The Greater Washington D.C. area boasts a lively theater scene, ranging from the Kennedy Center to many regional theaters in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia. Theater J, which is a part of the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center (DCJCC), is the largest theater in the country that is affiliated with a JCC. The DCJCC and Theater J annually present and sponsor hundreds of programs in theater, film, literature, music, and the visual arts, and they are the source of more Israeli cultural events than any other local institution.
But now, Theater J, the DCJCC and the Jewish community as a whole face a new onslaught from a small group of individuals who, in the name of defending Israel, are acting as self-appointed cultural vigilantes by taking it upon themselves to decide which theatrical offerings should be made available by Theater J. Specifically, a group that calls itself COPMA (“Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art”), objects to Theater J’s presentation of The Admission, a play by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner that focuses on the complicated relationships between Israelis and Palestinians in modern-day Israel — certainly a topic of interest to many. As part of the story line, The Admission draws on some troubling references to events that may or may not have occurred during Israel’s War of Independence, when the nascent state was fighting for its survival. COPMA claims that a fictitious play that is based on controversial accounts about wartime actions is actually “anti-Israel propaganda” and as such, should not be presented in our community.
The Admission is fiction. It may make pro-Israel activists like us uncomfortable. But it is hardly “anti-Israel propaganda.”
COPMA takes it one step further, however. Not only do they call on Theater J to cancel the planned March 2014 production of The Admission, but they are engaged in a cynical crusade aimed at convincing members of our community to stop contributing to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington — which supports the DCJCC as well as 34 other local agencies, day schools and Hillels — in order to pressure Theater J and the DCJCC to accede to its demands. COPMA’s apparent logic is that since Federation allocates funds to the DCJCC, which houses and supports Theater J, it is perfectly reasonable to boycott the Federation’s annual fundraising drive in order to express distaste for a single program at Theater J.
COPMA’s campaign against the Federation is wrong. Undermining the Federation ignores the fact that it funds vital institutions providing essential services in our local community and sends millions of dollars overseas annually to support critical social services in Israel and in Jewish communities worldwide. The notion that it is Federation’s responsibility to direct the DCJCC in how it should manage the activities of Theater J is misguided.
But COPMA’s bullying tactics are not new. Three years ago, outraged by another Theater J play, Return to Haifa, it pressured Federation’s leadership to adopt “funding guidelines,” by which the content of any Federation-funded organization or program would be judged according to a highly subjective litmus test. The Federation’s board of directors considered the implications of adopting such guidelines and resoundingly concluded that our Federation would not be in the business of dictating to our local agencies and schools what programmatic or curricular content is acceptable. Nothing about The Admission changes that analysis.
It should be noted that The Admission was presented this past spring in New York as a reading at hotINK, a literary festival that included among its sponsors the Office of Cultural Affairs of the New York Israeli consulate. While the consulate did not endorse the play and is reportedly not in favor of promoting it, the consulate chose not to withdraw its support of the festival. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is taking precisely the same position as the Israeli consulate, namely neither to condone the presentation of The Admission nor to withdraw support from the institution where it will be shown. That is as it should be. We are, after all, a broad, diverse community of 275,000 souls. Surely, people can and will decide for themselves whether The Admission is worth seeing.
Ironically, COPMA has provided a service to our community by raising the issue of how we in the Diaspora can talk about Israel. In Israel, the social and political debate is lively, ongoing and unbridled. We believe that in our country, there can be a sensitivity with regard to how to engage with Israel in all of its complexities and still maintain our loyal support of the Jewish state. Plays like The Admission seek to challenge us, even provoke us, and perhaps lead us to greater empathy and understanding. That is a source of strength in our community, not something to be denied or censored.
Susie and Michael Gelman are both past presidents of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and are part of the ownership group of Washington Jewish Week.