Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Pariah?

In March of 1989 I traveled to Egypt when the Houston Grand Opera brought its production of Jerome Kern's pioneering 1927musical, Show Boat, to the the new Cairo Opera House. When I told some friends about my upcoming trip, their knee jerk was response was "And, of course, you're going to Israel after that?"

I was not.

"Well, what kind of Jew are you?" they asked. The answer was simple.
  • A Jew who never attended Hebrew school.
  • A Jew who was not bar-mitzvahed.
  • A Jew who is an atheist.
  • A Jew who does not observe the Sabbath.
  • A Jew who has other interests than the history of the Jews.
  • A Jew who does not believe it is wrong to criticize Israel for its misdeeds.
  • A Jew who barely had enough frequent flyer miles to make it from JFK to CAI.
  • A Jew who, struggling to make a living as a freelance arts critic, didn't have enough money to extend his trip to Israel.
  • A Jew who, after 10 days in Egypt, couldn't afford the extra time to visit Israel.
  • A Jew who, given the choice, would have been much more interested in visiting Bangkok than Jerusalem.
Two recent presentations dealt with the need to distinguish between legitimate criticism of Jews and/or Israel and acts of anti-Semitism. In each case, my personal lack of Zionistic zeal tempered my reactions.

* * * * * * * *
Even the most dire financial climate can't stop actors from creating new performance opportunities. The news that Agora Theater (recently formed by San Francisco Mime Troupe veterans Anne Hallinan and Patricia Silver) would be offering a free reading of two controversial short plays came with a curious condition. Both playwrights had made provisions that their plays could be performed in free staged readings as long as it was possible for the audience to make donations to the charities chosen by each playwright.

Caryl Churchill's six page, 10-minute long Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza has been performed by one person, by several people, and can be seen in several different performances on YouTube here. Directed by Hal Gelb at Monday night's reading at Theatre Artaud, it was performed by Sheila Baltor, Anne Hallinan, Danielle Levin, Anthony Nemirovsky, Robert Sicular, and Patricia Silver.

Caryl Churchill

The play is essentially a series of vignettes in which Jewish adults argue about what should and should not be told to the children they are leaving behind (or sending away). Churchill describes her piece as being about "the difficulties of explaining violence to children. In the early scenes, it is violence against Jewish people. By the end, it is the violence in Gaza."

Some have called the play anti-Israel, others have suggested it is anti-Semitic. I found it confusing. If one does not immediately grasp that the play's vignettes focus on a series of controversial and often violent moments in Jewish history (the Holocaust, Jews leaving their homeland to move to Palestine, the creation of the Israeli state, the expulsion of Palestinians, the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, subsequent suicide attacks and 2008's bombing of Gaza) it takes a while to figure out exactly what is happening.

While the constant battle between the "Tell her that..." and "Don't tell her that..." voices reflects the conflicted emotions (and occasional schizophrenia) of Jews in Israel, what emerges at the end is a chilling portrait of victims of previous violence whose descendants and their children are now quick to justify the violence they inflict on others.

There's just one problem: One dead body is as useless as another, regardless of its ethnic identity or political allegiance.

In Israel Horovitz's short play, What Strong Fences Make, Itzhak (Anthony Meniovsky) is an Israeli father of triplets whose children were all killed when their school bus was blown up by a suicide bomber. As Itzhak, determined to inflict his revenge on the Palestinians, tries to cross the border he is stopped by a member of the Israeli army (Alan Kaiser) who recognizes him as a former classmate from elementary school.

Israel Horovitz

Shortly after the clock strikes 6:00 a.m. and the border gate reopens, Itzhak makes his move -- a shocking violation of Jewish morality which, in order to prevent numerous deaths, causes one Jew (Uri, the guard) to kill another (Itzhak).

Both plays led to a post-performance discussion which only highlighted the obvious: the Arab-Israeli conflict has long been, is now, and will continue to be a lose-lose situation until future generations find a new way to deal with the issues. In the meantime, there will be an ever-increasing number of unnecessary deaths. Agora Theater's free reading will be repeated on Monday, November 16 at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley.

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The recent references to Nazism at so many Teabagger events evidence a curious new fascination with the Holocaust by people who don't really understand what they're talking about. Following the recent protest sponsored by the GOP leadership, Congressman Steve Israel (D-NY) made the following statement:

While there are few doubts that the born-again Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and her following are despicably ill-informed, the sad fact is that, in their zeal to attract media attention, they haven't really thought about the images they are using to attract the cameras. Among Oscar Hammerstein II's brilliant lyrics from South Pacific, the one that has never lost its timeliness reads as follows:
"You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!"
The process of teaching children to resent and hate people they have been trained to hold suspect is brilliantly captured in Yoav Shamir's provocative new documentary entitled Defamation (which opens at the Roxie on November 20). As a group of young female Israeli students visiting Poland overhear an elderly Pole mutter that "They must be speaking Chinese," they wrongly jump to the conclusion that he must hate Jews and think they are sluts.

Although the children are on a trip to Auschwitz to learn about the Holocaust, the irony is that they are just as prejudiced as the people they think are anti-Semitic. Shamir's film was inspired by a curious realization. As he explains in his director's statement:
"I first had the idea to make a film about anti-Semitism when my earlier work, Checkpoint, was released. In one of that film’s many reviews, I was called 'the Israeli Mel Gibson,' not because of my good looks, but because the views I had expressed, critical of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, indicated that I was anti-Semitic. The author of that review was Jewish himself.

At first I thought it was amusing. Being called an anti-Semite by an American Jewish reporter seemed completely far fetched. How could someone who chooses to live outside of Israel, who did not do military service like me, who did not lose a grandfather in the war like me, have the nerve to call me an anti-Semite? Until then I had never considered the central role that anti-Semitism plays in our lives. Upon reflection I realized that it is a constant buzz, always in the background, always annoying. After a while, you simply get used to it. How often are we really disturbed by the hum of an electric fixture or the drone of passing cars? Anti-Semitism may follow us like a shadow, but then again, who really notices his shadow on a daily basis?

Once I did start noticing it, I realized that anti Semitism is actually a very popular topic in the Israeli discourse. Not a day goes by without at least one article in the newspaper mentioning 'Nazis,' 'the Holocaust,' or 'anti-Semitism.' Having never experienced anti-Semitism myself—the closest I came was being compared to Mel Gibson—I decided to learn something about the subject.

Filmmaker Yoav Shamir

This was the beginning of a long journey, culminating in this film. Anti-Semitism is an enormous word with many different connotations. Because of the events of the recent past, it also designates a very sensitive topic. Anti-Semitism is the ultimate sacred cow for Jews. While I did not set out to slaughter that cow, even the most sacred of cows needs to be shaken up every once in a while.

At times I found the subject daunting. No other phenomenon in Jewish history had so much written about it by academics that spent their whole lives studying it. Who the hell was I to think that I might have anything meaningful to add? I was walking on some very thin ice. Nevertheless, I decided to follow my instincts. Any question is relevant if I believe it is; I should never be afraid to ask or challenge even the most hallowed assumptions. The result is a personal journey that reflects things as I saw them. It, it is not intended as an academic essay.

I had embarked on a fascinating quest that meandered between the way young Israelis are raised in the cumbersome shadow of the Holocaust (making this film, in some ways, the last part of a trilogy made in the wrong order: Checkpoint, about Israeli soldiers; Flipping Out, about what happens to these soldiers after they leave the army; and Defamation, which examines Israeli youth before they begin their military service), the Anti-Defamation League, which is the largest organization in the world to combat anti-Semitism, and those who oppose the ADL, including Professor Norman Finkelstein, and John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the authors of The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.

My journey took me around the world: from Israel to the US; from Moscow to Rome to Poland. Mostly, however, it was a journey into the human soul, into the way that people think, and in my particular case, how my people, the Jewish people, choose to deal with the past."
Much to Shamir's surprise, his quest led him to understand that:
  • Whereas secular Jews are most offended by perceived acts of anti-Semitism, Orthodox Jews are too busy studying Judaism to feel deeply affected by it.
  • There is a huge difference between the way American Jews and Israeli Jews view anti-Semitism.
  • Jews and African Americans in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood are equally suspicious of each other.
  • The Anti-Defamation League (which purports to track anti-Semitism) may in fact rely on continuing acts of anti-Semitism to keep itself in business. Could it be that their fundraising techniques (based on the need to quash anti-Semitism) exactly parallel the fear of the homosexual agenda which conservatives exploit for monetary return?
Some people interviewed in the film, like Norman Finkelstein, cite the tendency of American Jews to link everything to memories of the Holocaust. For some Jewish conservatives, Israel is seen as their insurance policy against further genocide.

Norman Finkelstein

Shamir's conclusion, however, is a genuine surprise. After examining how intensely Jews focus on stressing death instead of life, he suggests that the time may have come not to forget the Holocaust, but to move forward. His documentary is a fascinating look into how perceptions of anti-Semitism have led to an army of academics and political operatives who all build their professional livelihoods on the threat of anti-Semitism. As Shamir rightly concludes, their efforts might be better spent on other pursuits. Here's the trailer:

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