WASHINGTON (WJW) — Ari Roth is not surprised that his decision to stage a reading of "Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza" has infuriated some in the Washington Jewish community.
"People have a right to be offended, and I respect those who have read the play and are offended," said Roth, the artistic director of Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center where the 10-minute play was performed this week. It also will be staged Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in Washington at the Forum Theater.
Roth himself was upset by the script.
However, he has added two pro-Israel plays to the evening as well as a panel discussion as part of an effort to give a broader context to the play.
Written by British playwright Caryl Churchill, the play is an indictment of Israel, Israelis and their attitudes toward Palestinians. It describes how the Jewish parents discuss teaching their children about the Jewish state and the Gaza war. For example, one portion deals with living in Israel. The parent says: "Tell her, of course tell her, tell her everyone was driven out and the country is waiting for us to come home. Don’t tell her she doesn’t belong here."
Insofar as the Palestinians are concerned, the dialogue reads, "Tell her we’re stronger. Tell her we’re entitled. Tell her they don’t understand anything but violence." And, "Tell her they’re filth."
It’s that kind of rhetoric that alienated some local Jews.
Martin Berman-Gorvine, 39, of Silver Spring, Md., said in an interview that he has been a peace activist in Israel and the United States. He knows that Israelis don’t always treat Palestinians fairly, and there is room for criticism.
"But this is a piece of anti-Israel propaganda and not something that should be a part of the broad spectrum of debate in the Jewish community," the Silver Spring resident said.
Herman Taube, 90, is stronger in his condemnation. "We have some Jews who you spit in their face and they say it’s raining," said the Rockville resident. "That’s what happened at Jewish Community Center."
Roth, however, believes that holding a reading of the play — "we would never produce it," Roth insisted — provides "a means of intellectual protection for the Jewish community."
"Churchill is an angry critic of Israel who has written a play with seven ostensibly Jewish characters," the theater director continued. "We would like to know what she is saying theatrically and politically.
"This is an elusive, evocative, wispy play that has mysteries in it, and we are trying to decode them in a public discussion." (He will lead a discussion after the reading.)
Roth called Churchill a great writer, saying she has penned this script "both well and to some degree recklessly, even with a great deal of craftsmanship and with a sense of moral outrage to which it might be unwise for us to cast a blind eye and a deaf ear."
In addition, Roth noted that Theater J presented two pieces written in reaction: "Seven Palestinian Children," by playwright Deb Margolin and "The Eighth Child," by Robbie Gringras, artist in residence at Makom, Jewish Agency for Israel.
On Zionism, Gringas wrote: "Tell her that Zionism isn’t a dirty word like racism. Zionism is a complicated word with good intentions and ambiguous results, like idealism." And on Churchill and her play, he added: "But Caryl Churchill is just plain wrong. Tell her that those who don’t like us will always pretend to understand us. We don’t even understand us. And we would never dare write a 10-minute play about it. Tell her it’s much more complicated than that."
Neither Taube nor Berman-Gorvine is swayed by Roth’s attempt at evenhandedness.
"This is not a question of journalistic balance," said Berman-Gorvine. "It doesn’t make up for the fact that they are putting on a play that is demonizing Israelis."
Not everyone is hostile to putting on the reading. Derek Goldman, director of the Theater and Performing Arts program at Georgetown University, said in an e-mail that he "applauds" Theater J as an organization that "asks troubling questions, stirs dialogue and allows us to better understand positions that may be the opposite of our own."
The Washington Jewish Week’s arts correspondent, Lisa Traiger, said that as the play was bound to come to Washington anyway, having it presented in a Jewish forum "allows an appropriate and fair-minded response to this controversial work."
Playwright Churchill declined to be interviewed, noting she has not granted an interview in 15 years. (A letter from Churchill to Roth, as well as other e-mails on the issue can be found by clicking on "Blog" at www.theaterj.org. The complete text of the play can be found at www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2009/feb/26/caryl-churchill-seven-jewish-children-play-gaza.)
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said that the WDCJCC, as "an independent institution … has a right to put on any production it wishes to." "However," he continued, "the timing of the play, considering the Gaza war, has made many people sensitive."
Potomac’s Robert Samet planned to participate in a protest at the WDCJCC last evening. "The play does everything it can to delegitimize Israel," he said. "It is, in fact, precisely the Palestinian narrative."
The protesters — whom Samet describes as an "ad hoc" group, emerging from an exchange of e-mails with friends and acquaintances — will not demonstrate at the Forum Theater.
"We are going to the JCC because it is a Jewish institution supported by Jewish contributions directly and indirectly from the Jewish Federation [of Greater Washington], and it isn’t supposed to be giving undeserved dignity and legitimacy to people who undermine the Jewish people and Israel," he said.
The Embassy of Israel is a co-sponsor of the series "Voices from a Changing Middle East," according to the WDCJCC Web site, and "Seven Jewish Children" is one of the works in that series. The embassy’s support was given only for plays written by Israelis — "DAI" (Enough), "The Accident" and "Benedictus," said spokesperson Jonathan Peled. "We had nothing to do with that play," he said, referring to "Seven Jewish Children."
Roth has been at Theater J for 12 years, and he concedes that Seven Jewish Children is hardly the first controversial play he has presented, mentioning two recent plays specifically — Pangs of the Messiah by Motti Lerner, about Israeli settlements, and The Accident by Hillel Mitelpunk, set in Tel Aviv, that portrays some liberal Israelis as corrupt.
"I don’t program to offend the Jewish community, but to be in dialogue on issues that are extremely important," Roth said.
He receives some 500 to 600 new plays a year, many unsolicited. His staff reads all the plays, he reads some and a lay committee reads the finalists. He goes to Israel on the average of once a year to see plays and sees others performed in the United States. And, of course, there are the old standards, some of which return to the Theater J stage.
After the process of winnowing the number down to 25 possibilities and discussions with the head of the WDCJCC and its finance committee, he stages an average of five subscription offerings and two, three or more special events.
The most important criterion for staging a play is "being passionate about it," he said.
The theater director said he has learned over the years that his audiences crave variety."Art should sometimes cause anguish and heartbreak, but not always," he said. "We don’t need a season full of Death of a Salesman. To be relevant to our audience, we need to recognize they come for a full experience. We want to show them multiple representations of life — what’s wonderful about it and the problems we face."
Churchill has waived fees for her play, asking that theaters instead collect donations for the group Medical Aid for Palestinians. Theater J does not permit fund raising for outside groups and will offer the readings for no charge; Forum Theater will request audience donations for the Palestinian group.
(This article first appeared in The Washington Jewish Week.)