The pressure play at Theater J


Ari Roth, Artistic Director at the Theatre J, poses across the future set of the play, The Argument, at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW, Washington, DC, October 11. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Ari Roth expects protests when the new play “The Admission” finally takes the stage at Theater J this week. Agitation against the very premise of the yet-unseen drama was so strong last fall that Roth’s troupe downgraded its planned full production to workshop status — meaning fewer performances, scripts on stage, partial design.

The reason? A still-hot dispute over military history in 1948, as Israel was being born. “The Admission,” by Israeli dramatist Motti Lerner, suggests that Israeli soldiers massacred Arab villagers in a small town called Tantura.

Detractors insist that it never happened and that to claim otherwise hurts Israel and Jews. Under pressure, Theater J scaled back its plans for “The Admission.”

Days later, the Oct. 21 issue of the New Yorker featured a bombshell article claiming a 1948 massacre of Arab civilians by Israeli soldiers, this time in the town of Lydda.

“Anyone striving for Middle East peace must acknowledge the tragedy of Lydda and comprehend its implications,” Ari Shavit wrote before detailing killings and forced expulsions by Israeli soldiers. The article was excerpted from Shavit’s new book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” which has received significant acclaim — an “important and powerful book,” declared the New York Times — along with a certain amount of pushback.

Does this new heavyweight claim by Shavit change anything for “The Admission” as it begins its public workshop performances Thursday?

“Obviously, it validates the inquiry,” Roth says. “It tells you that Motti Lerner is not a lone voice.”

Tantura

The notion of an atrocity in Tantura didn’t have much traction in Israel until the late 1990s, when a graduate student named Teddy Katz wrote a thesis claiming it had taken place. Israeli army veterans disputed Katz’s assertion and sued him for libel.

Historian Paul Scham, executive director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, was in Israel at the time and recalls that the suit created a considerable flap.

“It was an academic controversy that spilled into political matters,” Scham says, sitting in his College Park campus office.

Katz lost the legal case and saw his thesis narrowly rejected. But after recanting his allegations in court, he stood by his original claims — a messy ending that has never been fully cleaned up. Even noted historian Benny Morris, scrutinizing the evidence closely, isn’t consistent on the subject of Tantura. In 2004, Morris wrote that “Atrocities — war crimes, in modern parlance — appear to have occurred.” In the 2008 edition of his exhaustive history “1948: The First Arab-Israeli War,” he wrote that “Documentary evidence . . . provides no grounds for believing that a large-scale massacre occurred.”

This is the frame for Lerner’s drama, which takes partial inspiration from Arthur Miller’s 1947 “All My Sons,” about a man who uncovers his businessman father’s wartime crimes. Some excesses are firmly on the record: a slaughter of civilians by Israeli forces at Deir Yassin in 1948 is not disputed, nor is the harsh Arab reprisal.

“It’s clear that massacres occurred on both sides,” says Scham, who is also the managing editor of Israel Studies Review.

Other incidents are still debated. David Shipler was the New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief in 1979 when he first heard about a forced exodus from Lydda, thanks to an early look he received at Yitzhak Rabin’s in-process memoir. Shipler says censorship issues surrounding that book illustrate a long, complicated tug-of-war over basic facts.

“It’s important because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is between two nationalisms, each of which have their own historical narratives,” says Shipler, a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner for his book “Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land” and now a resident of Chevy Chase. “That clash is still very much alive, and central to the current conflict.”

This is where Alex Safian, associate director of the conservative Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), holds the opposition ground.

“The issue is, did Tantura happen,” Safian says from Cambridge, Mass., “and whether you can attribute what happened since the war of independence to massacres carried out by Israelis, which is the overarching theme here.”

Safian will be in the area this month, speaking against “The Admission” and against Shavit’s account of Lydda. His talk, billed as scholarly (though Safian says his Harvard PhD is in physics), is being sponsored by Theater J’s longtime antagonist, COPMA – Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, which drove the agitation last fall (and for several years before that). Scham and Shipler are on the other side, as friends of Theater J — Scham as an unpaid historical adviser, Shipler, as he describes it, “trying to be an outside observer, but I do admire what Theater J. does.”

That’s the contested landscape as “The Admission” finally trots its fictional characters and thinly veiled setting — the village is called “Tantur” — onstage this week.

“It is not a slam-dunk,” Roth, the theater’s artistic director, says of the history Lerner is stirring up. “There is a debate that needs to be convened and not stifled. We can’t have intimidation shut down really important cross-cultural conversations about our history. That’s the case the play makes: to have the conversation. The play doesn’t prove a damn thing about what happened. It demands that we reopen the history.”

Roth, who characterizes CAMERA and COPMA as “rump groups,” also says: “For us to come in with what’s incontrovertible in Israeli history is beyond my pay grade. Nobody’s ever asked me to do that before. I’m not going to start now.”

Expanding the context

Theater J and the DC Jewish Community Center have taken pains to surround Lerner with lots of company in its “Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival: Narratives of Nation Building.” Most obviously, the spotlight that had been planned for “The Admission” now belongs to next month’s “Golda’s Balcony,” with Tovah Feldshuh reprising her Tony-nominated 2004 performance as Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister from 1969 to 1974.

At least 30 speakers, panelists and moderators are slated for post-“Admission” discussion panels. One of the talks is titled “Legacies of 1948 and the Hard Cases: Lydda, Tantura.”

Carole Zawatsky, chief executive of the DCJCC, which houses Theater J, says, “I hope that more people see their own ideas and thoughts reflected in the panoply of ideas we’ve put forward.” Zawatsky brought Shavit to speak in January and says a thousand people came.

“That speaks volumes about the desire to have these conversations,” Zawatsky says.

A rationale for downgrading “The Admission” was the fact that the play has yet to be fully produced in Israel, though Shipler calls that a “fig leaf” in the face of the COPMA-fueled pressure on local donors to stop giving to the DCJCC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. (Zawatsky says there has been no significant drop-off in donations.) The production is billed as “a workshop presentation produced in collaboration with the Cameri Theatre [in Tel Aviv] and the Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa.” Roth says he hopes leaders of the Cameri will be able to see the show at Theater J and will be persuaded to stage it themselves.

Even in stripped-down workshop form, “The Admission” has a production budget of $106,000, Roth says — less than the $145,000 a full show would have cost, but still substantial. Cutting the number of performances in half obviously adds up to a box office loss.

“Ask me about fundraising,” Roth says. “Best year ever. We’ve raised over $100,000 more than we’ve ever gotten at this point in the season. People believe deeply in what we’re doing.”

Of course, Lerner could have dampened the controversy by using a fictitious name for the town in his play. Shipler says Lerner could have used the name Lydda, something few would have thought to do before Shavit’s article appeared.

Scham says a neutral place name might have been better. He says, “A play isn’t history,” and he notes that Lerner and Shavit are both “testing the legitimacy of talking about these things.”

“Even if you could be definitive about what happened at Tantura, it wouldn’t resolve the conflicting narratives,” says Shipler, who is writing a book about the cultural limits of free speech in America. (Theater J is getting its own chapter.) “I’m not saying it doesn’t matter if it happened; it does. But we know enough about wars, and about the 1948 war, to know that both sides targeted the other with a lot of suffering. So to paint without ambiguity is a fruitless exercise.”

Lerner is standing his ground.

“I was born in 1949 in a small village three miles south of Tantura,” Lerner recently e-mailed from Israel. “Neighbors and family members of mine were involved in the battle. I heard the stories about what happened there since I was 17. I changed the name of the village to Tantur because I wanted to make sure that the spectators know that this is not a fictitious village, and real people were killed there, and real people were expelled from there.”

That’s what makes the situation prickly.

“A lot of people have my back, and have Motti’s back,” Roth says. In January, the Dramatists Guild came out in support of the theater. Hundreds of people have “liked” the Facebook page “Artists and Advocates for ‘The Admission.’ ”

On the other side, Lerner laments that the Israeli Embassy is not supporting the play, though Zawatsky says the DCJCC did not request embassy support for this project.

For now, Roth declines to forecast any particular outcome for either “The Admission,” a play he champions unabashedly, or Theater J’s ongoing “Voices from a Changing Middle East” festival.

“It’s been a long road,” he says, “to get as aligned as we are right now.”

“The Admission” by Motti Lerner
will be performed March 20-April 6 at Theater J, the Washington DC JCC’s Goldman Theater, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets starting at $30. Call Box Office Tickets, 800-494-8497, or visit boxofficetickets.com or theaterj.org.

Nelson has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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