Powerful Israeli Play Looks at Jewish-Arab Tension - From Both Sides

'The Admission' begins with hopeful coexistence and evolves into a violent struggle over memory and history. Not an easy experience for viewers, but an important one.

A scene from 'The Admission.'
Radi Rubinstein

As I watched “The Admission,” Motti Lerner’s play directed by Sinai Peter at the Arab-Hebrew Theater in Jaffa, I felt like I was in a time capsule, one of those packages of items that are supposed to inform future generations about the country and, in this case, the history of Israeli theater (the Haifa Theater, in particular).

It is currently customary to complain that public repertory theater is largely guided by considerations of popular entertainment. However, this play, in keeping with the intentions and reputation of its producers, creators and cast, is faithful to Hamlet’s exhortation to actors – that the theater must “hold a mirror up to nature.”

Set near the beginning of the first intifada, in 1988, it’s the story of two Israeli families who forge a tricky coexistence that holds out a glimmer of hope, amid much underlying anxiety. Ibrahim and his son Azmi, Israeli Arabs, have a small restaurant that earns them a small livelihood. Ibrahim’s daughter Samia is studying history at the university. There she meets Giora, a young Jewish Israeli doctoral student who lost a brother in the Yom Kippur War and suffered a disabling injury in the First Lebanon War.

Predictably, the two fall in love. But they are not Romeo and Juliet. Here, it’s not love, but history, that is as powerful as death. Giora’s father, Avigdor, is a contractor and builder, one of those Israeli men who fought for Israel’s independence. This event, in the eyes of the Arab inhabitants of Palestine-Israel who survived the “ethnic cleansing” that did-or-didn’t-take-place, is called the Nakba.

Avigdor is an enthusiastic supporter of coexistence, and helps renovate Ibrahim’s restaurant. But then Ibrahim, who as a child was expelled with his family from the Arab village of Tantur, during the War of Independence, remembers him as the commander of the military operation in the village. Ibrahim remembers a massacre of defenseless civilians, while Avigdor remembers a hard battle in which some of his soldier comrades fell. When Avigdor wants to build on the ruins of Tantur, Ibrahim comes after him with a knife.

When Avigdor hesitates to go to the police, Giora starts to wonder what really happened in Tantur during the War of Independence, and what his father’s role was. This part of the plot is based on research by Teddy Katz of the University of Haifa on the massacre in the real-life village of Tantura (relatives of Lerner, the playwright, who comes from Zichron Yaakov, are part of this bleak story, whose veracity was questioned). Giora discovers that it was another one of those stories that we’ve preferred to forget, and goes from being his father’s defender to his tormentor – in order to elicit from him “the admission” from which the play takes its name.

In his effort to force the father to admit what happened in the fictional Tantur, based on the historical Tantura debacle – which Giora considers terrible, even while being aware, like Azmi the younger Arab, that the Arab side is exaggerating the scope of its disaster. In a way, the play resembles Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” in which the father gradually comes to realize that he is responsible for the tragedies that afflict his children.

The blood of innocents

Lerner has certainly written a well-made play, a carefully constructed realist drama that weaves together the interpersonal relations between characters with ideological trends, with each character torn between conflicting tendencies. Giora is about to marry Neta, a young and ambitious manager in his father’s construction business (in order to put an end to his forbidden romance with Samia). Avigdor’s wife, Yona, was with her husband at Tantur and remembers what happened, but is also deeply worried about her disabled son and haunted by the memory of her fallen son. She knows that both her sons became “fighters” in order to follow in their father’s footsteps – which are now being revealed to be more stained with the blood of innocents than he is ready to admit to himself. One of the saddest messages of this play is that the children’s generation, both Jewish and Arab, is already paying a heavy price for the (willing or forced) self-deception by the parents’ generation.

The audience knows what it’s getting into when it comes to see this play; it’s quite hard to imagine them worrying about hurt feelings if the word “Nakba” is uttered on stage. The play compels the audience to contend with all the situation’s inherent contradictions, without going easy on either side. Ibrahim proposes a “deal” to Avigdor: “If you won’t dig, I won’t remember,” which sounds to me like a marvelous slogan for halting a barren political debate in which both sides dig in by insisting they’re in the right.

Azmi speaks with candid despair about the weakness of the just but defeated who want to live, and the viewer empathizes in turn with each of the characters and their angst. This is the most touching, and the most balanced, play I’ve seen in Israel that addresses these complex subjects.

Much praise is due to the cast, some of whom are particularly impressive. Avigdor is played by Oded Kotler, who vividly brings to life the character of the hegemonic Israeli who sees the rightness of his path begin to crumble. (Kotler’s offstage presence in the Israeli cultural-political debate lends weight to his portrayal.) Hava Ortman imbues his wife with a quiet resolve as she tries to preserve the humanity of her family and herself. George Iskander is superb as the second-generation Israeli Arab who evinces a pained and sober understanding that some things are just the way they are, because not all is just in this world. Ruba Blal Asfour plays Samia, and her honest and wholesome charm is an important component in the swirl of emotions that ensue in the play.

It’s a little more complicated with the two young-generation Jewish Israeli characters: The Giora character is a kind of Israeli Michael Kohlhaas, prepared to tear everything down as long as he obtains his share of justice; he is the catalyst for the plot. Daniel Bartov, who also has to limp around on crutches, puts all his emotions, most of which are very extreme, into it, making it difficult for the viewer to open up to him and identify with him. Nitzan Levertovsky, who plays Neta, does her best with a nearly impossible character that exists solely to serve the plot. This character’s mere functionality stands out in contrast to all the other deeply human characters on stage.

Now I come to the point that caused me to feel, in the small and very appealing hall of the Arab-Hebrew Theater, like I was watching a Haifa Theater play from the 1970s – an era of original plays that dealt with Israeli reality; or at the time of the Israeli political play of the 1980s. This was not just because the director Nola Chilton and the author A. B. Yehoshua, stalwarts of those times, were also present in the audience, but because it felt like a return to the kind of theater in which a realistic plot is staged in a realistic way, with very restrained visual effects. This is the preferred theatrical approach of Kotler and Peter, who first and foremost aim to serve the play and its author.

In this minimalist production, everyone is dressed in black, and only a few basic props and pieces of furniture – a table, some chairs – are seen. The emphasis is on the characters, the drama and the relationships. One of the loveliest moments in the play is when Hanna Eady, in the role of Ibrahim, who carries the memory of the horror, takes the stage in his stocking-feet, after having dipped his feet in sand next to the stage. To me, the sight of his sandy footprints on the floor of the stage was even more powerful than “the admission” that comes at the end of the play.

In the end, “the admission” for which Giora has fought comes to this: “We did some terrible things, but there was no choice, and it just happened.” And the play concludes from the viewpoint of a bereaved and hurting Jewish Israeli family.

Quibbles aside – and I voiced the same sort of criticism when I saw the best of original Israeli political theater in the 1970s and 1980s – this is an important play that, while not easy viewing, deals with the reality of our lives. It may not have all the grandeur and entertainment value of “Les Miserables,” but then neither does real life.

“The Admission” is playing this week at the Jaffa Theater – Arab-Hebrew Theater on Monday at 20:00 and Tuesday at 18:00 and 21:00.