U.S.-Jewish Playwright: 'If You Have Any Criticism of Israel, You Are Not Allowed to Exist'

A public reading in Manhattan of Dan Fishback’s latest play, about a family split between a settlement and the United States, was canceled following right-wing pressure. The playwright is angered by the decision – but not surprised

Playwright Dan Fishback
Sammy Tunis

A left-wing playwright writes a play casting a critical eye over Israel’s occupation and the settlement enterprise. Conservative groups launch a campaign demanding that a public reading be canceled. The event’s organizers opt to remove themselves from the heart of the storm by capitulating to public pressure and canceling the reading, without ever having read the play themselves. Sound familiar?

That fate just befell two events that were set to take place in coming weeks at Manhattan’s Center for Jewish History: a panel discussion about the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, co-sponsored by the left-wing organization Jewish Voice for Peace; and the maiden reading of Dan Fishback’s play “Rubble Rubble.”

“While the programs themselves may have merit, they do not align with the mission of AJHS,” the board of the American Jewish Historical Society announced laconically about two weeks ago.

The Center for Jewish History in Manhattan.
Gryffindor

“They canceled the event without even reading the play,” an angry Fishback said in an interview with Haaretz from his New York home. “They couldn’t read it, they have no access to it. It was only based on my political opinions.”

There’s no doubt about Fishback’s political opinions. He’s a declared left-wing activist; a proud supporter of the BDS movement, which advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel; and a self-proclaimed anti-Zionist. And over the years, he has left a long paper trail of his views, making him an easy target for right-wing, American-Jewish organizations.

“My family taught me to critique Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but we never considered the notion that Israel didn’t have ‘the right to exist,’” Fishback wrote in a long article on the popular website Slate in February 2016. “It wasn’t until I was an adult that I finally grappled with that idea. Did any states have the right to exist? Did countries themselves have rights at all? Why do we condemn an unequal distribution of rights in all states except Israel? When I eventually did come out to my family as an anti-Zionist, it was probably more painful than telling them I was gay.

“As an anti-Zionist, I do not just condemn the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza,” he continued. “Rather, I think there is something fundamentally wrong with any state that privileges one ethno-religious group over another. In Israel, the national interests of the Jewish people are prioritized above all others. That is the country’s founding principle, and it manifests every time the state bulldozes a Palestinian home in Jerusalem to make room for a Jewish neighborhood, and every time a Bedouin village in the Negev is destroyed so the Jewish National Fund can plant trees. These terrors happen within Israel itself, and they are not simply a matter of bad policy. Rather, this violence is fundamental to the character of a supremacist state that distinguishes between ‘Jewish’ and ‘Arab’ nationalities, and gives different rights to each.”

Fragile and explosive

When Fishback insists that the reading was canceled solely due to his political opinions and talks about the public pressure on the organizers to nix the event, it’s hard not to recall the decision made by the steering committee of the Acre Fringe Theater Festival in June to cancel plans to stage Einat Weizman’s play “Prisoners of the Occupation” – a decision made before she had even finished writing it.

And when Fishback stresses that the people who decided to cancel his play’s public reading had never seen it, it’s hard not to recall the storm that erupted in Israel recently when Culture Minister Miri Regev lashed out at director Samuel Maoz and his film “Foxtrot,” despite admitting she had never seen the movie.

Settlers in the West Bank during a protest against the evacuation of the illegal outpost of Amona, December 2016.
Ilan Assayag

That’s how fragile and explosive the debate over one single country has become in recent years – in two different cultures, on two different continents. It’s a debate with no gray areas; everything is black and white. A debate in which people are either “with us” or “against us,” which leaves no room for dialogue or listening to other views. A debate which, in the name of the desire to preserve Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” character, has adopted clearly antidemocratic methods of behavior – censorship and gagging – in both Acre and Manhattan.

Jewish-American journalist Daniel Greenfield assailed the plan to hold a public reading of Fishback’s play, publishing an article earlier this month on the website of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, which specializes in fighting left-wing U.S. organizations that work to oppose Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.

“The American Jewish Historical Society appears to be uninterested in holding any pro-Israel events,” Greenfield wrote. “It’s uninterested in partnering with pro-Israel groups. Instead it’s providing a forum for a BDS hate group.”

Later in the article, he added: “Opposing the anti-Israel left makes many important enemies and wins few friends. The anti-Israel left has built networks that can blacklist, smear and silence almost anyone in an academic field.”

Nevertheless, Greenfield decided to spearhead the fight against the event, out of a burning belief in the justice of his cause and a historical view that derives its strength from those who put themselves on the front lines in the battle against the ultimate evil government known to human history. “When we think about Nazi Germany, we remember those who spoke out,” he wrote. “We don’t remember those who were too intimidated and uncertain to rise against anti-Semitism when they saw it and heard it.

“There are lessons here for the Center for Jewish History and the American Jewish Historical Society, for those on the inside who see the corruption of their organizations every day and for those on the outside who are worried about speaking up,” Greenfield added. “There are lessons here for all of us.”

In another article published on October 11 on website the Algemeiner, the decision to hold the event was lambasted in a joint op-ed by three authors: Jewish political adviser Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on Bill Clinton’s political campaigns; public relations expert Ronn Torossian; and strategic adviser George Birnbaum, a former partner of political strategist Arthur Finkelstein.

Members of Jewish Voice for peace and Code Pink (non governmental organizations) participate in a demonstration against Israeli military operations in Gaza Strip in Washington, United States on July 21, 2014.
Atheer Ahmed Kakan / Anadolu Agency

“On December 14, AJHS was planning to offer JVP members reduced admission to a play entitled ‘Rubble Rubble,’ by Dan Fishback, a JVP leader,” the op-ed said. “Fishback supports some boycotts of Israel, and has previously urged that certain plays sponsored by the Israeli government be boycotted.”

“The Center for Jewish History is allowing their venerable institution to be used to legitimize pro-boycott, anti-Israel positions; this must end,” the piece concluded. “This is not a matter of right vs. left; this is a matter of right vs. wrong.”

So, what's this play – which has created such an uproar in the Jewish world in recent weeks, even earning coverage in the New York Times – actually about?

Fishback: “The play is about two sides of an American-Jewish family. One moved to a West Bank settlement, and the other is left wing and lives in the United States in New York City. The family originally is from Russia. The first act is in the present and the second goes back to Russia in 1905, and you see the matriarch of the family as she is fighting the 1905 revolution.”

A lot has been written in recent years about the growing disconnect between young, secular, liberal American Jews (like Fishback) and Israel. There’s an almost unbridgeable gap between these young Jews’ views of universal justice and the continued occupation of the territories; between their perception of Judaism as a progressive movement that can accommodate different strains of Judaism within itself and Israel’s Orthodox monopoly. This divide has been reflected in recent months in the crisis over a proposed new conversion law and the cancellation of a compromise on egalitarian prayer arrangements at the Western Wall Plaza.

Fishback – a self-proclaimed, proud Jew who refuses to accept Israel’s character as a Jewish state – describes in his play the long years of alienation between two branches of a family, against the background of their disagreement over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“After the death of the grandma, the very left-wing grandson flies to the West Bank to meet his family and nothing goes right – it becomes very heated and ends in a very heated conflict,” Fishback says. “[In] the second act we go back to the Russia of 1905, and the play is trying to see how a family can go from being on the extreme left to so far on the right, how an evolution like that happens. That’s what I was interested in. It’s a historical play – what history means and how it manifests in our lives – and that’s why I was so excited to do this event at the American Jewish Historical Society.”

AJHS operates within the framework of the Center for Jewish History, an umbrella institution which comprises several different Jewish organizations.

‘Socialist legacy’

Fishback is a 36-year-old playwright, actor, singer and performance artist who has already staged several plays in New York, released a solo album and toured with his band Cheese on Bread. He explains that, like the American family in his play, he too was educated from a young age in the doctrines of the socialist movement and had liberal parents who, unlike himself, never defined themselves as anti-Zionist.

“I grew up very conscious of my family’s left-wing socialist legacy – my great-grandfather was in the 1905 revolution,” he recounts. “I grew up understanding Jewishness as fighting for justice, and for me the settlements go against everything I knew about justice and about what it means to a Jew.”

In order to write the play, Fishback traveled to Israel in 2015, spending a fair amount of time touring various settlements in an effort to understand – or at least become better acquainted with – the people at the center of his play. As he sees it, settlers embody the injustice at the heart of the idea of a Jewish state, something he vehemently opposes.

Fishback says it was important for him that none of the characters in the play be caricatures. “The settlers in the play are often sympathetic,” he says. “I didn’t want to write the play if I had this version of these evil settlers in my head. And if people actually see the play, they would see that oftentimes the character [whose politics most] resembles mine is oftentimes very not likable. There are moments where the settlers in the play are the heroes, and there are moments they are not. It’s more complicated than that. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no point writing a play about someone whose political views I oppose if I do not make a sincere effort to understand his worldview.”

And did you understand this during your meetings with them in Israel?

“There were some people I really connected [with] on a personal [level]; I started to understand the emotional reality of moving from France or England or the US to the settlement. ... It didn’t change my politics or the fact that I think it’s wrong, but I felt like I understood them better.”

Were you aware of the pressure exerted on the Jewish Center to cancel the event?

“I was surprised, because I got no negative feedback from them. The same day it was canceled, I was in their offices, talking and laughing. We discussed how to raise the budget for the project and how I can help them fundraise money for their annual gala. They told me they are under pressure from the right, but that I’m safe. I knew the institution was being attacked. The day before, there was an article in a right-wing magazine, attacking the institute and quoting from my past essays. It was obvious they [were] under pressure. ... Then, at midnight that day, I received an email from them saying the board had decided to cancel the event.”

How surprised were you by the decision, given that you were aware of the enormous pressure they were under?

“On the one hand I surprised after being there and talking to them the same day, but on the other hand I wasn’t surprised. I’ve been part of the Jewish cultural world all my adult life and I’ve seen how anti-Zionist Jewish voices are being blocked from different institutions.

“People like me, we know there are places that if we brought our work to it wouldn’t be programed. This is the climate now; there are things Jewish institutions are not allowed to support because their board is right-wing. There is a reality in the United States that oftentimes the people who are most intolerant when it comes to Israel are the people who know the least about Israel. It’s a party-line response that if you have criticism of any kind of Israel, you are not allowed to exist. For me, it feels like part of the larger picture, part of the rise of Trump, the rise of fascism in the United States, the inability to deal with different voices.”

You were born in Washington and live in New York, the most Jewish city and most comfortable place for Jews to live outside of Israel. Yet your play goes back to the early 20th century in the Soviet Union. When you consider the pogroms that Jews suffered during the period of the Russian revolution, when you see the anti-Semitism in large parts of Europe today, perhaps the lesson from all this is that, ultimately, Jews will never be truly secure anyplace outside of the State of Israel?

“For me, any group of people who are trying to protect themselves by hurting others will only hurt themselves in the long run. I love the Jewish people, I care about the Jewish people, but I think Zionism hurts Jews. When I visited Israel I felt terrible sadness. I grew up believing that Jews are people who fought for justice and it made me very sad to see Jews oppressing other people.”

Would you accept the idea of two states for two peoples, or are you opposed to the idea of a Jewish state regardless of where its borders are located?

“I’m for full human rights for all people, all Palestinians and all Israelis, and it doesn’t matter to me how many states there are. For me, all that matters is that human rights are guaranteed.”