Israel's Terror of Truth and Reconciliation

South Africa proved how simple it is to pave a way to the future. But in this country it's so easy to sink into the animosities of the past.

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Now that the right wing has coined the phrase “diplomatic terror,” many more innovations are waiting in the wings. “Negotiations terror” will surely be one of them, and one can only hope that uncultured students with low grades (tziyunim in Hebrew) won't accuse their teachers of “grade terror” (terror tziyuni, which sounds a lot like terror tziyoni, “Zionist terror”).

At the moment theater terror is on the table. In March “The Admission,” the painfully polemical play by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, will be showing at the Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts at Washington, D.C.'s Jewish Community Center. The staging of the play there has generated a stormy and fascinating debate about its subject, an imaginary Arab village captured by the Israeli army.

In Israel, people view “The Admission” with suspicion. So far, no Israeli theater has agreed to put on the play; all we’ve gotten is a public reading at the Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa. Someone told me that this was the first time in his many years in Israeli theater where he encountered people paying such meticulous attention to a play's text.

When you treat theater as if it were a treaty for the removal of sanctions against Iran, it’s worrying. My theater acquaintance acknowledged the possibility that this was part of the “Jenin, Jenin” effect, a reference to Mohammed Bakri’s controversial film about the 2002 Battle of Jenin, told from a Palestinian perspective. The theater people are scared of defamation suits, even though no one has won any of the defamation suits brought against Bakri. In the meantime, one can say it’s a good thing there’s Jaffa, and a good thing there’s an Arab-Hebrew theater.

Motti Lerner was born in Zichron Yaakov, four kilometers from the uprooted Arab village of Tantura. That village became famous because of Teddy Katz's research for his highly controversial master’s thesis at the University of Haifa in which he argued that Israeli soldiers had committed a previously unreported massacre in the village. Lerner said in a public discussion after a reading of his play that when he was growing up, everyone knew the village had been destroyed and its inhabitants expelled in 1948, but no one spoke openly about it. Only once in a while did they hear hints and whispers, prompting him to write the play about an imaginary village called Tantur based on the events Katz described as having happened in Tantura.

Two cross-national camps face off in the play: the Arab-Jewish “coalition” consisting of Avigdor, the former military commander who captured Tantur; his wife, Yona; and Neta, their son Giora’s fiancée. On the other side are Ibrahim, a former resident of the village who witnessed the massacre, and his son, Izmi.

The characters are driven by a variety of motivations; the Jews want to bury the incident because of their guilt feelings, and the Arabs want some quiet to help them survive, thinking that the future is more important than the past. Meanwhile, a new generation is arising: Giora and the third member of the play’s love triangle, his beloved Samia, Ibrahim’s daughter, who are trying to uncover the truth.

There are two approaches in our region to searching for information. The first kind aims to upend the present, even if it means the future will be blacker than black, as if the present didn't offer enough reasons for hatred. The second kind attracts those who want to find the truth, in the hope that it will ultimately lead to reconciliation. In post-apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela sought truth and reconciliation - not a whitewashing of history but exposure of the truth as a rational act meant to prevent the past from being dragged into the present and the future, so that reconciliation would be possible. That is what the new generation in Lerner’s play is seeking.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said there is no future without forgiveness and no forgiveness without acknowledging that the perpetrator has committed an offense. How simple it is to pave a way to the future. Yet here, how easy it is to sink into the hatreds of the past.

Even the Israeli government's agreement to release Palestinian prisoners, which was deemed a goodwill gesture, heightened passions. And to increase its impact, the government spread out the release over four installments, with festivals of incitement at each stage.

The Palestinians don't have the luxury to draw upon hatred based on the injustices of the past. They are busy dealing with the injustices of the present. If Tutu had launched his project here, someone, maybe Zeev Elkin, that sage of the Foreign Ministry, would have dubbed the initiative "the terror of truth and reconciliation."

Nelson Mandela sought exposure of the truth as an act meant to prevent the past from being dragged into the present. Credit: AFP

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