Breaking the Silence in Israel by Treading the Boards in Washington

A play based on the testimony of former Israeli soldiers is opening minds in D.C. — at least in the city’s fringe festival.

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A scene from the play 'It's What We Do' by Pamela Nice, July 2015.
A scene from the play 'It's What We Do' by Pamela Nice, July 2015.Credit: 'It's What We Do' (Courtesy)
Yair Ashkenazi
Yair Ashkenazi

While Israeli soldiers’ testimonials on events in the West Bank rarely get covered in the Israeli media, they provide explosive material in places like the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C.

The new production “It’s What We Do,” written and directed by U.S. playwright Pamela Nice, is based on the book “Our Harsh Logic,” which was published in 2013 by the veterans’ organization Breaking the Silence.

The play, which dramatizes Israeli soldiers’ testimonials on their service in the West Bank and Gaza in the century’s first decade, stirred great interest at the D.C. festival. The play won an audience prize for best drama, with crowds clamoring for more performances.

American playwright Pamela NiceCredit: Pamela Nice (Courtesy)

The show dramatizes soldiers’ testimonials, while three soldiers — two male and one female — respond to a character asking questions from the audience. The soldiers’ confessions are directed at the audience, making the entire space feel like an interrogation room.

Breaking the Silence has said it has no links to the production, noting that “all the testimonials provided by the organization are published on our website and are open to the public to use as it wishes.”

“I think the scenes are important because Americans don’t really know what the occupation looks like. It’s just a word in the media to most of us,” Nice tells Haaretz by phone. “The play gives a picture of this reality, and many who have lived in the West Bank and seen the production say we have recreated that reality in a chilling way.”

A playwright and film producer, Nice explores U.S.-Arab relations. She has made two documentaries on the subject.

A scene from the play 'It's What We Do' by Pamela Nice, July 2015.Credit: 'It's What We Do' (Courtesy)

Her “Letters from Cairo” explores the attitudes of young Egyptian artists on American influence, while “Dreaming in Morocco” focuses on the aspirations of young Moroccans (she has lived in both countries). She has also directed dozens of plays, and has taught theater, Arab film and Arab literature at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

Arrests and confiscations galore

Just like the book, the play has its subheadings — “Intimidation,” “Separation,” “Administering Civilian Life” and the “Dual Regime of Law Enforcement” (for Israeli settlers and Palestinians). There are images of arrests in the middle of the night, the confiscation of goods at the Erez border crossing into Gaza, the uprooting of olive groves and the shooting at fishing boats exceeding their allotted space off Gaza’s coast.

In several scenes, violence against Palestinians by settlers is depicted  —    violence that is hardly ever reported by the U.S. media, Nice says.

A scene from the play 'It's What We Do' by Pamela Nice, July 2015.Credit: 'It's What We Do' (Courtesy)

In one scene, based on the testimony of a soldier who served in Hebron, there is a description of a flare-up between the father of an Israeli boy and an army medic. The boy wounded a Palestinian girl by throwing a brick at her. When the medic tells the father what the boy did, the father takes the boy away, spitting near the wounded girl.

The medic’s lines go more or less like this.

“Now he’s going to praise the boy. I know that these parents teach their children to hate Arabs and support them when they curse Arabs and hurl rocks at them . I’m an Israeli-Jewish soldier supposed to be against the Arabs because they’re my enemy. But here I am, near a settler’s house, starting to think that I’m not on the side of the Jews and that they're in the wrong.”

So how do viewers respond to these confessions?

A scene from the play 'It's What We Do' by Pamela Nice, July 2015.Credit: 'It's What We Do' (Courtesy)

“Some people argue that since we chose to present things from the soldiers’ viewpoints we don’t present a complete picture and the situation is much more complex. I agree with that because every story and viewpoint gives only part of the story, just as the official line the Israeli government and American media choose to present is only part of the picture,” Nice says.

“No play, movie or book can provide a complete picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in our play we present a story that is powerful and significant because it has been repressed, and this repression caused us to view Palestinian violence as stemming from a struggle over land and a homeland rather than as a response to the policies of the occupation.”

The worst thing is to be indifferent

The play is performed by 10 Arab and American male and female actors, one of whom actually served in the U.S. Army for four years in Kosovo. Nice says most of them were unaware of what goes on in the West Bank and Gaza. They studied the topic through articles, videos and conversations with former Israeli soldiers and members of Breaking the Silence.

A scene from the play 'It's What We Do' by Pamela Nice, July 2015.Credit: 'It's What We Do' (Courtesy)

Nice says discussions between the actors and the audience after each performance elicit responses from people on both sides.

“Audience members have lots of questions about how the play was put together, and ask if acting in the play has changed the actors,” she says. “So far, no actor has admitted to this. We’ll see. I’m sure none of them has been in a play that provokes such a visceral response from the audience and such intriguing questions afterwards.”

Nice says the play raises diverse questions and responses among the audience.

Most people in the audience are very moved by the play and say this in a variety of ways, she says. Some say the play is biased and bring up Palestinian terrorism. Some ask if the former soldiers in Breaking the Silence have encountered ostracism in Israeli society, or ask what they can do to push the discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict forward.

“We suggest that they educate themselves as much as possible — we provide a resource sheet for the audience — and become active politically or in their religious communities to fight for more equality for Palestinians and Israelis,” Nice says.

A scene from the play 'It's What We Do' by Pamela Nice, July 2015.Credit: 'It's What We Do' (Courtesy)

“The worst thing is to be indifferent, as one of our actors said in a post-show discussion. Americans give Israel $3.2 billion a year in foreign aid, some of it used to fund the occupation. We are complicit in what happens in Israel and Palestine. We can’t afford to look away or be silent. The soldiers have taught us that.”

Nice says “It’s What We Do” was produced with no support from the establishment. Instead, funds were raised online, as well as with the help of private donors and Jewish organizations in Washington including Jewish Voice for Peace.

She believes that since all five performances were sold out rapidly the production escaped the attention of local right-wing groups that support the  Israeli government. She notes that Camera, a group that monitors U.S. media reports on the Middle East, has asked for a copy of the play.

Nice says she’d be happy to come to Israel and direct a version of the work in Hebrew with local actors.

A scene from the play 'It's What We Do' by Pamela Nice, July 2015. Credit: 'It's What We Do' (Courtesy)

“I’ve learned so much as I’ve journeyed with these soldiers’ voices over the past two years,” she says. “I admire their honesty, their struggles, their courage in speaking out, and their commitment to seeing Palestinians as individuals, not objects of occupation.”

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