Talking About the Gaza Flotilla

When I first learned of the ill-fated Israeli raid on the Gaza Flotilla boat Mavi Marmara I got a sick feeling in my stomach. Why? Because something had gone horribly wrong and already I was preparing myself for the recriminations that would be hurled against an Israeli state that I love at an elemental part of my being. Because there was a dizzying element of multiple asymmetries to the whole story as it unfolded: protesters versus soldiers, paintball guns versus knives and lead pipes, a dozen soldiers (each like my “brother” from my mishpacha me-ametzet) versus hundreds of violent opponents, nine dead people versus unspecified injuries, occupied Palestinians versus powerful Israelis, a tiny Jewish state versus a host of hostile neighbors that would smile on its annihilation. Because while I consider myself an unambiguous Zionist, I have great misgivings about this whole episode, from the motivations of the Turkish organizers who set it in-motion to those who would defend every aspect of Israel’s handling of the affair and question the loyalty of those who think otherwise. As I followed events on my Blackberry as they developed on Monday afternoon, I just kept saying to my wife, “This really upsets me.” But I couldn’t articulate beyond that.

When I came into work on Tuesday I felt like I needed to provide the beginnings of a process to make sense of this for myself, and so I picked-up the phone and called my colleague at the Embassy of Israel to arrange for a free and open to the public briefing from an Embassy spokesperson this Friday at 8 am. All are welcome. In the short time the event has be open for registration, I think I can conclude that I am not the only one with questions.

As I began spreading word of the event I got a note from a friend who asked, “Are [you] taking the Embassy line on the flotilla situation?  Or are [you] allowing for the Jeffery Goldberg / Amos Oz view to be articulated as well?” My response was that I (or the Washington DCJCC for that matter) am not taking anyone’s line. That’s not what we do. That’s not what this is intended to be. This is the start of a conversation. Or perhaps it is the continuation of a conversation we’ve been having since 1948. Or 1967. Or 70 C.E. In either case, it is not meant to be the totality of the conversation, only a point of departure. And it is my hope that it will not be an event where the audience passively absorbs without question everything that is asserted from the podium. My hope is that we can talk to each other. We’re starting with the Embassy, and while they won’t be there, I am sure Amos Oz and Jeffrey Goldberg will have their people in the room. And if we’re lucky, so will Alan Dershowitz, David Grossman, Marty Peretz, Max Boot, John Podhoretz, Gershom Gorenberg and Bernard-Henri Lévy. They are all welcome, because we all have to contend with a post-flotilla reality.

I don’t care if the Palestinians or their allies don’t “indulge” in this level of communal introspection. Perhaps they already do, we just aren’t privy to those conversations. Perhaps they will some day, or never will. It doesn’t truly matter to me. To abstain from discussion in the name of solidarity strikes me as the least Jewish thing we could do at a time like this. Whatever our separate conclusions, the goal is shared, a Jewish democratic Israel secure in its borders, at peace with its neighbors, and in-touch with its highest values.

You can register for the briefing here.

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Why Do a Reading of Caryl Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children” at a Jewish Theater?

Cross-posted on the Makom website

You can understand the outrage. Imagine it: a non-Jewish, British playwright has the temerity to write something as provocative as the line, “The Jews do not belong here” and a Jewish theater, in a fit of obvious self-loathing, gives that voice a venue by placing it on its stage. I am not speaking of the sudden controversy surrounding Caryl Churchill’s short-play, Seven Jewish Children which the Washington DCJCC’s resident professional company Theater J will present readings of this week. Rather, I am referring to the same Theater J’s production of David Hare’s Via Dolorosa nearly a decade ago, in the fall of 2000.

Back then we knew we were undertaking something with the potential to be controversial for its outsider’s observations of the Israel-Palestine conflict. We braced ourselves for outrage. We prepared our leadership for potential protests, even boycotts. We were not doing this merely for controversy’s sake, but because of our belief, that the work – consisting mainly of Mr. Hare’s channeling the voices of the various Israelis and Palestinians he met – confronted us with a challenging and artful portrayal of ourselves and our Israeli cousins. But so concerned were we about the potential for outraged audiences that we built into the presentation of the play a response vehicle, “The Peace Café” co-created by artistic director Ari Roth, Theater J councilmember Mimi Conway and a frequent participant in Arab-Jewish dialogue, restaurateur and Iraqi-American Anas Shallal. Following the performances, audiences gathered around tables, broke bread and picked from a menu of discussion questions and quotations of some of the play’s most provocative lines.

In spite of all our fears, or perhaps because of them, the tidal wave of controversy never materialized, but the Peace Café experience gave us a model with which to engage more controversial material in the years to come. Meanwhile, the work itself, Via Dolorosa has gone on to productions both at other Jewish theaters and in Israel itself.

If you have an opinion in this matter I hope to G-d you’ve taken the time to read the seven pages of verse that’s causing all the ruckus. I have neither the space nor the charge to do an explication of the work here, but if this is to be a Jewish argument, which is to say, an argument amongst Jews, then I hope we can all work from the source text and not just the commentaries.

So what’s different about Seven Jewish Children? Via Dolorosa was the theatrical equivalent of a documentary in its specific attribution of comments and ideas to individuals either named, like Benny Begin and Shulamit Aloni, or unnamed but definitely real, like the American settler couple Mr. Hare spends Shabbat with on the West Bank. Ms. Churchill’s work goes as far in the other direction as possible: neither the speaker nor to whom they are speaking, nor when they are speaking are ever made explicit. Ms. Churchill doesn’t assign statements to individual actors, instructing instead that,

The lines can be shared out in any way you like among those characters. The characters are different in each small scene as the time and child are different. They may be played by any number of actors.

The result is that it becomes difficult to find an authentic and specific Jewish voice in a work so broad that it is somehow attributable to all Israelis and no Israelis, to all Jews and yet no one Jew. Which speaks pointedly to the fact that while David Hare traveled the land of Israel gathering the cacophony of voices in his play, Ms. Churchill participates in an obstinate cultural boycott of Israel and does not even permit her works to be performed there. So there’s two strikes against Ms. Churchill. Let’s even throw in for argument’s sake that maybe she’s also a bit of an anti-Semite. That doesn’t take away from the power and verisimilitude of the compressed language she puts on the page for I would argue, five-sixths of the short work. That last part, suffers not from the caricature of a racist, belligerent, ultra-Nationalist (anyone caring to read material equally offensive but of more estimable provenance need only peruse Amos Oz’s essay “The Tender Among You and Very Delicate” from his collection In the Land of Israel); but its lack of attribution.

So why bother putting her generic opprobrium on our authentic Jewish stage? Why sully ourselves with the association? Because the only way to parse that which carries the merit of specific resonance from that which sinks under weight of shapeless assumptions is to inject the Jewish voice back into the monologue. To engage the work and respond to it with Jewish voices like Robbie Gringras and Deb Margolin, and the intelligent audience members that have sought us out for years now because of our mission to engage and discuss the most pressing moral and political issues of our time. To decide for ourselves after hearing a collection of generic poetics placed in the mouths of specific actors whether they land with the force of truth or disappear with the speed of your average smoke screen and with just as much substance.

Speaking only for myself, there is plenty of both in Ms. Churchill’s work. One may decry the ideological axe she brings with her, but one would be hard pressed to simply dismiss her mastery of craft and phrase. She has created a compelling work. And for every line as politically artless as “Tell her we killed the babies by mistake” there are aching verses that acknowledge the complex and contradictory world we Jews inhabit:

Tell her there are still people who hate Jews
Tell her there are people who love Jews
Don’t tell her to think Jews or not Jews

Ultimately, precisely because it is about us, we owe it to ourselves to apply our skills as artists and our intellectual rigor as audiences to divine what the worth of this piece is. I suspect Israelis are going to want to hear for themselves (although I would demand that they be allowed a production of Top Girls or Cloud Nine in exchange) and decide on their own whether or not they feel blood libeled. Ultimately, what Ms. Churchill has written “for Gaza” will be less important than the conversation Israelis have with each other as new accounts by IDF soldiers are published in Ha’aretz and Ma’ariv.

And while she’s no Shakespeare, the Bard himself never visited Italy, but still managed to write The Merchant of Venice. On second thought, let’s not go there. Not today.

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