Firing Ari Roth Made a Fool of U.S. Jewish Discourse

In firing its artistic director, Theater J capitulated to the monophonic Israel discourse that Jewish Americans so desperately need to overcome.

Anton Goodman
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Screenshot from washingtonpost.com of former Theater J director Ari Roth
Anton Goodman

Last week, the controversial artistic director of Theater J, Ari Roth, was fired. Under Roth's 18-year tenure, the theater, based at the Washington D.C.'s Jewish Community Center, had become the foremost Jewish theater group in North America, and stood out as the country's most provocative and paradigm-shifting force in Israel-arts programming. The theater had been considering terminating Roth for a few years, but when it finally did so, it laid a negative milestone in the journey of Jewish-American relations with the State of Israel.

Despite the phenomenon of Birthright and the mega events that celebrate Israel across American communities on Independence Day, it is well known that Israel is no longer the unifying force it once was in Jewish-American life. There is a major rift in opinion, a rift that, following the summer’s war, is only getting wider.

The Jewish-American establishment has been working for years to create a "big tent" that accepts diverse views on Israel. Various Jewish-education professionals have recommended nurturing diverse opinions, saying this will foster a strong relationship with the Jewish state. However, the establishment is struggling to implement this rhetoric. Firing Roth from one of the most liberal Jewish communal institutions in the United States exposed this tent as only being "big" when there is consensus.

Theater J was unique in the unprecedented way it pushed the envelope – and people's buttons – about Israel. Through Roth's close working relationship with Israeli theater counterparts, in particular the playwright Motti Lerner, he was able to produce cutting-edge plays that exposed the underbelly of Israel’s most controversial issues. These plays tackled questions of Nakba (“the catastrophe” experienced by Palestinians when Israel was founded in 1948), introduced Palestinian claims as legitimate, and challenged the accepted narratives within the Jewish community of Israel’s birth and the 1948 Independence War. There were always demurring voices among more conservative members of the community, but many others found empowering to encounter these voices in a Jewish, communal establishment. It made them feel that they – with their own dissenting views – were part of the collective.

Provocative theater was not all Roth brought to the D.C. Jewish community; he also brought a vibrant discourse that ran in stark contrast to the generally yawn-worthy community conversation around Israel. In 2011, the Cameri Theater's production of "Return to Haifa" took to the Theater J stage. The production was especially flammable as it was an adaptation of a work by Ghassan Kanafani, a Palestinian activist and proponent of armed struggle. But, what bothered the critics just as much as the communal underwriting of a dual-narrative play, were the talkback panels which followed the shows.

These talkbacks – a trademark of Theater J’s style – provided yet another vehicle for developing the messages presented on-stage. On the opening night of the play, I presented a talkback together with Roth. The conversation stirred the kind of deep interaction that Roth aspired for, with audience members expressing anger at the content of the play, and introspectively ruminating on their own relationships with Israel. As the shaliach (emissary) of the Jewish Agency to Washington D.C. at the time, I experienced this as “Israel Engagement” at its finest. It represented a cathartic experience of airing grievances that Jewish Americans so deeply need. Unsurprisingly, my enthusiasm was not shared by all, and Roth even gained his very own club of haters, the wonderfully named COPMA (Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art), which protested Theater J's activities, and particularly those of Roth.

This is exactly the reason it was so important for Roth to remain a voice from within the Jewish establishment. In order to stimulate the desire for American Jews to remain engaged on a communal level, the community's leadership needed to take risks and legitimize free speech. Then they could tout their tolerance by not only sanctioning difficult conversations, but also funding their existence. There is no greater sign of pluralism than supporting voices that you respect but disagree with. In firing Roth, the leadership capitulated to a monophonic Israel discourse, providing yet another argument for the lack of relevance of the traditional Jewish establishment.

There is one last, and more worrying, connection that needs to be drawn from this incident: the narrowing of legitimacy in public discourse in Israel. In Israel, we are increasingly witnessing a public discourse where the voice of Arab citizens is sidelined and demonized; a public discourse where voices of dissent are labeled anti-patriotic; and a public discourse that demagogically promotes an exclusionary, ethnically chauvinist society. It is precisely in light of our situation in Israel that Israel programming in the Jewish community of North America has the responsibility to promote inclusivity –as a community value, a benchmark for all Diaspora communities and a role model for Israeli society.

The firing of Ari Roth represents a short-sighted, interest-driven decision; and it marks a blow to freedom of Jewish expression inside and outside of Israel.

Anton Goodman was the Senior Jewish Agency Shaliach to Washington D.C. from 2010-2013. Today he is the Director of International Development and The Abraham Fund Initiatives. 

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