The Israeli Playwright Who Foresaw the Illusion - and Arrogance - of Israel's Might

Even before the hostilities erupted in 1973, Joshua Sobol's plays were dealing with the Israeli army's sense of being undefeatable.

Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
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Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem

On October 5, 1973, a day before the Yom Kippur War broke out, the final dress rehearsal was held at the Haifa Municipal Theater for Joshua Sobol’s “Sylvester 72” ‏(“New Year’s Eve 72”‏). The play was scheduled to premier the following night, but Sobol and all the male actors were called to their reserve units in the interim. When the war broke out, the show was canceled; Sobol himself did not return from duty until the following March.

“When I got back, we got the whole cast together to see if the text we’d been working on was still relevant,” he relates. “It turned out that the play was even more relevant than before, so we staged it unchanged in April, 1974. One of the critics called the play the theatrical equivalent of the Agranat Commission [set up to investigate the circumstances leading to the war].”

The war and the public protest that followed caught mainstream theater off guard to some extent, explains Prof. Dan Urian, head of theater studies at the Western Galilee Academic College. “The response to the greatest debacle in Israel’s military history was met with silence in all spheres, including the cultural one,” he says, adding that the same reaction followed the outbreak of the first intifada at the end of the 1980s. “In both cases the stage responded very slowly. It took two or three years until plays dealing with it appeared, at the Acre Festival.”

Urian attributes the absence of any immediate response in the theaters to the Yom Kippur War to a lack of creativity, and says, “There was no place then for protest theater, particularly not on the mainstream stages, which carefully avoided anything that was critical.”

Into this breach marched American-born theater director Nola Chilton, who was back then a lecturer in drama at Tel Aviv University. She served as a shining beacon in the darkness with two plays she staged: “What I Think of the War,” centering around conversations with war widows and staged in 1974, and “Friends Talk with Gidi,” performed in 1975.

Urian: “Chilton is one of the most fascinating forces in Israeli theater, and she enjoys a particular advantage: She always approaches issues from a tourist’s vantage point, although she is very well versed in Israeli affairs. Tourists have certain privileges. They can observe us from the outside.”

Urian notes that Chilton − this year’s recipient of the Israel Prize in the performing arts − brought the American tradition of protest theater to Israel, after growing up in the United States during the 1960s, in the period following Kennedy’s assassination and during the Vietnam War, with all the massive demonstrations it sparked.

Sobol was greatly influenced by Chilton. “Sylvester 72” deals with a rift that erupted between two strands of Israeli society. One is represented by the character of Boaz, an earth-moving contractor who got rich quick during the construction of the Bar-Lev Line of fortifications along the Suez Canal and was drunk on the euphoria that followed the Six-Day War. The second trend is embodied by Yoash, another contractor who has also discovered a lucrative sideline, supplying the rocks for making headstones at military cemeteries. The building of the Bar-Lev Line provided ample opportunities for people who specialized in construction of huge earth embankments. This was the contractors’ hour of glory, coming on the heels of the postwar euphoria, Sobol explains, adding, “Yoash sees where things are heading and understands that the country is sliding toward militarism.”

In contrast to the silence dominating other theaters vis-a-vis politics and military subjects, the Haifa production of Sobol’s play accurately captured the prevailing mood before the war, the playwright notes. “During that period I was on reserve duty a lot, and I became aware of the self-confidence and arrogance which reflected the feeling that we are undefeatable,” he says. “This comes out in Boaz’s outspoken and arrogant language. By contrast, the character of Yoash looks around him and wants to escape. I understood the essence of the euphoria which prevailed at that time and I identified with Yoash.”

The folly of war was at the center of “The Joker,” another Sobol play performed at the Haifa theater, in 1975. It belonged to a category labeled “bunker dramas” − plays which took place in the very specific setting of Israel’s wars, such as in isolated or besieged outposts. This play deals with a reserve unit in a bunker on the Golan Heights, during a period of light artillery exchanges.

“These are frustrated and defeated reserve soldiers who cannot be easily subjected to authority,” explains Sobol, adding that he was able to identify with what he calls the moral decay that was pervasive at the time, due to his own service in a combat engineering unit. “The play presented a typical cross section of Israeli society, with 25- to 40-year-old men who sat around, dozed and played cards all day long, listening to the same old audio cassette of [popular comedy trio] Hagashash Hahiver, which they all knew by heart. People were starting to sell their guard duties for cash. I sat there thinking that this was excellent material for a drama.”

The members of the unit in “The Joker” are called up for guard duty that involves a mission across the border in Syria, but none of them agrees. The sergeant in command cannot control his men, but all this changes when a soldier who’s just finished his compulsory service arrives as reinforcement. “At first,” the playwright explains, “he tries to build up his image as a tough guy. The reservists go along with him ... Then he’s sent on a night reconnaissance mission behind the Syrian enemy’s front lines.”

Sobol says he wrote “The Joker” as a direct response to the Yom Kippur War: “The universal message here is that when an older generation tires of war, a new one comes along to replace it and join the ‘fun.’”

Prof. Urian says that despite the public protests that followed the war, most Israelis became preoccupied with how the shortcomings revealed in it could be repaired. “The prevalent ethos was still a Zionist-socialist one, and the play that highlighted the cracks in the edifice was Sobol’s ‘The Joker’ − the first that dared to show antihero types,” he says.

‘Rout on the battlefield’

Sobol subsequently wrote “The Jerusalem Syndrome.” It premiered in 1987 at the Haifa Municipal Theater, causing quite a stir. Sobol believes that “a trauma caused by nearly suffering a rout on the battlefield took hold, moving many people to the right in their worldview. However, others moved in the opposite direction following the war. The rift was obvious to me. That is what motivated me to write ‘The Jerusalem Syndrome,’ which deals with the threat of destruction.”

In 1975, in his play “Schitz,” Hanoch Levin also dealt with the earth-moving contractors who got rich building the Bar-Lev Line ‏(which gave Israelis a false sense of security‏). This play was also performed at the Haifa Municipal Theater.

Prof. Gad Kaynar, who served until recently as chair of the theater arts department at TAU, notes other plays of this period that indirectly touched upon the Yom Kippur War. These include “Charlie Ka-Charlie,” by Dan Horowitz, which was performed at the Khan Theater in Jerusalem. “This play, which examined the components of the [native-born Israeli] sabra archetype, was one of the first to point out that the rampant Holocaust complex is a sign of Jewish weakness that feeds into the racism and aggressiveness of Israeli society,” he explains.

In the same vein, Urian notes that some plays would never have been performed were it not for the Yom Kippur War, such as “Eddie King” by Nissim Aloni, in 1975. “This was a bold play that was badly received by audiences and critics alike,” he recalls. “It was a blend of ‘Oedipus Rex’ and Coppola’s ‘Godfather,’ rolled into one in a single play. It takes place in New York, but everyone in the audience knows that the play refers to Tel Aviv.”

Aloni, says Urian, was “living the ethos” of the 1948 War of Independence, and “was a Zionist until his dying day. But the Yom Kippur War released something within him that enabled him to stage something so radical.” Urian says he is convinced that “The Governor of Jericho” by Yosef Mundi, performed at the Cameri Theater in 1975, is also connected to the 1973 war: “This is a very critical play that denounces the central place that wars and soldiers occupy in Israeli society.” The play aroused much protest and was taken off after only 35 performances.

Kaynar identifies yet another effect the war had, related to its impact on what he calls documentary playwriting in the country: “Original plays that were staged here after the war were part of the social and cultural earthquake that took place,” he says. “They involved a reexamination of values and entrenched myths that were embedded in Zionism and Israeli society − an inquiry resulting from the shock and loss of certainty regarding accepted truisms that had been shattered because of the failures that led to the Yom Kippur War.”

Perhaps one of the most famous plays staged during the postwar era was “The Night of the Twentieth,” written by Sobol and directed by Chilton. It was performed at the Haifa Municipal Theater in 1976, with the participation of members of an acting troupe that included Moni Moshonov, Gita Munte, Sandra Sadeh, Idit Tzur, Ezra Kafri and others. The play portrayed the story of a prototypical kibbutz, Bitaniya, created in the Galilee in the 1920s. Its idealistic members had engaged, among other things, in group dynamics to sort out their motives for immigrating to Palestine and settling the land, while displacing Arabs from their villages; eventually many decided to leave and some committed suicide. The play examined the veracity of the heroic myths surrounding the pioneers − the sort of myths that underlay the education of many generations of Israelis.

Sobol, for his part, agrees with Kaynar’s interpretation of the play: “After the war I investigated the roots upon which Israel is founded, as well as the cultural and spiritual world of the Yishuv [prestate Jewish community], in order to understand how we’d reached the point we were at. The search for these roots led me to the nightly discussions at Bitaniya. That led me to write “The Night of the Twentieth.” The question raised there was how to deal with the Arab population and what sort of relations to establish with them. I demonstrate how that question, posed at the outset of the [modern settlement] enterprise, was later cast aside and repressed.”

The more time passes since the 1973 war, the broader the theatrical perspective on it becomes. The play that most blatantly attacks the military failures leading up to the war is “Gorodish,” by Hillel Mittelpunkt ‏(“Gorodish” was the nickname of Shmuel Gonen, head of the army’s Southern Command during the war‏), which was staged at the Cameri 20 years later. It will be performed again later this year in a new Habima production, marking the war’s 40th anniversary.

“‘Gorodish’ was a great success, since younger members of the audience related to the [army’s] mishaps as if they occurred during the first Lebanon war, not the Yom Kippur War,” says Urian. He adds that “both ‘Petroleum City’ and ‘Ismailia,’ also written by Mittelpunkt and performed early in the 2000s, were postwar plays dealing with the aftermath of Yom Kippur and the moral pollution which followed the occupation of the Sinai Peninsula.”

Sobol's "Jerusalem Syndrom" (1987). The postwar rift between people with right-wing and left-wing views spurred him to write the play.Credit: Morel Derfler/Courtesy of the Haifa Municipal Theater
Joshua Sobel. "When an older generation tires of war, a new one comes along to replace it and join the 'fun.'"Credit: Moti Milrod
Nola Chilton. "Approaches issues from a tourist's vantage point."Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitch

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