New Play Puts Spotlight on Israel's 1948 War of Independence

Marat Parkhomovosky's '1948' is inspired by Benny Morris' historical book about the formation of the state, and has triggered much discussion among audiences.

Helen Janowski

It’s not every play where the audience stays seated after the applause has died down. Usually, the lights come up and the audience members leave the auditorium in a hurry, speaking with one another about trivial matters. But after the show “1948” at the Tmoona Theater in Tel Aviv last month, most of the audience stayed in their seats, silent.

No discussion about the Israeli War of Independence – the topic of the show – had been scheduled. But when the writer and director Marat Parkhomovosky, and Prof. Gad Kiner, the scholar and actor, suggested to the audience that they speak spontaneously, it seemed as if they had broken through a closed door.

Yanai Yechiel

“There was a feeling we had allowed people to talk about a subject they are usually afraid to touch,” Parkhomovosky recalls. No one made any insulting remarks, although that was only the beginning of the show’s run.

“1948” was born out of a moment of enlightenment Parkhomovosky experienced when he read Benny Morris’ book, also called “1948.” Morris’ insights about the War of Independence, particularly the reasons that led to the war and the Arabs’ flight in 1948 – still known as “the refugee problem” – were an eye-opener for him, since, as he says, they showed the distortion in the structuring of the history of the state’s establishment as it is taught in schools. Since Parkhomovosky, 35, writes for the stage, his immediate thought was that he had to adapt the book for the theater and show the truths that Morris had uncovered to the public at large.

In his research, Morris retells the Zionist narrative of the establishment of the State of Israel and investigates the roots of the conflict. He documented the history of the War of Independence stage by stage, analyzed the birth of the refugee problem and uncovered dark episodes – particularly the cruelties perpetrated by Jewish combat soldiers during the war. According to Parkhomovosky, the Israelis’ bleeding wound is concealed in the history of that war, even more than the start of the occupation in 1967.

“People talk about the War of Independence using the myth of the few against the many,” Parkhomovosky says. “We know about the war from the invasion of the Arab countries after independence was declared. But events took place before then that nobody talks about. My personal feeling is that the entire current Israeli experience is based on repression, and this repression makes it difficult – for me as well – to breathe and create.

“Zionism actually wiped out the Arab culture here,” he adds. “But we don’t want to, or we cannot, deal with that original sin, which dictates our behavior and defines our existence and the management of the conflict to this day.”

Despite his immediate urge to adapt Morris’ book, which was published in 2008, it took a few years for the show to take shape. Parkhomovosky, who writes cultural reviews on websites, faced a dilemma that was neither intellectual nor moral. It was an aesthetic, artistic and almost trivial question: How can one adapt a laconic, dry, scientific and impartial history book, such as Morris’ excellent work, for the theater?

The show “1948,” whose next performances are tonight and tomorrow night, is not realistic. Rather, it is a combination of a realistic framework and a largely detached journalistic interview between a reporter – Parkhomovosky himself – and Morris (played by Kiner), and performance art that exposes the behind-the-scenes mechanism of the show. It moves between a play based on text and the movement art at its center. At first, Parkhomovosky is on the stage, playing himself, but also playing the interviewer. It is misleading for a few moments. Where exactly is the line between reality and fiction?

‘Ethical questions’

“My perception and my thoughts about the theatrical medium are the opposite of an imitation of reality. Instead, for me theater is like ancient Greek theater – a public arena for thrashing out living myths and ethical questions,” says Parkhomovosky. Together with the historical angle, the show deals with the historian drama of Morris himself. When he was just starting out, Morris belonged to the group known as the “New Historians” – he coined the name himself in one of his works – whose members challenged the traditional historical perceptions of Zionism and took public criticism from their colleagues. But later on, Morris repudiated the positions he had expressed at first and began taking nationalist positions (this turnabout was dealt with in a 2004 interview he gave to Ari Shavit in Haaretz). But at the same time, he maintained his academic neutrality as a historian. Morris never repudiated his scholarly works and continued his research, even after the turnabout in his political views and positions. The portrayal of the historian as one who suffers almost from a split personality as a result of repression gives the play its tragic dimension.

Parkhomovosky even goes so far as to draw a parallel between the process Morris undergoes and the process Israeli society underwent. “I think that in the distinction he makes, he demonstrates the whole problematic nature of 1948 and repression,” the playwright claims. “Even though he has all the information, he does not give it moral significance. Instead, he puts it on the shelf and believes that we should still treat the Arabs with a firm hand. That is the position of an Israeli who says: With all due respect to the truth, we are right.”

The heart of the play is the turnabout that Morris experiences. The multidisciplinary artist Shimrit Malul added music, choreography and lighting design to the realistic interview situation. All of these things breathe life into the transformation Morris undergoes when, at a certain point in the interview, he begins to shake and lose control of his hands, which attack his body. “I tried to show what happens to the body when it goes through the conflict, when such violence becomes possible,” Malul says. “His soul is screaming to get out.”

“That is what the play is trying to solve,” adds Kiner. “The show tries to examine the moral impact, and that is expressed in movement that goes against the text itself. The more the text speaks about occupations and victories, the more the body and voice resist. They are also hinting at the silencing that exists on the subject. After all, it is forbidden to talk about the Nakba [the Palestinian term for the formation of the state]. It is taboo. The patriotic part of the show is dealing with the wound, opening it.”

Parkhomovosky, who came to Israel from Ukraine as a child, believes the fact that he is not a product of Israel, but grew up on the fringes of Israeli society, allows him to see that what happened in 1948 goes against Judaism. “And that is from my place as a Jew, not as an Israeli.”

But he does not feel just or moral. On the contrary. The performance ends with an ironic look that expresses Parkhomovosky’s ambivalence as an artist regarding the effectiveness of art. As if seeking to subvert the foundations of his own production, he wonders whether he is actually changing his position. He also claims that the fact Israeli culture is based on foundations of repression makes it a shallow culture to some extent, lacking real roots. “There is a good reason why we play ‘Shalva’ [‘Tranquillity’] – the song that is so well-loved and that was performed by the army troupe – which is a complete repression of what an army is and what Israeli soldiers must actually do during their service. I had to take a poke at that feeling of absolving one’s conscience.”