When Washington, D.C.’s Theater J announced that its season featured a play based on a story from a Palestinian author with ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, it raised hackles within segments of the D.C. metropolitan Jewish community. The work, “Return to Haifa,” arrived from Tel Aviv on January 15 for a fortnight at the Washington DCJCC Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater, where Theater J is in residence. The play is the centerpiece of “Voices From a Changing Middle East: Portraits of Home,” a five-week festival with nine additional play readings either written by Israelis or dealing with modern Israel and its formation.
Author Ghassan Kanafani, who wrote the novella “Return to Haifa” in 1969, was not merely an apologist for the Palestinian cause; he was a founder and chief spokesman for the PFLP, a hard-line Palestinian nationalist organization long considered a terrorist group by America and others. Kanafani’s novella melds two family narratives: Palestinian parents who fled Haifa in 1948, and a Jewish couple, Holocaust survivors, who have been given rights to the Palestinians’ unoccupied house.
In adapting this story for the Israeli stage, journalist and writer Boaz Gaon added a Solomonic conundrum: One mother, Safiyya, left behind her infant son in the chaos of the Jewish takeover of Haifa in 1948, while the survivors, Miriam and her husband, Ephraim, who lost their own child in the Holocaust, are given the abandoned house on the condition that they raise the forgotten infant. Safiyya and her husband return to Haifa following the Six Day War to discover that both their home and their child have become Israeli. The drama ignites when the two mothers realize they share one child but an opposing destiny.
This isn’t the first time a play about Israel has ignited controversy at Theater J. In March 2009, the D.C. company, run by Ari Roth, publicly read and then discussed the contentious “Seven Jewish Children,” a one-act play by British playwright Caryl Churchill. Inspired by the events of Operation Cast Lead, the play had pickets marching outside the community center, nine blocks from the White House. That play was an indictment of Israelis’ attitudes toward Palestinians. “Return to Haifa,” which puts Israelis and Palestinians on equal footing, was adapted in 2008 by Gaon for a primarily Israeli audience. Prior to its premiere at Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre, Israel’s equivalent to Lincoln Center or Kennedy Center, right-wing protesters stood vigil outside the rehearsal hall in which Jewish and Arab-Israeli actors were collaborating on the work.
Gaon admitted that while Kanafani’s work is well known among Arabs and Palestinians, few Israeli Jews know of the novella. “Though he gave a lot of room for the story of the emergence of the Palestinian nationalism,” Gaon said from Tel Aviv, “[Kanafani] was also very careful not to belittle or gloss over the story of the Jewish refugee from the Holocaust.” This intrigued Gaon enough to contact the Kanafani family about adapting the work for the stage. “The metaphor he created — basically two families destroyed by history who are basically thrown against each other in the same house, and trying to rebuild the life that they lost and will never have again — that to me was very powerful and shattering,” Gaon said.
While a production of “Return to Haifa” ran at Evanston, Ill.’s Next Theatre in February 2010, it was dogged by controversy of another sort. Unauthorized by both the Kanafani family, which controls rights to all of Kanafani’s literary works, and by the play’s adapter, Gaon, Next Theatre hired a third party to script a play “inspired by the idea” of the Palestinian novella, without permission. Ultimately an out-of-court settlement was reached between Next Theatre and Gaon, and the theater’s director was fired.
Though the actors in Israel — even those playing the Arab couple — spoke Hebrew, in Washington the Jewish characters will speak Hebrew and the Palestinian characters will speak Arabic, with subtitles translating all dialogue into English. At the Kanafani family’s insistence, the play will not be performed in English. Hearing the actors speak in the mother tongues of the characters was important in lending the work authenticity, Gaon said.
Of the Israeli production, Gaon said, “It’s a heartbreaking narrative of mothers who miss their sons.” He added that it disarms viewers because it deals with loss on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. “I don’t know if you can weigh suffering or tragedy,” he said, “but I think what Kanafani wanted to say was that [Palestinians] have a legitimate tragedy and need to stop ignoring the tragedy of the Jews to talk about their own tragedy.” This understanding from a Palestinian writer of notorious repute gave Gaon courage to pen his adaptation.
Others have called it pure Palestinian propaganda. Yet that seems unlikely, considering the facts that Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs kicked in substantial financial support and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren is hosting the Cameri Theatre cast and crew for a meet-and-greet breakfast at his residence. Micah Halpern, a syndicated columnist and social and political commentator who divides his time between Manhattan and Jerusalem, said about the work’s controversy, “It doesn’t frighten me,” a statement echoed by Anton Goodman, the district’s community shaliach , or emissary. “Having a relationship with Israel in the 21st century means having a complex relationship,” Goodman said, “and just as we as Israelis embrace all the political and social complexities of life there, American Jews, too, can learn to embrace those complexities, because it comes from a place of love.”
“Return to Haifa” director Sinai Peter, himself a Haifa resident, approached the work, with its cast of Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, not as political debate, but as a personal story binding together two families that face the same loss. “We don’t deal with the settlements. We don’t deal with the political deal making,” Peter said. “Even if our political leaders would reach an agreement, the two nations will have to live side by side and [one] will have to feel empathy toward the other.” Theater, Peter asserted, “deals with real and deep understanding. And that understanding includes the knowledge of the story of each other.”
Gaon believes that art can trump politics. He watched Israelis leave the theater after “Return to Haifa” with tear-streaked faces. “We wanted the audience to cry for Safiyya, for Miriam, for Ephraim and for Said, to basically walk out of the theater with tears in their eyes and pain in their hearts because history played a very ugly trick on them.” He added: “What’s happening now in Israel, and in what will eventually become Palestine, is that people… know this [current] situation is unsustainable and are really fundamentally exhausted. The only thing preventing the majority of the two peoples from pressuring their own leaders is that there is still a fear of the other side.” Goodman says his biggest fear is “people opting out and having no opinion at all. I very much hope that the play initiates conversations.”
Lisa Traiger writes about the performing arts for The Washington Post and Dance Magazine, among other publications.
“Return to Haifa” plays at the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater, Washington DCJCC, January 15–30. The “Voices From a Changing Middle East” festival continues until February 27.