Last month, in an unusual show of unity around “the fundamental principle of debate in a democracy,” some 113 scholars and intellectuals with a wide range of passionate opinions about the Middle East signed a letter to the New York Review of Books in objection to the abrupt cancellation of a planned October 3 talk on “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” to have been given by New York University historian Tony Judt. The signatories — among them, more than a few hawkish Zionists — rebuked Jewish organizations for producing “a climate of intimidation” that stifles open debate on Israel.
This cause célèbre has at long last opened a properly contentious examination of the nature of American public discourse on Israel. But if the debate is important to have vis-à-vis the foreign policy realm, as indeed it is, it is also essential in the cultural sphere — where it has gained little to no traction.
Amid increasingly polarized political wrangling, the arts can offer nuance, texture, individual felt experience and — even when the work may challenge our own views — a sanctuary from the vituperative din of polemics. Entering a gallery or a theater, even if it is to see a politically engaged show, is a way of hitting the pause button. We don’t leave behind critical understanding or contextual knowledge, but we do enter a space of contemplation, one where we might confront responses to violence or suffering — or to exuberance or discovery — that we otherwise wouldn’t know. And as we cross the threshold into an exhibit, or at the moment the houselights begin to fade, we make a tacit contract with the artwork we are about to behold: We open ourselves to someone else’s vision.
That quintessential human encounter is a dangerous prospect for those who insist that things be seen in only one narrow way. And that is why people bent on defending any and every action or policy of the Israeli government denounce repeatedly, and even seek to shut down, art by or about Palestinians. God forbid we should stop and imagine for a moment what it might feel like to have one’s home demolished.
Some 17 years ago, the defiantly liberal producer Joe Papp caved into pressure and cancelled a performance of El Hakawati, a troupe from East Jerusalem that was slated to bring to the Public Theater an elegiac drama about a man searching for traces of his family after 1948. Since then, taking some tactics from the playbook of the culture wars, efforts to squelch work sympathetic to Palestinians have become more public and, often, more belligerent. To cite just a few examples, in November 2004, politicians in New York’s Westchester County called for the cancellation of a cultural event at a community center in White Plains that sought to raise funds to bring in the traveling exhibit Made in Palestine. The show, which featured the works of 22 artists from the West Bank, Gaza, Israel and the Palestinian Diaspora, had been presented without a fuss in a gallery in Haifa, but that didn’t stop Westchester pols from trying to oust the fundraiser from county property. At Brandeis University last May, officials removed from an exhibit in a campus library paintings by Palestinian teenagers. The works were part of a Brandeis student’s class project, “The Arts of Building Peace.” They issued a statement explaining they pulled the pictures because some students found them “upsetting and confusing.” Then in August, a rabbi in San Antonio challenged the public funding of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, a long-standing local arts and grass-roots community center, for programming documentary films and art exhibits, by Palestinians, that he found one sided. And of course, the New York Theatre Workshop got cold feet last spring about presenting “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” the play edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner and based on the diaries and letters of the young American activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 as she sought to protect a house in Gaza from demolition.
It’s important to note that most of these works did get seen. Back in 1989, Dance Theater Workshop stepped in to present El Hakawati’s “The Story of Kufur Shamma”; “Made in Palestine” enjoyed a successful showing last March at a gallery in New York City’s Chelsea area. And “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” recently opened in a commercial off-Broadway production, amid a range of critical responses,garnering especially favorable reviews in The New Yorker, USA Today, Variety, Jewish Week and elsewhere. What, then, is the problem? First, merely the perception that hawkish Israel supporters will raise a fuss produces a chilling effect and deters other work from being considered: Too many (and too often gutless) theater and gallery directors conclude it’s not worth the hassle to take on projects that might provoke a brouhaha. That, indeed, is the intent of organized protests, bellicose letters to would-be producers, and calumnious Web postings about, say, Tony Judt or Rachel Corrie that presenters find when, in response to a complaint, they Google these figures. (The lies and the plain viciousness about Corrie that abound on the Internet are truly shocking — tasteless jokes about her death, among other ugly postings, that should be an embarrassment to any political faction of the Jewish community.)
Second, the clamors around such works not only make honest encounters with them difficult but also distort the discourse more generally by promoting the specious idea that any representation of Palestinian experience, no matter through whose eyes, is an attack on Israel’s very existence. A recent editorial in The Philadelphia Exponent provides a striking example: Jonathan S. Tobin writes that “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” is a work “designed to further the cause for which [Corrie] gave her life: the deligitimization of the State of Israel.” He has every right to hate the play and to disapprove of her activism, but there is nothing in the 90-minute solo drama that supports this assertion.
Holding the arts to some standard of objectivity is like bringing a pig to synagogue: There are a million ways in which it doesn’t belong. To demand “balance,” for example, from every individual artwork that refers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to deny the essence of art as a particular, subjective expression. And to suggest that art is a zero-sum effort — as those leaf-letting outside “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” are doing by asking, “Where’s the play about the other Rachels [those killed by suicide bombs]?” — willfully refuses a glorious fact about creativity: There is always room for more. But these protesters aren’t really trying to encourage someone else to write a different play. They are suggesting that a play about Rachel Corrie somehow negates these other terrible stories, though it does nothing of the kind.
At a time when information itself is becoming more atomized — people increasingly tune into only the news sources and blogs that present their bunkered point of view — the arts remain one place where we might safely risk exposure to other opinions and feelings, where we might stretch our moral imaginations. Susan Sontag wrote that literature — and, one could say, the arts more generally — “can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us and ours.” If our communal politics require closing us off to this vital human possibility, who have we become?
Alisa Solomon is director of the Arts & Culture concentration in the MA Program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.