Guest Voices

The Politics of Theater in Washington, DC

14 April 2014 By Karen Paul-Stern

Two years ago, the New Israel Fund began a partnership with Theater J, the Washington, DC, Jewish theater that, according to its website, produces “thought-provoking, publicly engaged, personal, passionate and entertaining plays and musicals that celebrate the distinctive urban voice and social vision that are part of the Jewish cultural legacy.”

In addition, Theater J takes its dialogues beyond the stage, offering “an array of innovative public discussion forums and outreach programs that explore the theatrical, psychological and social elements of art.” NIF has participated in these talk-back sessions in past years.

Theater J also hosts an annual Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, and we felt this is an obvious place where NIF could make a difference, providing sponsorship in a venue that used the medium as the message. It was therefore with great enthusiasm that, two years ago, NIF became an Angel Supporter of the Festival, working closely with the Artistic Director of Theater J and his staff to develop meaningful community conversations around the questions raised by the plays sponsored by the Festival.

This year, however, the Festival engendered more than just a community conversation. Theater J chose to produce “The Admission,” a controversial play by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, that uses an alleged 1948 massacre at the village of Tantura as a jumping off point for discussion, recrimination, evaluation and complex family and generational relationships in telling the story of the founding and development of the state of Israel.

The play fictionalizes the purported events, and the characters, Jewish and Palestinian, wrestle with the fallout 40 years later.

Art as message. Art as opportunity to face history and our deepest selves. Art as a trigger for meaningful discussion, painful reality, and a chance to look at our past and use mistakes to move positively into the present and future. There are no heroes in “The Admission,” and there are no villains. Every character is a flawed human being, struggling to make sense of a past that is fading in memory but vivid in its impact. Every archetype is given a full rendering of humanity, of guilt, of honor, of pain, of passion, of the incredibly complicated and emotional history of modern-day Israel.

I believe that using a play as the delivery system for conversation is a meaningful and effective way to raise complex questions. It is a chance for those of us who share space in our vibrant and multi-faceted community, filled with supporters and lovers of Israel, whose politics and belief range across the full spectrum, to come together in honest and brave dialogue and explore our shared beliefs and heritage. It gives us the chance to learn more about each other and about Israel, and to, perhaps, find more empathy for each other’s points of view.

But a small band of vocal activists thought otherwise. The protesters of COPMA, Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, deemed “The Admission” to be a hate-filled, anti-Israel play, designed to attack and defame the state. They called on the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington to pull funding from Theater J and its hosting agency, the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. They called for pickets and protests. And they wrote extraordinary screeds against Theater J, its Artistic Director, Ari Roth, the playwright, and other local supporters, in their quest for support from the community.

Their attacks started early, eight months before the Festival, and ran consistently throughout, with media attention intensifying as the play’s opening grew close. In order to address the concerns, Theater J felt obliged to change the format of the production from a fully-staged play to a “workshop” production, with limited scenery, costumes and props, and to add a second play to the Festival’s roster, “Golda’s Balcony,” a one-woman show honoring the life and legacy of Golda Meir, which, while inspiring conversation, offers little to actively protest.

Throughout the controversy, NIF never waivered in our support for the Festival. As comrades in the business of being attacked for our work and our core beliefs, we stand strong in the face of censorship, of radical, uninformed vitriol and of ignorant rhetoric. We believe that there is no absolute truth to the story of Israel, and that both sides, Jewish and Palestinian, have the right to their narrative, to their beliefs, and to their history. We believe in the right of everyone to learn, to talk, and to wrestle with a personal interpretation of the truth.

Ironically, the workshop-style presentation of “The Admission”, if anything, made it more spare, and as such, more powerful. I hosted a talk-back session on the question of shared society with NIF’s two Israeli law fellows who are studying in DC this year – Muna Haddad and Re’ut Cohen. I sat next to them during the play, and it was clear they both were moved and surprised by it. I don't think either of them – Re’ut, a Jewish Israeli from Haifa, and Muna, a Palestinian Israeli from Nazareth – expected such a nuanced and challenging depiction of Israel here in America.

But nuanced and challenging it was. Early in the play’s run, NIF’s Vice President for Communications, Naomi Paiss, participated in a panel discussion with playwright Motti Lerner and Jonathan Tobin from Commentary Magazine. It was important to us to have a balanced conversation about the role of art in democracy. The discussion was heated but respectful, and challenged the assumptions behind the relative truths of the story.

We are now moving into the second half of the Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival. The dramatic protest is dying down. “Golda’s Balcony” will be a local hit, featuring renowned actress Tovah Feldshuh. It’s a big coup for the DC theater world and Theater J to produce a Tony-nominated, Broadway production. NIF will sponsor one more talk-back, this time on the status of women in Israeli society, which will feel like neutral territory at this point.

But we stand alert and ready, alongside Theater J and the DCJCC and the Federation, ready to support and defend our right to free speech, freedom of artistic expression, and our communal and shared love of Israel.




About the Author

Karen Paul-Stern

Karen Paul-Stern

Karen is NIF's Washington Regional Director and Director of Israel Travel.