Israeli Arab Actor Mohammad Bakri's Unlikely Path to the Holocaust

The director of the controversial 'Jenin, Jenin' tells Haaretz how is own experiences informed his role as a Libyan Jewish father whose family is deported in the play 'Benghazi Bergen-Belsen.'

Mohammad Bakri, left, in the play 'Benghazi Bergen-Belsen' in New York, March 2017.
Jonathan Slaff

NEW YORK It's a bit of a surprise: Israeli Arab actor and director Mohammad Bakri playing the father of a Libyan Jewish family deported in 1941 to a German concentration camp. Bakri a controversial figure back in Israel plays the lead in "Benghazi Bergen-Belsen," a new play at the La MaMa off-Broadway theater.

The agony is obvious in Bakri’s face and body language as he plays Eliyahu Hajaj. He walks stooped toward the unknown with his family. There's something remarkable about the whole thing; Bakri was harshly criticized for his 2002 film "Jenin, Jenin," in which he was accused of making false claims about Israeli soldiers.

"Benghazi Bergen-Belsen" is based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Yossi Sucary, which describes a less-known chapter of the Holocaust, the plight of Libya’s Jews. Hundreds and possibly thousands were arrested, some of them sent to concentration camps and death camps.

The first plot line describes the journey of the Hajaj family, who wavered between hope and despair until they reached Bergen-Belsen. The second plot line revolves around Hajaj's daughter Sylvana (Veracity Butcher), who befriends a Dutch Jewish prisoner named Rebecca Weiss (Lily Leah Azrielant). The story gets complicated after it turns out the two women are in a sexual relationship, with the Nazis giving them the choice of deciding which of the two will be put to death.

“The story is a tragic one with many universal connotations,” Bakri says. “When I read the book the play is based on I could feel the pain of the people who went through this. I feel an affinity toward powerless people anywhere, regardless of the color of their skin or religion.”

Remembering his father

In an interview an hour before rehearsal, Bakri says he found similarities between the father of the Libyan Jewish family and his own father. He grew up in the village of Bi'ina near Acre.

“Until I was 13 we lived under a military administration. For me, Israelis meant soldiers or policemen. The relations between Jews and Arabs were ones of ruler and ruled. These weren’t ordinary human relations between people. It scared me when I saw a soldier or a policeman," he says.

"Worse than that was seeing my father, who was strong and authoritarian at home, turn into something else when confronting a soldier or a policeman. I saw the fear in his eyes. He became more stooped and his voice weakened. That’s how it is in the play as well. When I practiced for the father’s role I remembered my father and how he lost his confidence when he saw soldiers.”

But Bakri adds: “I don’t want to compare tragedies. Each is unique and should not be trivialized. No one has a monopoly on pain.”

A scene from 'Benghazi Bergen-Belsen' at the La MaMa theater off-Broadway.
Jonathan Slaff

The play incorporates several languages including English, Arabic, German and Italian; there is also some singing in Hebrew. There is also a moving scene in which Bakri, who speaks in Arabic for most of the play, sings a Sabbath song in Hebrew.

The play is directed by Michal Gamily and Lahav Timor, who turned the book into a play. Gamily, who has been living in New York for 22 years, brought the play to the theater she works in. She read Sucary’s novel and saw a universal story that could be of interest to American audiences. This happened at a time when interest in the Holocaust, particularly in the theater, was on the wane.

The actors are Jewish, Muslim and Christian. Gamily says the diversity was a way of relating to the universality of the pain of the Holocaust. Besides Gamily and Timor other Israelis are involved in the production. The lighting designer is Avi Yona Bueno, the music designer and sound director is Avi Belleli, and the choreographer is Maya Bitan. Among the Israeli actors are Bakri, Azrielant and Ayelet Katznelson.

Definitive role

Gamily says that when she began casting for the play she couldn’t think of anyone but Bakri. "I didn’t hold auditions, I had no doubt he was the one. Mohammad is a wonderful actor, and ever since I read the book I thought of him. He's everything this character represents," she says.

"The fact that he's an Arab only adds to the play’s message. Mohammad arrived at his own expense and doesn’t make a cent from this play. He arrived a day after he finished two intensive months of filming. He's emotionally committed to the play and is helping promote it.”

Bakri notes that a few years ago he befriended a dentist whose father was a Holocaust survivor. “He wanted to see films I’d made, including '1948,' a movie about the Nakba. He didn’t know the story. He let me read the memoirs his father had written about the Holocaust period," Bakri says.

"After he died the family found them and published them in book form. When I read the book I felt shattered. When Michal offered me a role in this play I hadn’t read 'Benghazi Bergen-Belsen' yet. When I read it it was clear to me I’d take the offer.”

Sucary, who won Israel's Brenner Prize for his novel, says the play represents the book faithfully. “I believe Bakri is a first-rate actor and he should be judged according to his abilities. I think the fact that a Palestinian plays a Holocaust survivor at a time when people are closing themselves within their own ethnic boundaries has great value.”

Benghazi Bergen-Belsen is currently scheduled to be staged 12 times in a small auditorium with 100 seats. Its creators hope to get it performed in larger halls off-Broadway and in other cities across the United States and possibly in Israel. Usually such efforts fail, but maybe this case will be different.