I belong to the generation of theatergoers who in the 1980s and 1990s saw plays on the Israeli stage that tried to dramatize the country’s hardcore reality, under the rubric of “reportage,” and who urged theaters to present not what happened but what “could have happened” (in a crude but convenient simplification of Aristotle).
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Since then I’ve come to understand that it’s not so simple, still less unequivocal. But I never imagined that reality could be a playwright as precise, cruel and effective as what I encountered in “The Hearing,” a theatrical event created by Renana Raz, who also performs it together with the actors Naomi Fromowitz, Amitay Yaish Benuosilio and Ofer Amram.
I say “theatrical event” because “The Hearing” is not exactly a play, despite its theatrical aspect. Two women and two men, all wearing black, enter a conference room in the center of which is a table around which they take their seats along with some of the spectators.
For 80 minutes, the four “act out” the text of the actual pre-dismissal hearing that was held in 2014 for Adam Verete, who taught philosophy and Jewish thought in a school of the ORT vocational network in the town of Tivon, near Haifa. The hearing took place in the wake of a letter of complaint written to the education minister at the time, Shay Piron (Yesh Atid), by a student in her senior year, Sapir Sabah. She alleged that in his classes Verete had lambasted the State of Israel, cast doubt on the morality of the Israel Defense Forces, admitted that he called out “Viva Palestine!” in response to a speech by the deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, and in general had expressed “extreme left-wing opinions” in class. The event begins with a reading of her letter. Written with businesslike articulateness, it creates a substantive platform for what then transpires, concerning certain things that merit the audience’s consideration.
Verete recorded the hearing, at which he arrived in a somewhat distraught state, because in the period after Sabah sent her letter, and even after the issues had been aired between the two within the school framework (it later turned out that this was the second confrontation between them: in the first, a year earlier, she had been asked to apologize and had refused), the letter, including his name and hers, was made public on Facebook by a former MK, the ultranationalist Michael Ben Ari. Afterward, Sabah and others posted remarks that sounded clearly like threats to Verete’s life.
The recording itself was posted on the Internet, including on the Haaretz site. Raz and the actors don’t really “play” the participants in the hearing. They listen to the recording via headphones and repeat the text aloud to the audience, while exchanging roles. This is an intriguing method by which to create a disconnect between the content and its emotional thrust. It also generates unbroken alienation vis-à-vis the occurrence, creates an almost sterile attitude toward the event and allows one to focus on its implications.
And they are harrowing. I could not believe what I heard. The school’s principal, its human resources manager and the ORT network’s regional director are sitting opposite a teacher who treats his 12th-grade students like young adults and conducts fascinating discussions with them about critical issues that will occupy them as adult citizens – and all three officials talk about the students with utter contempt for their intelligence. Verete argues that issues of human rights are not political opinions, and they insist that he himself is to blame for the fact that the student who did not understand him “took things out of their context” and is inciting others to do him harm.
They maintain that what the student said in class – that “all the Arabs should be killed” – is the equivalent of his once having shouted “Viva Palestine!” in the context of a political demonstration; both are opinions, and anyway, he started it. They claim that a circular issued by the Education Ministry director general forbids teachers from expressing political opinions in class (contrary to Verete, who maintains that he is allowed to express an opinion but not try to persuade his students to accept it), though throughout they avoid quoting any official document to this effect. He talks about clarifying facts and holding a substantive discussion, they speak in clichés that border on caricature and beyond. They hear from him that he is unable to enter a class in which one of the students is inciting others to attack him; they stubbornly insist that the girl must remain in the class but that the teacher, who actually has the support of other students in the class who are also followers of Ben Ari, must go.
Watching and listening to this hearing is an extremely depressing experience, not least when one realizes how far Verete’s remarks, however challenging, were distorted by the student and her political automatons. And this was before the episode of the Al Midan Theater and its play about a Palestinian prisoner that displeased the ministers of culture and education. It happened before the issue was raised of what is suitable for the Education Ministry’s “culture basket” for schools. (In the performance of “The Hearing” that I attended, many in the audience were from the theater track of a Tel Aviv arts school, but they were not there under the auspices of the culture basket.)
All four actors are top-notch, especially given the tricky technical requirements entailed in speaking a text that is fed to them through earphones, and also exchanging roles. Shifting coalitions form, which have one thing in common: ultimately this is a struggle of one individual – Adam Verete and the values of sanity and decency that he espouses – against the majority, which strives for some sort of unity in which no one makes waves, asks difficult questions or thinks for himself after getting the facts straight.
Raz is not the first creative artist to use a recorded text as the basis for a theatrical event. But it is her aesthetic touch that imbues this event with its distinctive power as a work of art, as opposed to a reality-twisting plot derived from reality itself.
I asked myself what can be done by someone who wants to protect theatergoers against injury to Israel’s values and image as a democracy, when a stage performance uses a real text from an event that actually happened, remains faithful to the source and leaves things in their precise context, almost obsessively avoiding interpretation or taking a stand (apart from one short segment in which the actors offer their opinion of the text). True, the state is not funding this work. But who can promise me that because Renana Raz turned the recording of “the hearing” into a stage production of “The Hearing,” she will not be prevented from continuing to educate us to save water in a campaign paid for by public funds? (Raz starred in a 2009 public service announcement to increase awareness about Israel’s water crisis.)
“The Hearing” is fundamentally a cultural-social event that leaves the viewer gasping for air under an ugly wave in which “human rights” are considered the privy of an aberrant left that deserves condemnation – or even treason.
Future performances of “The Hearing” will take place on March 29 and 30, and April 1 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.