Theater J and the DCJCC announced today that they will not be producing the controversial play “The Admission”, by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner. Rather, Theater J will present it as a workshop, inviting audience members to give feedback allowing the playwright and director to adjust the script or staging. In addition, the play, even in workshop form, will not be shown 35 times as originally advertised, but will be presented 16 times and now as part of a larger symposium on Israel and conversations about Israel.
“The DCJCC is committed to presenting the work of Motti Lerner and “The Admission” and has heard many thoughtful voices in the community,” said DCJCC CEO Carole Zawatsky. “Written by celebrated Israeli playwright, Motti Lerner, the decision today is to give the work the context that the work and the audience deserve.”
Zawatsky asserted that the DCJCC has long been planning a series of high level, very thoughtful panels around difficult questions, such as how we talk about Israel and about the 1948 War of Independence.
“The play is the catalyst for this very important dialogue,” she added.
With the decision breaking today, speakers are yet to be confirmed. What we do know is that this Israel symposium will be similar in structure to the sold out “Spinozium” (Spinoza Symposium) staged this past April at Theater J.
“The Admission” is a work of fiction set in the spring of 1988 in different places in Haifa. The main character, Avigdor, the wealthy owner of a construction company, was a colonel in the Israeli army during the 1948 War of Independence. His son, Giora, a lecturer at the University of Haifa was wounded in the Lebanon war of 1982. As construction trucks turn up the soil and bones of the fictional Arab village of Jirin, Giora’s thoughts turn to the battle that occurred on the land.
The play takes its narrative in part from allegations that Israeli soldiers carried out a massacre in the Arab village of Tantura during the 1948 War of Independence, which in turn ignited serious discussion about the play within the Washington Jewish community.
Specifically, a small group that call itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) has placed ads, sent emails and posted on list serves arguing that community members should stop donating to The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington as the DCJCC, which houses the theater company is funded in part by the Federation. In an open letter to the community and again today, Federation affirmed its “respect for the autonomy of beneficiary agencies and our strong belief that our community is – and should be – a “big tent”,” said Federation CEO Steve Rakitt, “We support the DCJCC’s decision to reformat “The Admission” to workshops along with its continued commitment to open and constructive dialogue about Israel.”
Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, Paul L. Scham, who teaches the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and lived in Israel and worked at Hebrew University when the Tantura controversy was major news in Israel, read a draft of the play as well as COPMA’s letter of October 2 about the play and responded, “COPMA is certainly right that the play loosely follows the Tantura controversy.” But, he added, “COPMA’s letter of Oct. 2 gives a sense of the chronology of the controversy but ignores or misrepresents some crucial facts, thus presenting a seemingly seamless narrative in which everyone dealing with the issue considers it fabricated. That is emphatically not true.”
He goes on to write, “To say that massacres occur in war is, unfortunately, a commonplace, as we Americans know all too well. Israel is not so fragile that such allegations, even if proven, can have any bearing on its right to exist.
“’The Admission’ raises serious issues that are well-known in Israel. Many of us feel strongly that Israel’s fate is bound up with our own as Jews. To censor and prevent a full understanding of the good and the bad in Israel does a disservice to truth, to art, and to Israel, because supporting Israel should never be based on suppressing either truth or art.”
For her part, Zawatsky maintained, “I don’t believe a small group of people with very passionate ideas have the right to hold a community to their particular perspective. I do believe they have the right to be heard.There are lines we don’t cross and they are around BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel).”
As to whether COPMA will be part of the workshop audience, she said, “Everyone is welcome to be part of the conversation. I invited members of COPMA to meet with me when I first arrived at the DCJCC.”
“We don’t close off the conversation,” she continued. “We open the conversation and I invite them to be part of a respectful and open conversation.”
She stands by artistic director Ari Roth and Theater J, noting that it not only has a local and national reputation but also an international recognition and that Roth “continues to be an outstanding example to others throughout the country.”
In response, Carol Greenwald, treasurer of COPMA told WJW, “You have chosen to repeat a blood libel against the Jewish people. Carol Zawasky says this is a ‘great conversation’. What is the conversation? When people use Holocaust denial it discredits those who say it. But when it comes to Israel and a Jewish institution, it somehow gets defended as ‘opening up a conversation’. I’m saying, about what? A libel, about a massacre that never happened, should be debated? That there were death camps? That 9/11 was an inside job? This is the same level.
“This is such a betrayal of why people give money to Federation. Motti Lerner is lying through his teeth when he says he knows people who participated in the massacre. This charge of a massacre went to the Israeli Supreme Court as a libel case and was upheld as libel. The soldiers who were there (in Tantura) sued and won.”
“And this is what charity money is used for? DCJCC hires a PR firm to counter COPMA rather than admitting they were wrong and canceling the play. That would be the honorable thing to do and that’s what people who give money to Federation expect. Anything else is a betrayal of why Jews have given money to Federation. Jews do not give money to Federation to spread blood libels.”
In August, the National Council of Young Israel joined COPMA’s call for the discontinuation of Federation support for Theater J.
Roth bristles at Theater J being cast as a “viciously anti-Israel theater. It is a toxic mischaracterization. The 36 plays from and about Israel each reflect something vital to talk about and I think COPMA has done the Washington Jewish community a disservice.” He believes that “in time, and with fair coverage and fair adjudication, the play [“The Admission”] will prove its worth.]
On the new plan Roth stated, “Donors and people who love Israel have expressed concern and because of COPMA and because it’s been a damaging campaign, the DCJCC asked that it be part of a conversation about modern and Zionist history.” He hopes to add the play “Golda’s Balcony”, one that he has long admired, as well as another work based on an Israeli memoir to the six-week festival.
“The Admission” was originally set to be produced in Israel by the Herzliya Theater. Theater J partnered with Herzliya to bring the play to D.C. “That was the imprimatur,” said Roth of the production, “happening first in Israel and then in the U.S.” Unfortunately, financial hardships caused the theater in Herzliya to close. Meanwhile Theater J had already committed to the cast and crew connected to the play. According to Zawatsky and Roth, “The Admission” has been workshopped in several theaters in Israel including the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv. This new format for the play is based in part on how it is presented in Israel. Said Zawatsky, “What you do in Israel has great merit.”
“We are very fortunate,” she said. “A lot of supporters, wonderful friends, helped us look at how you give a tough message greater context.”
As to why art and discussion about Israel can cause such fear and controversy in the community, Zawatsky suggested, “Fear comes from a personal place. For people like myself who are ardent Zionists, who with heart and soul want a safe future for Israel and ask what’s the best I can do for this country I love—it’s difficult to discuss situations for fear of looking critical.
“I believe wholeheartedly that Israel is a democratic society of which I am deeply proud, and the U.S. is a democratic society of which I am deeply proud, and we have the right to have these conversations in the public square.”
(“The Admission” will run at the DCJCC March 20 through April 6. The festival will continue through April 27. For information about tickets, go to http://washingtondcjcc.org/center-for-arts/theater-j)