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. At the first performance of Return to Haifa, Anton Goodman, who works as a shaliach (liaison) for the Jewish Agency, filled this role. 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. Continue reading