Amid ‘Admission’ controversy at Theater J, DCJCC to host series on Israel perspectives

Spurred by the controversy over Theater J’s forthcoming presentation of “The Admission,” a play by Israeli dramatist Motti Lerner that has drawn fire from some local pro-Israel activists, the D.C. Jewish Community Center will curate a new program drawing on disparate perspectives of Israel within the American Jewish community.

The initiative, titled “Embracing Democracy: Who Has the Right to Speak for Israel?,” will include panel discussions, film screenings and several Theater J stage productions, including a “workshop” run of “The Admission” and a 17-day run in April of “Golda’s Balcony,” starring Tovah Feldshuh. In the works are at least four planned talks between December and February with leading scholars, journalists, filmmakers and politicians, dealing with such topics as American Jews’ evolving relationship with Israel and historical research surrounding Israel’s birth in 1948.

(Gregory Ferrand) - Promotional art work by artist Gregory Ferrand for the production of “The Admission” at Theater J.

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Another panel, called “Artistic Expression and Israel,” will, the DCJCC says, examine the question of how to present a balanced portrait for American audiences of “Israeli art that is critical of the society and art that celebrates it.”

This last discourse seems to have been formulated directly as a result of the small but apparently effective protest that has arisen over Theater J’s March scheduling of “The Admission,” Lerner’s fictionalized story, based on some disputed historical accounts, of the killing of Palestinian villagers by Israeli soldiers during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. After objections to the play were raised by an ad-hoc group called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, Theater J — an arm of the DCJCC — scaled back plans for the production, downgrading it from a full-run, 34-performance presentation to a “workshop” running 16 performances, and adding as thematic counterweight “Golda’s Balcony,” about the life of the late Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.

“I will say that ‘The Admission’ was in many ways a catalyst to look at the broad questions around Israel,” said Carole R. Zawatsky, the DCJCC’s chief executive. “I think the conversations that arise out of Motti Lerner’s very smart play, they are so prescient. And really that was a catalyst for me to think about: How do we build a series of conversations around these very important questions, the role that the American Jewish community plays in its relationship to Israel?”

COPMA, as the protest group led by Potomac lawyer Robert G. Samet calls itself, argues that it is inappropriate for a Jewish community center to stage a play that the group claims perpetrates a “blood libel” against Israel. Lerner, whose “Pangs of the Messiah,” about West Bank settlers, was mounted at Theater J several years ago, traces in “The Admission” events surrounding the killing of civilians that some argue was a consequence of war and that others, including Lerner, consider a massacre. COPMA has called on donors to withhold contributions to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, a major funding source for the DCJCC, as long as Theater J is presenting works like “The Admission.”

Zawatsky says it was the “somewhat unorganized,” mostly online conversation about “The Admission” that got her organization thinking about providing a broader context for the play. “It created an impetus that may or may have not been there without that informal conversation,” she said.

As a result, though, “The Admission” has been relegated to a far less prominent role, as just one cog in the newly formed “Embracing Democracy” series. Although originally designated by Theater J as a world premiere, the presentation of “The Admission” is now being described by the DCJCC as an embryonic staging “to give feedback to the playwright before the play is finalized.” (To confuse matters just a bit, “The Admission” is part of “Voices From a Changing Middle East,” a multi-year festival at Theater J, which regularly features the work of Israeli and other Middle Eastern writers and performers.) With Feldshuh reprising her Tony-nominated performance as Meir, “Golda’s Balcony” seems likely to take the larger share of the spotlight in the community center’s Goldman Theater. As a facet of “Embracing Democracy,” Theater J will now also host one-night readings in March and April, respectively, of the Israeli plays “1948” by Noya Lancet and “Hand in Hand Together” by A.B. Yehoshua.

The panels begin Dec. 8 with Jane Eisner, editor in chief of the Jewish Daily Forward, leading a discussion about American Jewry’s relationship with Israel. The panelists will include Jonathan S. Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary magazine; Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, director of the Civility Initiative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; and former Florida representative Robert Wexler (D), who heads the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.

Forthcoming panels will feature Donna Robinson Divine, professor of Jewish studies at Smith College; Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic; Dror Moreh, director of the 2012 documentary “The Gatekeepers”; and Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Zawatsky submits that the expanded programming prompted by “The Admission” is an opportunity for the DCJCC to foster “a greater depth of understanding of: What are people looking for answers to?” She said that the center remains committed to Theater J’s “Voices From a Changing Middle East” festival.

“It’s not our job to create art that satisfies everyone. It’s our job to ask tough questions sometimes,” she said. “It’s our job to produce what we maintain to be excellent work, and that’s what I believe we are accomplishing.”

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