization.

After a scene in the hospital with his dad, and then with his fiancé, Scene 4 has Giora back with his ex-lover, Samia:
UPDATED FINAL THE ADMISSION illustration

Samya:
You never told me your father was commander during the battle at Tantour.

Giora:
There’s nothing to tell. They fought there just like in other places. When we were kids he took us once to see the monument on the hill. Eight of his soldiers died there. (Resolute) Your father would be better keeping his hallucinations to himself.

Samya:
He hallucinates. You’re right. But…

Giora:
But what?

Samya:
I was scared. I didn’t understand what he was saying. This morning I went to the Library. (She shows him a book and a notebook) This is by a historian from Damascus. This is a dissertation that was done here, in the history department. According to his calculations there were ninety-six dead.

Giora:
Are you out of your mind?

Samya:
Look. He also has testimonies from soldiers who took part in the attack.

Giora:
I don’t need to look. I know we have too many self-hating historians. How you can fall for such lies? You know lots of other people who did for you as much as my father? Even after my brother was killed. Even after what happened to me. Just last week, he asked the Minister of the Interior to extend the jurisdiction of Dir El Asad.

Samya:
I know.

Giora:
You don’t know. He built the school in Tamra without any profit for himself.

Samya:
I know that.

Giora:
So I don’t understand. How can you believe what’s written here?

Samya:
I don’t. I don’t believe anything. But my father has always been a rational man. Suddenly he picks up a knife and stabs?

Giora:
He’s never talked about it until yesterday?

Samya:
Until yesterday he told us that they were chased away. But then yesterday he said his father and two of his brothers were killed there.

Giora:
And you believe him?

Samya:
I don’t know. Their names are in this book. I’m not accusing your father of anything, Giora. I know how rumors spread among us. But I also know my father.

Giora:
If your father recognized my father ten years ago, why did he wait until yesterday?

Samya:
He doesn’t want them touching the bones buried in the Wadi. He wants to give them a proper burial and put up a memorial.

Giora:
A memorial for who? If there were bones buried there, someone would have talked about it. Five hundred soldiers have been quiet for forty years?! If you think my father did something like this, return all the grants he’s given you, including the post-doc you got yesterday.

(Samya moves to exit. He stops her.)

Giora:
Wait a second. You can’t run away like this

Samya: I’m leaving. You’re running away.

Later. After Giora has determined not to run away from the accusations but to investigate himself; to call; and to research; he returns to his mother and father.

Yona:
Daddy doesn’t feel well, Guri. Don’t bother him with this. (Takes the notebook and places it on the table) This morning I was at the house on the corner down the road. They’re prepared to sell it.

Avigdor:
He’s not bothering me. It’s good you came. Let’s get this affair off the table and move onto more important things. The village blocked the main road. They attacked cars. Buses. Ambulances. We had no choice. At four AM we attacked. The first company from the Wadi. The second from the road. The third stormed down from the hill. Eight of our men were killed. They lost fourteen.

Yona:
(To Giora) Everything clear now? (Continuing) I want you to see this house. It’s like new. No stairs. You can drive your car all the way up to the doorway. If you don’t hurry, someone else will take it.

Neta:
(To Giora) We’ll go early in the morning.

Giora:
Fine.

Yona:
You might have to do some renovations before you move in. I would make the bathtub bigger. And widen the doorways.

Avigdor:
At ten they surrendered. They knew that most of the Arabs in Haifa ran away. And the rumors of Deir Yassin already reached them. The mukhtar came to me and requested they be sent to Tul Karem. At four they got on trucks. At six we returned to base and buried our dead. And now let’s get to the more important things.

Yona:
(Firm) I think it’s best you go lie down, Avigdor, before your blood pressure goes up.

Giora:
(taking the notebook) There are ninety-six names in here, dad.

Unlike in After The Revolution, where the patriarch’s guilt is not up for debate, in The Admission it remains in play for a great long while. There are denials, alibis, explanations, and dickering over numbers. But eventually the evidence seems to stick, and an admission is forthcoming; though the charge of massacre is then up for grabs? Were there killings? Yes? A massacre. No.

How many died?
Giora needs to know.
Giora wnts to build that memorial. Before the housing development is built in the memory of his fallen older brother. He wants to build a memorial for the victims in order to achieve a familial catharsis.
Giora gains and loses allies in this barreling search for the truth. It’s a lonely courageous battle. Trying to accept. Trying to admit. Trying to figure out how to carry on. What he’s internalized? How to assimilate two different parts of the land? The historical narrative?
The pull between Neta and Samya symbolize that nicely.
What’s the best way to express that constructive agenda going forward?

* * *

We conclude with a paragraph from Fran Buntman’s “Therapeutic jurisprudence, apartheid’s victims, and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”

From the Abstract:

South Africa created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the 1990s to address gross human rights abuses under apartheid. This quasi judicial body with legal and political mandates was intended to substantially contribute to healing victims, both individual and collective, from the wounds of apartheid and its accompanying violence. The TRC sought to achieve healing through using the law for a “therapeutic investigation.” Whether the TRC is judged to have been therapeutic for victims depends significantly on whom the victims are understood to be.

Therapeutic Investigation. Therapeutic Discourse. Therapeutic Drama. That’s what’s on the menu this season. Investigating our history. Admitting guilt. Understanding the guilt. Punishing? Empathizing? Creating remediation. Acknowledgment. Recognition. Moving into the future.

Is there a way of reconciling irreconcilable positions? Irreconcilable positions? Pro-life and Pro-Choicers? Communists and Blacklisters? Americans and Soviets. Israelis and Palestinians?

What do we each admit to? Why is unilateral admission so difficult? Why do we invariably insist on joint admissions?

At the end of The Admission, we end with partial admissions, embers of truth, cold reconcilation, begrudging treaties. As with Campy David and the peace between Israel and Egypt. A cold peace. But a way forward. A new beginning. The Imperative of the Middle.

Shana Tova.
And may we be inscribed in The Book Of Life for a good year.