On Israeli-themed Plays and Blandness

Art that encourages political debate should not be perceived as a threat.

Yael Miller
Yael Miller
Yael Miller
Yael Miller

Theater J, the theatrical group based in the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center, is ensconced in a raging battle. According to a recent article in the Forward, Theater J recently shut down production of an allegedly anti-Israel play called “The Admission,” choosing instead to run the play in workshop format. The play is by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner.

Recent controversy has stirred sentiments in the D.C. area, as activist group Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) called for the play to be shut down entirely, claiming it presents false, anti-Israel stories as fact:

“The play depicts the modern day effort by the Israeli commander of the unit who committed the slaughter to profit by erecting a shopping mall over the site where the bodies of the Palestinian victims are buried. The author of the play — and now Theater J — want the audience to believe the play is about real life events in Tantura in 1948, but the allegation of a massacre was long ago challenged in Israel and shown to have been false.”

Theater J claims the decision to move the play into a workshop format had nothing to do with COPMA. Yet the group’s campaign is utterly confusing.

As a theater-loving fan residing in Washington, D.C., I have attended several of Theater J’s fine productions, including “Return to Haifa,” which was also disputed. All of them were well acted, thought provoking and interesting.

“Return to Haifa,” in particular, was playacted entirely in Hebrew and Arabic with actors from the Tel Aviv-based Cameri Theater, with subtitles in English. It was an incredible show – both my Israeli friends and I agreed. The subject was controversial — Palestinian refugees returning to a home resided by Holocaust survivors — but adequately portrayed the nuances, difficulties and existential challenges posed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The play made me think about the Palestinian narrative in a way I hadn’t before, and introduced me to a talented Palestinian author.

Just to be clear, Theater J shows many plays throughout a year that focus on other “Jewish” stories, including those by Neil Simon.

It’s bizarre to me that an activist group wouldn’t see the benefit in having a complex play housed in a Jewish community center. Should all art be bland and easy on the eyes and stomach? As Jews, we should be embarrassed by such activist campaigns that seek to eliminate any sort of complexities from our emotions and events. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complicated: art and debate should mirror those struggles – in all their shades of gray – rather than eliminate them, as long as the debate occurs constructively.

The desire to censor unflattering or complicated portrayals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is natural but unfortunate. Plays, works of art, music, and movies provide a unique ability to convey messages to large audiences in emotionally receptive ways. While of course we should protest against hateful speech or rhetoric, labeling as anti-Israel a play that simply shows different historical contexts respectfully isn’t the way to show the world that the Jewish people are open-minded and understand the issues at play in politics.

Jews are stereotypically famous for “answering a question with a question” – that is, provoking and continuing hotly contested debates. A quick look at any Talmudic passage is evidence enough. So, we should welcome these somewhat controversial events and house them in specifically Jewish spaces: how incredible it is, indeed, that someone from the opposite political spectrum or background could come to a Jewish space and see that the Jewish people welcome debate and introspection? And wouldn’t it be neat if that space existed in Washington, D.C.?

Let’s stop trying to whitewash our history and events and have real, complicated discussions of the conflict. No one said that this would be easy.

Yael Miller is a professional working in International Affairs in Washington, D.C.

The Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center (DCJCC)Credit: Wikipedia

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