One Occupation, Two Plays - and a Spectrum of Emotions

Two highly political plays dealing with the national and personal struggles over real estate in Jerusalem and Hebron, leave the viewer with different feelings entirely.

Nineteen years ago, on February 25, 1994, Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Muslim worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and wounded dozens more. Today this cultish site is a kind of electronic military bastion in the heart of an ancient, ghost neighborhood abandoned by its Arab inhabitants − unimaginative and acrimonious amid barbed wire, tin fences and corroded barrels that scar its length and breadth. Here and there within it gleam clusters of large, new white-stone buildings, home to the few hundred Jewish settlers who have taken over the neighborhood from its ejected original inhabitants.

Silwan is a large and densely populated Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, which from the 1990s to the present has been eyed covetously by Jewish settlers. They have been putting down stakes there, whether via archaeological excavations around or underneath the Arab residents’ homes, or straightforward eviction of the residents, robbing them of their homes and moving in themselves. Parallel to this, a well-kept “archaeological park” has gone up in Silwan. Going by the name of City of David, it is situated among the Arab homes and the neglected alleyways – while here and there among those same alleys, an Israeli flag flutters on the roof of a house or over a group of houses inhabited by Israeli citizens – and it is surrounded by fences and guard posts, and other fortifications.

It is about these unfortunate developments that two new Israeli plays focus: “The Hastening of the End,” written by Motti Lerner and directed by Ron Ninio, at Jerusalem’s Khan Theater, and “The Peacock of Silwan,” by Alma Ganihar, directed by Chen Alon and Sinai Peter at the Acre Theater. And here is something surprising: It turns out that one play is nearly the opposite of the other. The one is accusatory, severe and chilling. And the other? It’s hard to define. Light and cheerful? Not exactly. I will try to sort this out further on. In any case, both are good − the plays themselves, and also the direction and the acting.

If there is any point and interest at all in comparing the two, it is not to weigh up their comparative value, but rather to try to observe through them two different ways in which good political theater can address its audience, in a manner that is neither simplistic nor consists largely of slogans. Both plays try to influence, both plays are critical of the occupation and its ramifications, and both plays try to infuriate their viewers. And the two of them do this with quite similar tools: by combining documentation with fiction and public events with personal and tragic stories. Furthermore − and in this there is a degree of irony, intentional or not, the origin of which is in the reality itself − both are performed in ancient buildings, built by Muslims many years ago, that are now in Jewish hands.

My conclusion that nevertheless the two plays are nearly opposites of each other can be explained by this description: From the tastefully restored and renovated vaulted auditorium of the Khan, I emerged angry and discouraged and nearly petrified by the magnitude of the rage and the shock at what I had seen and heard, some of which had become known to me for the first time.

And by way of contrast, from the two-story and nearly abandoned building where the second play is performed, in Acre, a structure whose spaces are also beautiful and vaulted, but where, unlike at the Jerusalem Khan, it appears as though it has not yet decided whether to be another Arab ruin or another Jewish real estate asset by virtue of the money of the American who has bought it − from there, despite the surprising tragic end, I emerged as if floating, in a kind of pleasant, strengthening and hopeful mood, with a smile on my lips.

Whence the rage and the shock? That’s easy to say. “The Hastening of the End” is a serious documentary play, based on deep and thorough research by the playwright about the murderer Baruch Goldstein’s fanatical, racist, religious-nationalist habitat. Hence it is less an indictment of this individual than it is an infinitely more significant indictment of the ways of thinking and the psychology that preceded and encouraged the deed, which since then have constantly been increasing their strength in Israeli society. The religious ordinances related to the killing of gentiles are combed through here, and the horrifying clarifications and conclusions are documented in the many texts quoted in the play: from the words of the Rambam ‏(Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1204‏) in his day to those of rabbis who are active, officiating and inciting here and now; from the early Mishneh Torah to “Baruch Hagever” and “Torat Hamelekh” ‏(“Baruch the Man,” with a pun on the word barukh serving both as his name, and meaning “blessed,” and “The King’s Torah,” respectively‏), written and published just recently.

Writing on the wall

The writing in the play is on the wall, quite literally: The quotes from the texts are spoken by the actors and also screened onto a backdrop on the stage, on which we see photographs of the rabbis who wrote or gave their agreement to the texts, chief among them Ido Alba, Yitzhak Shapira, Yitzhak Ginzburg and Dov Lior. And let this be a reminder to those who have heard and read, and have immediately shunted the information to the margins of consciousness − to the place reserved for extremist, crazy phenomena: These people are not at all what are called “stray weeds,” but rather ordained rabbis whose words are heeded by thousands.

“The Hastening of the End” reminds us of this both in its documentation and in the frame story of its dramatic plot, which tells of the abyss that gapes between one impassioned youngster from among those thousands, and his father who fights − in vain, but with a raging heart and gritted teeth − for the soul of his son before it is irreparably torn away. And thus the play really gives a good shaking to anyone who is satisfied with the conclusions of the commission of investigation into the massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs − which found that Goldstein, though he was a member of the rabidly far-right movement Kach and a disciple of its late founder Rabbi Meir Kahane, acted alone.

And maybe it will also give a bit of a shaking to anyone who hasn’t yet noticed that people from those circles, total Kahanists, are now Knesset members, and that the public legitimacy they have attained has reached the point that even an intellectual like Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon, who speaks most admirably about humanist values, can see them as worthy interlocutors, and even emerge satisfied from a meeting with them.

Thus far, the clarity concerning the rage. And the despair. But where did the smile come from in the production of “The Peacock of Silwan”? (See also “House demolitions take center stage in new play about Arab-Israel relations,” Haaretz English Edition, Nov. 30, 2012.) The title of the play is taken from a beauty parlor that goes by that name and is situated on the premises. That’s a good deal harder to explain. Also, I am not certain all the members of the audience smiled, but I have no doubt that not a single one of us turned to stone. Because whether or not we wanted to, we moved around a lot during the performance: We climbed up and down the narrow, winding stairs of the building, we stood in clusters around the actors in order to listen to them, and even when we were sitting on the hard wooden chairs or on the thin mattresses offered us − many of us had to squirm around to try to find a comfortable position, and we could not simply sink into crimson-colored, upholstered chairs like those at the Khan.

When we watched  (standing‏) with surprise as the pistol from the beginning of the play was fired in order to kill, we were still huffing and puffing from our descent from the roof to the ground floor, and did not know whether to cry for the man who was killed and the women keening over him − the Jewish settler and the Arab mother, respectively − or to laugh at the vision we had heard articulated upstairs above the rooftops of Acre, from the chairman of the “Kingdom of David” association, in the play.

He spoke of course about the occupied Silwan neighborhood in Jerusalem, but through the force of circumstances − for even if the theater people had wanted to stage the play in Silwan, they would not have been given permission to perform it there − in his pathetic gestures he adopted in effect Arab Acre: “This is it ... Everything will soon fall safely into its place ... and you, my good ladies and gentlemen ... in another year you will be back here ... You won’t recognize the place... Please, come out on the balcony ...

“Look at this wonderful city ... and if you take flight on the wings of imagination, you will be able to see the wonderful park that will be built here in place of all those decrepit houses ... and here, right over here on the left ... we will put up a huge visitors’ center ... and here ... instead of the church and those three buildings ... there will be a museum of the history of Jewish settlement in the city ...

“Do you see that flag? Over every building in the city that flag will fly and the soul will overflow ... You will be able to see all of your history spread before you... stone upon stone upon stone ... ”

So maybe that is what the smile is about: A person can’t become petrified by rage or by sadness, or even by despair, when he is tossed back and forth in this way, between laughter and tears, and when he is not allowed a moment to relax comfortably into very familiar patterns and say to himself: Aha, those are the bad guys and those are the good guys, and those are the naive and the perplexed − and in the end it’s the bad guys who win. That’s how it was and that is how it shall be forevermore. In short: All is lost.

So maybe all really is lost here, and maybe the right-wing Elad Association − with the support of the government and the public’s money, and money from wealthy Jews in America, and with the cooperation of archaeologists from Tel Aviv University − are the bad guys here, along with the indifferent and the perplexed and the naive. And maybe all of them together will continue to expand the robbery and human destruction in Silwan.

And just as in the case of the Jewish settlement in Hebron, which has already done its damage, and there is no one to stop its expansion or the depth of its hold, all under the watchful eye of the army, perhaps it is also the case that in Silwan, and in other neighborhoods of Jerusalem, there will not be sufficiently courageous citizens to stop what is happening every day.

And if that is so, then perhaps everything is indeed lost and apparently even this production, most regrettably, will not generate civic courage in this country. Nevertheless, it has delivered a kind of small miracle: The wise and clever text, the creative direction, and the excellent group of Arab and Jewish actors, speaking in Arabic and in Hebrew, and the building itself, in which there remains only one Arab family out of the five that had lived there previously, and which has become the flesh of the flesh of the performance − all of these turn the infuriating documentary story that served the theater people as inspiration into a performance of political theater in which the vibrant and effervescent life refuses to wane and retreat. And somehow this leads to some sort of optimism.

This is because when you watch the play, and also get swept up in it, you can’t help getting pulled into having the feeling that life does prevail here despite the arrogant “national gene” that threatens, as in the reality, to demolish an Arab house on top of its residents. The actors win because again and again they invite the spectators into this vortex and they too − in the intimacy of a total of 35 people at each performance, because there is no room for more − undergo a process of awakening to life. At first they’re a bit confused, a bit befuddled. But very quickly they accept the falling of the barriers between them, and what is happening so close to them and the experience becomes their lot for better or for worse.

And the truth? Even though the rage stirred in me by the reminder in “The Hastening of the End” is apparently more fitting in light of the situation of the current political reality, I really don’t feel like staying an enraged political Israeli citizen. And I certainly don’t feel like becoming petrified in my rage and despair, and therefore I was happier with the unpaved path taken by the theater people in Acre.

In their decision to recreate a bad and infuriating slice of reality, while nonetheless using the tools of their art − words, movement, acting and sets − to imbue it with the lust for life − they are making it possible to believe for a brief moment in the chance that this life force will win out, while providing a bit of strength to continue to fight for victory.

Gerard Alon