The central moment in Doron Ben-Atar’s new play “Peace Warriors” about the personalities, politics and relationships of the American academic left can slip by if you don’t pay attention.
It takes place at the home of Darryl (the wife) and Scooter (the husband) Lewis. The couple, both Jews, live in New Haven, where she teaches at Yale and he at Albertus Magnus. (Never heard of it? That’s the point.) One of their longtime friends, a lefty academic superstar named GW, has arranged to stay with the Lewises and meet an Israel actor who is in town performing a solidarity play about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Shlomtzion, also known as Channah Karnovsky, wants a fellowship from the institute that GW chairs at Columbia. He has the power to dole them out, which he intends to do for her because of her wealthy connections. In doing so, he’ll bypass Scooter, his “friend,” again — which doesn’t matter so much because he likes Scooter’s wife better, anyway.
This doesn’t sound like such a sexy premise, but even those who curl up on the couch midway through academic parties (Scooter says of the parties: “Not enough alcohol and too many jokes with the punch line delivered in German”) will find the play amusing, lubricious and a bit heart-tearing. The play is Jewish in that the characters are Jews, it revolves around Israel and there are some throw-away Borsht-belt lines. But the Jewishness is fraught — their high-school daughter (Choate) is threatened with Brandeis if she doesn’t shape up and mentions of the Holocaust come by way of criticizing others who mention it. It’s more about how lefties fight each other and how Israel functions in the academic universe. The central moment occurs very early when Scooter learns from Darryl, that GW is going to meet Shlomtzion at their house.
“At our house?” he says.
Poor Scooter is smarter than he acts initially. His next line is: “This evening is turning out to be a Jewish telegram: Begin worrying. Stop. Details to follow.” What follows is a not so much a lament of what has happened to the left in academia — the universe that Ben-Atar’s would call “home” — as a playing out of his anger. Ben-Atar did not write this after experiencing his first bits of disillusionment, but because of all of the incidents that have affected him — Tony Judt and his email campaign, the boycotts of Israeli academic institutions, the unqualified professors teaching classes about the middle east, the celebritizing of Jewish academics who “kosherize” veiled antisemitism. The play comes across as a slap across the face of the American academic left or, as he might characterize it, a slap back. And despite its forceful delivery, behind it is the sadness that this is all happening at the place where he was supposed to be the most comfortable — in his own house.
It may wake some people up, but it probably won’t advance much in the cause of peace. Polemics rarely do. Then again, when people find themselves talking about the issues in academia that Ben-Atar raises, they could remember to work their way into the more important conversations about Israel.
Ben-Atar grew up in Kfar Shmaryahu, a suburb outside of Tel Aviv. His father was a cultured man who peppered his speech with foreign phrases and his mother was a holocaust survivor — the inspiration for Ben-Atar’s first play “Behave Yourself Quietly.” He attended Peace Now demonstrations “because that’s where all the cute girls were supposed to be” but he became a lefty with a resume: He worked for Ratz (the precursor to Meretz), tried to organize dialogue with the Arab students at Columbia, and while he was offended by Norman Finkelstein’s speaking at Fordham (where Ben-Atar is the chair of the history department), he wrote a letter supporting Finkelstein’s right to speak.
At a certain point he felt like criticism of Israel was delivered with too much of a gleam in the eye. It had become something that you did, he said, to advance your career rather than out of a sense of justice. This is the mindset he takes on in his play. According to him, anti-Zionist arguments are littered with inaccuracies. Nevertheless, one gains status in academic circles (and even fellowships) by being able to reference the newest, pithiest slogans. This sloganized anti-Zionism is usually delivered in coded academic jargon but is no better than that which comes from the bullhorns of campus demonstrations. And the stronger the rhetoric, the higher the credibility.
Ben-Atar admits that he’s felt and said some of these things he is critical of in “Peace Warriors.” Contrary to some speculation, the characters are not based on colleagues at Yale, Princeton or Fordham — and, specifically, the handsome Columbia professor, is explicitly not based on Edward Said. Rather, GW, the play’s most vocal critic of Israel, represents a facet of Ben-Atar himself who observed that: “I have a history of being a GW. I have said some of those things and in some ways this play is a coming to terms with some of the things that I have said.”
Yet, he points out that there is a qualitative difference between calling the children of settlers who were killed “colonialists,” as he himself had done in the past, and, as he had heard, calling them “Eichmanns.” And he visibly winces when he recalls some of the things he heard from professors at Fordham after Sept. 11th such as “America got what was coming to her.”
This kind of rhetoric gets tossed around a lot in the play, enough to make Israel supporters initially uncomfortable — but then Ben-Atar goes after those who fly the rhetoric. “I am not a wall-flower,” he said. “One of the greatnesses of Zionism is that when people urinate on us, we don’t call it rain. If you are going to say something like that I am not going to back down. It’s about Jews not being afraid. And so people have learned not to challenge me with provocative anti-Israel statements.”
From time to time even Ben-Atar lets slip his own sloganeering, saying things like “Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism.” Catch phrases become tennis shots. Language continues to be wounded in the conflict, but Ben-Atar is fundamentally honest. In person he says a lot, (he has a lot to say), and so these sorts of misfires can be forgiven in the sea of his sincerity. Behind all this remains Scooter’s statement. The ridiculous and shocking unfolds around him, foreshadowed by his wonder: Is this really happening “in our house?” Shouldn’t the academics who trained themselves to think through everything be able to think themselves into how their colleagues and friends would be affected by their words and actions? And weren’t the Jewish lefty academics the ones who were supposed to figure out our most important social and political questions — how to love, govern and criticize Israel — in ways that wouldn’t hurt anyone? Aren’t the professors (whether at Yale, Columbia, Fordham, Brandeis, or Albertus Magnus) supposed to have solved this thing, already?
Peace Warriors runs from August 14 - 23 at the New York Fringe Festival at the Players Theater (115 MacDougal Street).
Micah Kelber is a writer and freelance rabbi who lives in Brooklyn. He is currently writing a screenplay about divorce in New York in the 1940s.