U.S. Dramatists Guild Backs Performance of Critical Israeli Show in Washington

Guild protests Federation, JCC efforts to scuttle controversial play by Israeli playwright about fictionalized 1948 incident in Palestinian village.

Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
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Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem

Despite opposition from local right-wing Jewish organizations, the Dramatists Guild of America has come out in support of Washington, D.C.'s Theater J, which seeks to mount a production of a controversial play by an Israeli-born dramatist.

The Theater J production of Motti Lerner's “The Admission,” directed by Sinai Peter and with music by Habib Shehadeh, is due to premiere in March; its cast features some of Washington’s top actors. But ever since the production was announced, conservative American Jewish organizations have tried to stop it, due to the fact that its (fictionalized) story concerns the killing of Palestinians during Israel's War of Independence in 1948.

A small group calling itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) is calling on people to boycott the theater and its supporters.

For his part, Lerner says massive pressure is being exerted upon Theater J's management, headed by Ari Roth, and on the administration of the D.C. Jewish Community Center that houses the theater. There have been nightly protests in front of the center for some time, plus donors to the local Jewish Federation have said they will withdraw their support for the JCC and the theater if the play goes on.

The pressure has been effective, and the JCC decided to force the theater to cancel some performances of "The Admission": The play is now listed as a workshop production, and 14 of the 30 planned shows were cancelled. Instead, William Gibson’s play “Golda’s Balcony” will be staged, with the apparent aim of showing a more balanced picture of Israeli society.

Last week, the brouhaha reached the pages of The Washington Post, where it was depicted as an attempt at censorship and coercion that runs counter to freedom of expression.

The Dramatists Guild of America – whose members include such prominent playwrights as Tony Kushner, Edward Albee and Stephen Sondheim – has protested COPMA’s “bullying tactics” in a letter to the Jewish Federation. In the January 27 letter, the guild even quoted a 2012 statement by Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch before the Knesset, when the ultra-Orthodox Shas party opposed production of another Lerner play: “The State of Israel is proud of the freedom of expression in the arts and especially the freedom of expression in the theater.”

The guild then asks: "Should the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the DCJCC have a lower standard for the freedom of expression than Israel?"

Lerner says "The Admission," written in 2005, deals mainly with the discrepancy in the reports of how many people were killed in an army operation in 1948 in the village of Tantura: The Israel Defense Forces puts that number at 70, while historians Ilan Pappe and Teddy Katz of the University of Haifa insist that a massacre took place there in which more than 200 were killed. The play has not been yet been staged in Israel, though four theaters have expressed willingness to do so.

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