Where Israelis and Palestinians Find Common Ground: Bereavement

Playwright Yehoshua Sobol does not go easy on his Jewish audience, bringing it face to face with Palestinian pain. It's a brave and moral act

A scene from Yehoshua Sobol’s play “Bereaved.”
Mika Kushelevitch

Why is it necessary to dig deep to get to the truth? Why is it necessary to look for a Palestinian eyewitness who was present when the son was shot and his life snuffed out? And if the truth is uncovered, will it change anything about an upsetting event that is over and done with? Was it the “enemy” who pulled the trigger and caused the boy’s death, or was it his comrade in the unit who mistook him for the enemy, and also made sure he was dead, in keeping with what has become common practice around here?

And why even reopen “a wound that healed long ago” as Rafi, the father in Yehoshua Sobol’s daring play “Bereaved,” recently presented by the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv, cries out. “I keep asking,” says the father, played by Icho Avital, “Why pick at a wound that will become infected?” While the mother, Orna (Maya Rothschild), says, “I just want to know the truth.”

Apparently it’s the voice of the son we hear, whispering from out of nowhere: “Mom, don’t let them hide behind big words and bury the truth under the usual lies.” The father wants to dry up the well of pain, a bottomless well. What is the point of striving to learn the lessons, an effort the mother takes on with chilling and heart-wrenching determination?

The military and political systems have sophisticated machines that are supposed to do this work: Just feed the info into the machine and you learn about the type of weapon, the angle of fire and the deployment of the attacking soldiers. A fantastic machine. But for some reason, there is still no machine like it that will alter the reality, which keeps repeating itself ad nauseum. For even the ever-growing instances of pointless death evoke boredom, and listeners switch to another station when they hear reports about them on the radio.

The play opens with Orna’s fierce desire to find out the truth. She knows that when a lie is called truth, all the world is a lie, and so one point of truth won’t hurt. Her son, part of an undercover unit, was killed during a raid on an occupied Palestinian neighborhood. According to the Israeli version of the incident, he was there to save a Palestinian collaborator who had been exposed. The Palestinian version says the collaborator became a wanted man after he killed his Jewish handler, and the soldiers had come to assassinate him.

At an Israeli-Palestinian forum for bereaved parents, Orna meets a woman who lives in the area where the raid occurred; she tells of a Palestinian who witnessed her son’s final moments. This man also paid a terrible price: His 14-year-old daughter was killed by an Israeli soldier’s gunfire, and he lost five years of his life when he was imprisoned because of false accusations.

This is a highly charged encounter between bereaved parents from both sides. They come together on the side that overshadows all else, the side of bereavement. The trajectory of the encounter is predictable: The tense beginning, and later, as the discussion continues, they arrive at the hard truth – what is most precious to both sides is gone. All that remains is memory, which increasingly floods the space that remains. If all the surrounding circumstances are wiped away, what’s left are wounded creatures who must unite. An alliance of the wounded who have lost the most precious thing of all.

The play’s greatness lies in how it presents the feelings on both sides with an equality that does not exist in reality, or at least in the imagined reality found in all the Israeli media – radio, television and the Internet. While the killing of an Israeli soldier is presented from every possible angle, in most cases even the name of an Arab who was killed is left out of the reports. The Jew is everything and the Arab is a footnote.

The bullet was waiting

In the play, Sobol gives voice to the reality. There in the heart of Tel Aviv, the audience listens in astonishment and with great emotion to the tragedy of the 14-year-old Palestinian girl, and to the incredibly moving monologue of her mother Jamila (Salwa Nakara). The mother refuses to come to terms with the loss (What mother would?). This is a mother who still waits for her daughter to come home from school. As soon as she begins speaking to a Jewish audience in Tel Aviv, “the audience of the enemy,” she hears through the window the sound of the gate as her daughter enters, and she asks: How was school today? Jamila says her daughter, like millions of girls her age, answers, “Boooooring.”

What shall a Palestinian girl do when she encounters a military checkpoint with armed soldiers on her way home? It’s a situation that has no childhood in it, no games, no fun. It’s a situation in which, with one movement, a life can be negated just like that. The girl didn’t understand what they wanted when they spoke to her in a foreign language, and in an unfriendly tone. She was confused, and the bullet in the barrel, which does not distinguish between schoolgirls and combat soldiers, was waiting for that moment.

I sat in the theater and watched the marvelous Salwa Nakara expressing pain and love and agony. I thought about the Jewish audience around me. Could it free itself from its nationalist cell, where there is no one else, and no one else is allowed to feel the pain of bereavement? Could it accept the pain of the other, particularly when that pain is caused by those who represent this audience?

Sobol does not go easy on his Jewish viewers. The girl’s father, Daoud (Suheil Hadad), tells about the torture he endured in prison and about the years that were stolen from him. He tells how he went to the military facility where Palestinian corpses are deposited, how he went from one body bag to another, searching for his daughter but not finding her. And meanwhile another truck arrived with fresh corpses from that very day. The father looked happy; at last he found his beloved daughter – in a body bag, but at least he found her, that’s the important thing.

And Sobol keeps the blows coming. Jamila protests when the Jewish father, Rafi, won’t allow her husband into his dead son’s room, and cries: “I also wanted to preserve my daughter’s room as she left it on the last day of her life, but after your soldier killed her, your son’s friends burst into her room, stole her computer, peeled off pictures that she stuck on the walls, opened her closet to find some proof that she wasn’t an innocent 14-year-old girl but an arch-terrorist.”

And at that moment I thought of a certain Israeli journalist who was likely eagerly awaiting the results of the search, so he could explain that this innocent girl isn’t what you thought.

It’s easier to present this play to a foreign audience that will curse the occupation and the system, its soldiers, politicians and judges. It would be easier to present it to an Arab audience that despises the occupation. But it is a braver and more moral act to present it specifically to a Jewish audience in the heart of Tel Aviv. This audience is also a party in the matter, the party that makes the decisions. Sobol shows no mercy to the audience when Salwa Nakara says, “These are your sons” and looks out at the audience sitting in the darkness. Only her face is lit up with pain and accusation.

This is the sort of theater that doesn’t allow one to sit there complacently. At the end of the play, several people in the audience addressed Sobol, who was present. One said the play was “too one-sided.” Others congratulated him. He asked them all to write to him, because he cares what they have to say. That’s obvious – otherwise he would not have written such a touching play.

The director, Alon Tiran, placed the actors in a cage-like square filled with gravel, which looked black to the audience. But it’s not a square, it’s a closed circle with no beginning and no end. All is measured and precise and you can feel the oppressiveness, also in the way things tend to repeat themselves. Is this yet another round of violence in the endless series of such rounds in which we live? On second thought – If these things are happening in a square, and not in an endless circle, then perhaps they do have an end after all. What we won’t do to try to sweeten the bitter pill.