DC’s Theater J, The Admission, and The Threat of Truth Telling

By Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark

Israeli playwright Mott Lerner's play, the Admission, won't be performed as planned at Theater J.

Israeli playwright Motti Lerner. In 1994 he won the Prime Minister of Israel Award for his creative work but his play the Admission won’t be performed as planned at Theater J.

Culture is the arena through which collective memory is created and sustained, and that’s why it’s often so disputatious.  Among the most powerful of these collective memories is the Zionist narrative of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, which presents Zionist conduct as pure and always justifiable.  And that’s why the Palestinian counter-narrative of that war, the Nakba, remains so threatening,  especially when the righteousness of Zionist actions are challenged, and maybe most especially when Jewish Israelis themselves raise the challenge.

One of the most controversial of these is the claim that Israeli soldiers massacred many Palestinian civilians and expelled others before razing the Palestinian village of Tantura in late-May, 1948.  The controversy over what happened in Tantura (fictionalized as Tantur) lies at the heart of a new play by the Jewish Israeli playwright Motti Lerner called The Admission.

Washington DC’s Theater J had scheduled the play for a 34-performance, full production this spring, but came immediately under fire from an ad hoc group called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA).   Claiming that the play focuses on “a vicious lie about Israel” COPMA called on “donors to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington to withdraw their funding from the Federation unless it ceased its support for the Washington DCJCC” (which supports Theater J).

The theater has now reduced the production to a 16 week “workshop” run in proposed repertory with “Golda’s Balcony.”  Golda’s Balcony, which starred Telva Feldshuh in a 2003 Broadway production, is a hagiographic tribute to Golda Meier and the Israeli state during the1973 war.

COPMA has been gunning for Theater J for some time, often attacking the works brought over in an annual series called “Voices from a Changing Middle East,” such as the Jewish Israeli playwright, Boaz Gaon’s, adaptation of Return to Haifa, from the novella by Ghassan Kanafani, which was presented at Theater J in 2011, after a successful run at Tel Aviv’s most prominent theater, the Cameri. For COPMA, these are  “theatrical productions that attack and defame Israel.” (In Washington, it was a critical and box office hit.)

Sad to say, COPMA is joining a long line of efforts, going back at least a couple of decades, to shut down plays that depict Palestinian experiences.   Back in 1989 in New York, the Public Theater’s Joseph Papp cancelled the Palestinian theater company El Hakawati’s production of The Story of Kufur Shamma,  out of fear, he said, of “offending” Jews.

The play tells the story of a young man who returns home from studying in Cairo to the fictional Palestinian village of Kufur Shamma, only to find it abandoned in the wake of the 1948 war. Accompanied by the village fool, he sets out on a search for his family and neighbors. They wander for 40 years, through deserts, refugee camps, quarries and cities, picking up various followers as they make their epic journey. (From a July 15, 1989 New York Times op-ed by critic, Alisa Solomon.)

In 2006, New York Theater Workshop planned for, and then cancelled or postponed (depending on the teller), “My Name is Rachel Corrie” , a solo performance based on the diaries of the young activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer as she sought to protect a Palestinian home in Gaza from demolition. The play was moved to the Minetta Lane, where it enjoyed a successful run. (In an unintended consequence of the campaign against the play, the New York Theater Workshop has since become a welcoming venue for the work of Palestinian and Arab-American artists.)

Caryl Churchill’s “” “Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza,” was shrilly attacked almost everywhere it was presented in 2009 — including at Theater J. But the show went on, supplemented by post-play discussions and other responses.

The question of what happened at Tantura is particularly fraught. A masters student writing about  the subject for his thesis in Middle East Studies at the University of Haifa, reported on the killing of unarmed villagers and was sued for libel in 1998 by surviving members of the Alexandroni brigade, which had conquered the village some 50 years earlier. The author, Teddy Katz, initially recanted his findings and then withdrew his retraction.  The court ruled against Katz and the majority on a university panel failed his subsequently revised and corrected thesis. (He was ultimately awarded a non-research MA degree.)

That incident inspired Motti Lerner’s interest in the topic for a play, he told the Washington Post. He had remembered hearing it about Tantura as a child:

“My neighbors and family members, they all knew about the massacre; some of them participated in it,” Lerner said. “They were there and they saw it. This was not talked about frequently, but it was mentioned.”

The venerable scholar — and politically rightwing Israeli -Benny Morris, responsible for shining a light on the expulsions and atrocities committed by the Zionist fighters in his groundbreaking work The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, examined the evidence about Tantura and concluded that “atrocities–war crimes in modern parlance–appear to have occurred.”  His analysis was published in February, 2004 in the Jerusalem Report.   A month earlier, Morris told Haaretz’s Ari Shavit that “Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here.”  The Institute for Palestine Studies has compiled  testimonies from Tantura survivors.

How wearying and dispiriting to see that COMPMA’s old strategies of distortion and threats to funding still find traction. On the other hand, their insistence on covering up history is making that history a subject in the mainstream press.

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