Given the controversy surrounding Theater J’s production of Motti Lerner’s play “The Admission” at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, I expected to see a full-scale indictment of Israel’s conduct during its 1948 war of independence. Instead I encountered a play that probed the complexity of war, politics, memory, ethnic identity, love and survival with astounding sensitivity and nuance.
After the play was scheduled last summer, a small group of Washington-area Jews organized themselves into a group called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art. The group exerted enormous pressure on the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington to cut funding to the DCJCC because of Theater J’s sponsorship of plays that ask uncomfortable questions about Israel. The effort is similar to actions taken in New York and San Francisco to shut down Jewish film festivals over films critical of Israel. In a display of courage all too rare these days, the executive director and president of the Jewish Federation declared that they would not cave to COPMA’s pressure, even though holding firm would likely cost the federation tens of thousands of dollars in contributions.
In fact, the DCJCC and Theater J did make a concession to the protesters. It downgraded “The Admission” from a full production to a “workshop” and inserted into the spring schedule an additional production of “Golda’s Balcony,” a play about former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.
The incident is but one of many examples of how the Jewish community labors under a not-so-hidden loyalty test regarding what one can and cannot say about Israel. The national Hillel organization is under increasing criticism for its attempt to enforce standards that would keep certain anti-Israel speakers from being sponsored by its campus chapters. Jews who associate with J Street have been accused of disloyalty even though the advocacy group’s policy explicitly endorses a safe and secure Israel as part of a two-state solution to the Middle East dispute. A recent study found that a third of U.S. rabbis are not comfortable speaking the truth as they see it relating to Israel out of fear for their jobs. Recently, the rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun, the famously liberal synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, were taken to task for signing an open letter that was seen as critical of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
I understand what’s behind this atmosphere of fear and retribution. Israel is increasingly treated as a pariah nation despite being the only true democracy in the Middle East and having a far better human rights record than its neighbors. While powerless to change the antipathy of so much of the world toward Israel, some Jews try to demand of their co-religionists a loyalty to the country that allowed the Jewish people to reconstitute itself after the Holocaust. Yet with the passage of time, fewer and fewer Jews carry these memories, and their ties to Jewish solidarity weaken. Attempts to enforce communal discipline and to require a non-critical assessment of Israel not only cannot succeed in America, they also are likely to alienate the very Jews the community hopes to engage.
Ironically, a play like “The Admission” may do more to engage Jews with the issues at the heart of the Middle East conflict than do foolhardy attempts to enforce loyalty. The play portrays an overly self-righteous son trying to come to grips with the fact that his father may have been complicit in the killing of Arab civilians during the war. The father, perhaps altruistically and perhaps out of a sense of guilt, has devoted his life to improving the quality of life of Arab Israelis. The Palestinian Israelis in the play are torn between their desire to stay out of trouble, get an education and improve their lives and the lives of their children and their desire to unearth evidence of an injustice done to their parents and grandparents.
Hovering over the play is the recognition that war has no victors. All in its wake are victims, even, to quote the Bible, “unto the tenth generation.” Those in the Jewish community who seek to stifle freedom of expression are no less living out the trauma of the Holocaust than those in the Palestinian community who say that there can be no peace in the region until they can return to the villages of their grandparents inside Israel.
One gift Nelson Mandela gave the world was the understanding that no healthy nation can be built on the back of a historical injustice without a process of truth and reconciliation in which all parties come to grips with the past. There is plenty of blame to go around on all sides. Until the parties to the Middle East conflict are ready for such a process, perhaps art will have to suffice.
The writer is a senior fellow at Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and the founding rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda.