In an apparent bow to the right in the Jewish culture wars, Theater J, a celebrated theatrical group housed at Washington’s DC Jewish Community Center, will not produce a play set to open this spring that has been denounced by critics as anti-Israel.
The troupe will instead run a workshop on the play and a moderated discussion, the DCJCC’s director said on October 9.
The DCJCC insists the move had nothing to do with outside pressure to remove the play from the theater’s schedule. But the decision not to run a full production came after a weeks-long campaign waged by activists who targeted not the theater troupe but the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the community’s central philanthropic fund. The activists called on donors to the federation, which supports the DCJCC, to withhold their contributions unless the DCJCC stopped the theater troupe from staging its show, “The Admission,” under its roof.
In 2012, the Federation provided more than $400,000 to the DCJCC.
The compromise reached between Theater J and the DCJCC will likely not put an end to the heated political debate about the play. Activists from a group called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, which organized the pressure campaign, have made clear they will not discuss anything short of removing the play altogether. The group’s chairman, Robert Samet, told the Forward earlier that he would accept only the play’s cancellation.
Carole Zawatsky, CEO of the DCJCC, told the Forward that the decision to cancel the full production was not a result of the outside pressure. “This had nothing to do with COPMA,” she said. “COPMA is trying to shut down the conversation and we are trying to broaden it.”
The DCJCC explained the decision as stemming from their “guiding principle” that plays from Israel should be done in partnership with Israeli theater companies. And since a planned partnership did not materialize, Theater J will not present a full production in Washington. The workshop, Zawatsky said, will include the play’s author, Motti Lerner, alongside other historians, artists and political figures.
The controversy surrounding production of The Admission is only the latest in a series of attacks against the capital city’s Jewish theater company involving plays related to Israel. Theater J rejected the earlier rounds of criticism, insisting on its right to stage the plays in question as a matter of artistic freedom.
This time, however, the debate was deepened by a call from the theater’s detractors to withhold donations from the city’s Jewish federation because of its support for the artistic group.
“The Admission” deals with claims that Israeli soldiers carried out a massacre of Arab civilians in the village of Tantura during the 1948 War of Independence.
A plan to co-produce the play with an Israeli theater company, the Herzliya Ensemble, was scratched after the ensemble folded. This left Theater J on the front lines as the world premiere stage for Lerner’s play, heightening the debate over the show even more.
There were indications even before the DCJCC’s announcement that Theater J was taking the new pressure campaign seriously.
“There is always room for adjustments,” said Ari Roth, Theater J’s artistic director “but we’re going to do that on our terms.”
Critics were calling on donors to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington to withdraw their funding from the Federation unless it ceased its support for the Washington DCJCC. As the central communal fund for Greater Washington’s 275,000-strong Jewish community, the Federation supports a vast array of communal services for Jews and social services for Jews and non-Jews.
As the communal power struggle developed, major Federation donors were courted by both sides.
On one side, those opposed to the theater’s decision to put on the play viewed control of the communal purse strings as a legitimate tool in this battle.
“Is this what you want your charitable donations to the Jewish Federation to support?” asked an Oct. 2 email blast sent out by a group called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art. In another statement the group asked its supporters: “Do you want your charitable donations to support ‘radical political theater’ attacking Israel? You have a choice.”
“We all understand that withholding contributions is a very drastic step, but the federation’s board will not listen,” said Robert Samet, COPMA’s chairman, in an interview with the Forward. Samet made clear his group would not accept any compromise that allowed showing the play at Theater J in any format.
“Their tactics sound very much like McCarthyist censorship,” retorted Susie Gelman, past president of the Federation, in an interview with the Forward. Gelman continues to serve on the Federation’s executive committee.
Compared to the previous episodes involving Theater J, say community activists, COPMA’s campaign against “The Admission” reached more donors, and many of them raised the issue with Federation leaders. The campaign was viewed by Federation officials as potentially threatening this year’s fundraising efforts. But insiders said that so far, no one has reneged on their contribution pledges.
While the debate over free speech and the meaning of being “pro-Israel” raged in the local press and in public statements, behind the scenes, Federation, Washington DCJCC and Theater J officials were engaged in talks to avoid a showdown that could lead to a break with some donors in the community.
Roth had struck a combative tone in response to the donor financial pressure.
“Do our principles have a price tag?” he asked. “To me the answer has always been no.”
The battle over “The Admission” focuses on the veracity of claims that Israel soldiers carried out a massacre in Tantura, a small village along the Mediterranean coast.
It is an argument that erupted in Israel over a decade ago, following a doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Haifa claiming that Israel murdered up to 250 civilians when taking over the village. The issue reached Israel’s top court, after former soldiers who had participated in the battle sued the author of the dissertation for libel. The Supreme Court ruled that the author’s dissertation claim was not accurate. Separately, a University of Haifa review panel, in a split vote, decided not to approve the dissertation.
But the issue has never been settled.
COPMA, in a lengthy discussion of the play, claimed the drama focuses on “a vicious lie about Israel.” But in a response letter, Paul Scham, a professor of Israel studies at the University of Maryland, argued that the fact that doubts were raised about the event “doesn’t mean that there is no evidence or that it is a canard, or that asking these questions makes one ‘anti-Israel.’”
Playwright Lerner, who grew up in Zichron Yaakov, not far from Tantura, said he recalled hearing stories of the massacre from neighbors. He issued his own statement saying that “the play is not an attempt to make a historical judgment based on the materials I collected, but an attempt to explore how Jews and Arabs in Israel have created their historical memories as a means for survival.”
This is the third time in recent years that Theater J has been targeted by activists from the right for its choice of plays highlighting controversial issues related to Israel. In 2009, it was censured for its decision to read Caryl Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children,” which blasted Israel’s 2008 military campaign in Gaza. Then, in 2011, COPMA launched a campaign against Theater J’s production of “Return to Haifa,” a play based on a novella by Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani, which discusses the issue of Palestinian refugees.
While these efforts succeeded in attracting attention, they did not succeed in blocking funds to Theater J. After the 2011 controversy, the Federation’s board adopted a resolution stating it would continue to fund the Washington DCJCC and that the Federation values “freedom of expression, robust dialogue, and diversity of opinion.”
In an interview with the Forward, Robert Levi, chairman of the board of the National Council of Young Israel, argued that the Federation should not be using hard earned donation dollars for a cause “that a consensus of the Jewish community does not support.” He stressed, however, that he was not calling on donors to boycott the Federation or to refrain from funding it, since he did not think “we should cut off our nose to spite our face.”
In an open letter to Steve Rakitt, the Federation’s executive vice president and CEO, Levi wrote that “The Admission” “reflects a neo-anti-Israeli perspective, which is contrary to the mission of the Federation.”
Gelman publicized her opposing views in an opinion piece in Washington Jewish Week that she co-wrote with her husband, Michael Gelman, who, like her, is a past president of the Federation. In the article, they supported Theater J’s freedom to choose its artistic content.
Susie Gelman told the Forward that she did not believe COPMA’s call for suspending donations to the Federation would influence many. But she warned that linking the controversy over the play to supporting the Federation was “taking the debate to a whole new level.” The move could have a chilling effect on future work of agencies receiving support from the Federation, she said, adding, “I don’t think we should give them this victory.”
In an “open letter to our community” issued September 24, the Federation stood behind its decision to fund the Washington DCJCC and its hosting of Theater J. “It is not our job to meddle in their autonomous decision making,” the letter stated. “It is our job to live up to the ideals of Abraham, to create an open tent for all Jews, to demonstrate our love of Israel and the Jewish people everywhere.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.