When Looking at the Other Was Still a Possibility in Israeli Culture

A new documentary revisits the controversy around 'Returning to Haifa,' staged in 2008 and 2011.

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A Parallel Time,” about the life and writings of Walid Daka, who is serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison for his involvement in the murder of an Israeli soldier, raised a storm last summer. It was removed from the list of Education-Ministry-sanctioned plays and the Culture Ministry considered withdrawing state funding from Haifa’s Al-Midan Theater, which staged it.

No such uproar greeted Boaz Gaon’s “Returning to Haifa” when it was produced by Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater in 2008 and again in 2011, with over 80 performances, albeit it did have its detractors. I return to it now because its 2011 run at Theater J in Washington, D.C. (with different casting, directed by Sinai Peter) is the subject of “Return to Haifa: The Other’s Story,” a documentary by David Goldenberg that was shown at the recent Haifa International Film Festival.

Gaon’s play was an adaptation of the novel by the same name, written by Ghassan Kanafani. A renowned Palestinian cultural figure, scholar and political activist, Kanafani was the spokesman of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Wa'al Wakim.

Kanafani, together with his 17-year-old niece, was killed by a car bomb in Beirut in July 1972. It is commonly accepted that the Mossad killed him on account of his ties to the PFLP and a recent photograph showing him with one of the Japanese terrorists responsible for the March 1972 massacre at Lod Airport (now Ben-Gurion International Airport).

While “A Parallel Time” ignores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to focus on Daka’s personal story, Kanafani’s 1969 novella juxtaposes the gaping wound on each side: the Holocaust, the justification for Israel’s existence; and the Nakba, in which Palestinians fled or were expelled in 1948, which is the basis of their demand for the right of return.

In Kanafani’s story, a couple living in Ramallah return to Haifa after the 1967 Six-Day War — after the Green Line no longer posed an obstacle but before the settlements, the occupation and all the rest — to visit the home they fled in 1948. In all the confusion of that war, they left behind an infant son.

In their former home they find two Holocaust survivors, whose own son had died in a concentration camp. They adopted the baby left behind, who is now a paratrooper in the Israeli army.

Shades of Brecht and King Solomon

The novella and the play resonate with the Judgment of King Solomon as well as Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” Both sides seize the abandoned Palestinian baby who was raised by the Holocaust survivors to be a soldier and each, in that house in Haifa, claim full ownership over both the land and the person — in the name of both justice and (perhaps chiefly), their suffering.

That is the main problem that is the focus of the play, the film about its production in Washington and the fierce debate it stirred there and here.

Playwright Boaz Gaon, who is interviewed in the film, turns our attention to a fact we tend to obscure: Kanafani, who carried the pain of being a refugee (he was born in Acre in 1936; his family fled to Beirut in 1948 and later reached Damascus), is considered the first writer to depict — in a novella intended for Palestinian readers — the story of people who are, to them, “the other”: the story of Holocaust survivors who lovingly raise an abandoned baby and display some empathy for the plight of the Palestinian couple.

In 2008, Gaon, Peter, Cameri head Noam Semel and artistic director Omri Nitzan saw it as a right, even a duty, to bring to the attention of an Israeli-Jewish theater audience “the other’s story” of Palestinians — most of whom were then and are today human beings in distress, having lost their national and personal assets in 1948, whether they fled or were expelled.

Goldenberg’s movie doesn’t deal directly with the Israeli production, only with the American one in 2011. This was in essence a transposition of the Cameri production, with Frida Shoham’s sand-toned set, Peter’s direction and Rozina Cambos in one of her greatest and last performances as the Jewish-Israeli mother. (The film is dedicated to her memory — she was nominated for the Helen Hayes Award for the role). Erez Kahana played the complex role of the soldier-son, the emotional focus of the conflict, as he did in Tel Aviv. Other actors were replaced: In Tel Aviv in 2008 the Palestinian couple was played by Norman Issa and Mira Awad. In Washington they were played by Suheil Haddad and Raida Adon, with their scenes played in Arabic. (The Cameri adopted this when it staged the play again in 2011 after its success in Washington.) The Israeli-Jewish father was played by Yossi Kantz in Tel Aviv and Nissim Zohar in Washington.

Complex issues

The movie follows the play’s plot. Between the scenes it incorporates interviews with the producers, who are all involved in the production as artists, as politically involved people, as Israelis and Palestinians. They address their complex attitudes to the content of the story, which took center stage in rehearsals and in shaping the performance.

There are also interviews with people who knew Kanafani, with historians who shed light on the complexity of the issues (there are testimonies of deportations and of flight by Arabs despite requests by Israeli officials that they remain), and with Palestinian and Jewish officials in Washington who relate what this production evoked in them.

The movie sides with the American producers of the play, and presents well the rationale for the theater’s approach, which deals with emotional-human aspects, confronting viewers with their own emotions with regard to complex issues that have no solution, even if they are explosive.

The movie does not obscure the complexity of the problem in all its aspects and does not embellish. One can understand, even when disagreeing with, the arguments of opponents of its production.

The play was staged in Israel in 2008 and in Washington in 2011, to great artistic success. It was chosen one of the 10 best plays in Washington that year and the skies didn’t come crashing down.

Ironically, Ari Roth, who led J Theater at Washington’s Jewish Community Center starting in 1997, was fired in 2014 — despite protests by prominent figures in the U.S. theater world — apparently, for bringing “voices from a changing Middle East” in which Israel’s representation did not conform to the wishes of the Israeli and the conservative Jewish-American establishments. In the movie, Peter recalls being reprimanded, together with the play’s producers, by Israel’s then-ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.

It is doubtful that what was possible and almost self-evident in an Israeli repertory theater in 2008 could exist today.

After Culture Minister Miri Regev declared her intention to invoke provisions in the budgetary legislation in order to withdraw state funding from institutions that ostensibly violate laws such as the so-called Nakba and boycott law — which did not exist in 2008, and leaving aside the question of whether they can be applied to staged works of fiction — I assume that no director would even consider putting on a play like “Returning to Haifa” today. I also fear somewhat that professional and amateur fomenters of protest would have more success today than in 2008.

Nevertheless, for 40 years there have been times when I was convinced that things are bleak and that freedom of expression is in clear and present danger. These include Hanoch Levin’s “The Queen of the Bathtub” in 1970, or the protests against Brecht’s “Mother Courage and her Children” in 1973, “The Patriot” in 1982, “A Jewish Soul,” “Ghetto,” “The Palestinian” and “Jerusalem Syndrome” in the 1980s. For some reason I think that the ‘90s and the 2000s were “freer,” while today one gets the impression of screws tightening on our muzzles. This is why it’s important to see this movie, which deals with the strength and weakness of theater.