Below, a guest post from Stephen Stern, Chair of the Theater J Council Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival Committee.
You can see video excerpts of two of the discussions on our Vimeo site:
Marshall Breger and Peter Beinart
Breakdown to Breakthrough: Dennis Ross, Tamara Cofman Wittes, Ghaith al-Omari
Now, from Stephen:
We set for ourselves the task of determined dialogue–sixteen multi-themed civil conversations among panelists and with our audience–to respond to theatrical art and public issues raised by sixteen workshop performances of the Admission. A small group–opposed to such production and conversation in a Jewish community institution–had very vocally described us as people using a “made-up massacre” to defame Israel. These detractors selected and distorted elements of the historical controversy on what happened in 1948 in the village of Tantura. The events of that battle were the sorrowful inspiration, and deeply researched context, for a drama of two fictional families (one Palestinian and one Jewish-Israeli) desperately trying to come to terms with each other, and to the legacies of what two fathers did and witnessed there.
Our audience and our panelists shared a journey within this deeply realized story of seven characters and their fates. Then, with those characters firmly in their hearts, time after time our participants engaged in passionate conversation on forgotten memories, historical uncertainties, and the fully real aftermath of one people’s self-determination and another’s dispossession In our committed practice of public conversation, we shared a path of looking back to hurt and loss, and of exploring our ability to come to terms and as panelist Sahar Khamis put it, “dig and move on”.
“Giora should just apologize and understand that his father is right.” So said a mother in the audience response part of our Young Leaders salon discussion, reporting on her own family’s conversations on Israel–from her Holocaust survivor parent’s emphasis on refuge and rescue to her daughter troubled by domination and occupation of another people and reluctant-to-speak in public. Tal Harris, the young leader of One Voice Israel, told of the play summoning forth the multi-faceted, dangerous and volatile historical layers of the Israeli and Palestinian lives that he knew. For him the play was a “blow in my stomach”, summoning up connections to his peace activism, his Zionism and his love of life. Tal sees a limit to what we can carry within us. We cannot let our personal stories remain a catastrophe. In the end, that reluctant-to-speak young Jewish woman replied to her mother’s response by asserting that Giora’s painful quest to understand his legacy needed her mother’s and everyone’s attention.
In the discussion of the path from First Intifada to mutual recognition on the White House lawn, veteran US peace process negotiator Dennis Ross spoke of paradox–of ending mutual denial of the other’s history in 1993, yet making a calculated attempt to move forward and leaving those differing approaches to the history out of the negotiations. Ghaith al-Omari told of being tasked in the 2000 Taba negotiations to represent the Palestinian side in writing a dual narrative of 1948 with his Israeli counterpart, a task that proved impossible. Citing line after line from the play, and building on her colleagues outline of the frustrations of 21 years of peace process with no peace, Tamara Wittes said we can’t just set this history aside, “We can’t escape, the past is back.”
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, in our Rabbinic Roundtable, went even further, to the biblical text of Joshua, Judges and Kings,vthat as we came unto the land, God told us not merely to dispossess, but indeed to kill. On fire, the Rabbi and his colleagues spoke of dilemma and of the ultimate “problem texts” we must not look away from. They saw The Admission, as Torah–as a possibility of face-to-face chevruta learning together through disputation for the sake of heaven. Nancy Goodman, in our most disputatious discussion (on displacement and identity for Palestinians and Israelis) implored every one not to be so in love “with only their own narrative”. And on our final day, Peter Beinart reminded us that there were the Early Prophets and then the later Jewish prophetic vision of empathy for the other amongst us and the moral test of the uses of restored Jewish power.
In this brief summary of highlights, I return in my heart to our very first discussion, in which playwright Motti Lerner, spoke after seeing his characters on stage fully produced for the first time. He was emotional on witnessing his seven Israelis, Palestinian and Jewish, created and shaped over so many years, on their feet, enacting their tragedy and testing their hope on stage before us. He calls this harrowing play his “love letter” to his Israel. His creative struggle was to give each of those characters their full voice and authority.
The father Avigdor, as much as the torn and questioning son Giora, haunted Ibrahim and seeking Samya–all the characters sought expiation and a way forward. As actor Pomme Koch said in the cast talkback, each character shares their own admission during the course of the play. Our audiences, panels, and the cast that gave them life were able to experience and share together these struggles to confront and acknowledge. Controversy made us set a very high bar for these discussions, and I think we elevated that bar and met its requirements. There are online links to some talkbacks, I and others will write more about them, and I will make public an essay on a visit to Tantura I undertook as research. Debts of gratitude to my partners Ari and Shirley, to the Theater J staff, to my Theater J Council colleagues, to Carole (who–while she frequently brought us the bad news and tough challenges–negotiated a way forward) and all who joined with us in this endeavor.