Theater J incident illustrates larger dialogue on Israel at Jewish institutions

(Astrid Riecken/ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Ari Roth, Artistic Director of Theater J, helped to bring Noam Semel's 'Return to Haifa' to Theater J of the DC Jewish Community Center.

(Astrid Riecken/ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Ari Roth, Artistic Director of Theater J, helped to bring Noam Semel's 'Return to Haifa' to Theater J of the DC Jewish Community Center.

Andy Shallal, an Iraqi-born Muslim, was deeply proud of the open conversation channel he had maintained with Ari Roth, longtime artistic director of Theater J, a highly regarded branch of the D.C. Jewish Community Center. Together with another local theater lover, Mimi Conway, they’d created the Peace Cafe, an after-play forum, complete with plates of hummus and pita bread supplied by Shallal’s popular Busboys and Poets dining spots, that had become a mainstay of Theater J’s programming.

The makeshift cafe — established 10 years ago, during the run of a politically charged solo play about the Mideast by David Hare — has been important as an outlet for debate over issues raised in Theater J’s sometimes provocative repertory, especially for an outsider such as Shallal. “It was an emotional experience for me, to walk into a Jewish community center, to grow up as a Muslim, thinking of Israelis as really scary people,” he says. “I walked through that door, and it was a very beautiful experience.”

Then, suddenly, a few months ago, a curtain was drawn. The community center’s then-chief executive officer, Arna Meyer Mickelson, told Shallal that the Peace Cafe could no longer use the facilities of the center, at 16th and Q streets NW. “She said, ‘We appreciate what you’ve done, but we can’t have Peace Cafes at Theater J anymore,’ ” Shallal recalls. “I think she was waiting for the right moment to cut the strings.”

Mickelson says that’s not completely true, that she was merely seeking to disassociate the DCJCC from aspects of the Peace Cafe “that we had no control over” and to re-brand the program. In any event, the Peace Cafe continues to function, on Shallal-run turf. Whatever the nature of the disagreement, the incident was further evidence of the corrosive turn that the political and artistic dialogues over matters related to Israel have taken of late in this country, particularly at, but not limited to, Jewish institutions.

The vitriol has been boiling ever more heatedly into public view as opinions have hardened over Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank. Defenders of Israel’s Likud government are taking their attack to artists whom they consider hostile, especially those they think are sympathetic to or support the boycott, divestments and sanctions campaign, a six-year-old effort to force political change through economic constraints on Israel.

Artists and devisers of programming counter that a concerted move is afoot here to smother any type of critical examination of the Jewish state.

Earlier this year, for example, the Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner was nearly barred from receiving an honorary degree from New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice after one college trustee objected to what he viewed as Kushner’s vehement opposition to Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza.

In San Francisco, after the presentation by a Jewish group of a documentary about Rachel Corrie — an American pro-Palestinian activist run over and killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza — a Bay Area organization, the Jewish Community Federation, imposed a ban on funding for any group espousing support for a political boycott of Israeli business interests.

In cities such as New York and Washington, ad hoc watchdog groups have formed to pressure Jewish federations to cease funding nonprofit groups that they deem critical of Israel. Locally, a portion of their ire has been directed at Theater J, one of the nation’s most successful — and dramatically adventurous — theater groups operating from within the structure of a Federation-funded Jewish community center.

In March, a group calling itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, headed by Potomac lawyer Robert G. Samet, asked that the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington look at imposing curbs on financing for Theater J. As evidence of the theater company’s intent to produce works that “demonize Israel and the Jewish people,” Samet cited “Return to Haifa,” a work by an Israeli playwright, Boaz Gaon, that was performed at Theater J last winter by Israel’s most renowned company, the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv.

Although a hit for Theater J, the play, adapted by Gaon from a novella by the late Ghassan Kanafani — a onetime spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who was killed in a car bomb in Beirut — was viewed by Samet’s group and some others as virulently anti-Israel. The piece was a portrait of an encounter between a Palestinian couple, returning for the first time to the home in Haifa they’d fled at the time of Israel’s birth as a nation, and the Israeli couple who’d moved in and raised a family. (It turns out that the son the Jewish couple adopted was the baby the Palestinians were forced to abandon.)

A notable element of the play was its attempt to dramatize the exile stories of Jews and Palestinians as somehow being intertwined, a dimension that some observers thought had struck a conciliatory chord. (The play was previously performed in Hebrew, in Tel Aviv; the Theater J production was the first to be done in Hebrew and Arabic.) Others — and whether they saw the play is unclear — found the work’s assumptions offensive.

In a March 6 letter to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art said the play “distorts history” by comparing the death of a Jewish child in the Holocaust “to the fabricated and utterly fantastical story of an Arab child allegedly abandoned by his fleeing parents in Haifa in 1948.” Arguing that through its Peace Cafes, Theater J had featured “groups and speakers . . . intensely hostile to the existence of the State of Israel,” the group questioned “the appropriateness of Federation funds being used to support activities by its partner agencies that undermine Israel’s legitimacy and security.”

So inflamed had passions become that the suitability of taking action similar to that of the San Francisco Federation was debated at an April meeting of the Washington Federation, but it was defeated, according to several people with knowledge of the meeting. (The Washington Federation gives about $600,000 a year to the DCJCC, which in turn supports Theater J by giving it a theater space, the Goldman, and providing other amenities such as utilities, officials say. Theater J balances its $1.4 million annual budget through ticket sales and donations.) Still, Roth’s theater, and the advisory council within the community center that helps him run it, were disturbed by what they interpreted as external assaults on the company’s artistic freedom.

“What we had was a very tense situation,” says Paul Mason, co-chairman of the Theater J Council during the controversy. He said some of those raising their voices against the company “tend to be very supportive of the state of Israel, no matter what. You have a problem in that these people are outstanding members of the community: They contribute time, effort, money. The challenge that we had to face was: How do you balance those interests?”

Samet, reached by e-mail, declined to comment for this article.

Theater J, coming off the most highly attended season in its history, interprets in a broad way its mission as a Jewish theater, staging works by Neil Simon as well as Sholom Aleichem. Over the years, too, Roth has built up through his “Voices From a Changing Middle East” festivals a repertory of plays, mostly by Israeli dramatists, that provide dissenting perspectives on flammable topics such as the West Bank settlements. As for the Peace Cafes, Roth says that the events may on rare occasions have been booked imprudently. One recent example, he says, occurred in a short-lived program — developed by Shallal at Busboys and Poets in the aftermath of the problems with the Peace Cafe — that invited Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian architect of the Israeli boycott effort.

“We have invited people, and there have been mistakes; it wasn’t a smartly timed booking,” Roth says. He adds, however, that the goal always has been to illuminate, not to ignite.

The question, of course, is how independently a company such as Theater J can continue to function when its political motives are being questioned. Roth says he’s received mostly expressions of support, from within and outside the Jewish community center. And he says the only way he knows to proceed is to present and produce the work that speaks to contemporary audiences.

“I don’t wake up worrying what COPMA is doing,” he says. “We’re trying to find the best plays possible to bring forward. Our zeal and our appetite remain undaunted.’’

Carole Zawatsky, recently installed as the community center’s chief executive officer — replacing Mickelson in the wake of a long-planned departure — chose her words carefully in commenting on what the tensions stoked by “Return to Haifa” and other volatile material meant for Theater J’s future. “I would suggest the work may be controversial for some individuals, but the choice is to present work at the highest level,” she said. “For me, the question is, first and foremost, to help this broad public that comes from this place of passion to understand that every voice is honored.”

Roth says that in a sense, his new season of plays — with works by Arthur Miller, others about Bernard Madoff and Baruch de Spinoza — is a calculated response to the debates that are occurring in Jewish households across the country. “Look at what we’re doing: We’re fighting for the soul of our community. We are enacting dramas, and the subject is the embattled soul of the Jewish people. It’s a community and a people that are split and torn, and we sit on the seams of that divide and we need to reflect that schism: that person who looks deeply at himself, and is divided.”

And the Peace Cafes? Whether they reappear at the community center or not, Roth says that he and Shallal are counting on a slate of future nights of hummus and argument.

 
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