“Return to Haifa” at Theater J

Watching “Return to Haifa” at Theater J is quite an experience. A production of the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv, it is being performed in Hebrew and Arabic, with English surtitles. I think that the concept works better than you think, as long as you art sitting where the surtitles and the stage can more or less come into focus at the same time. It seemed that many of the surtitles were shorthand versions of the spoken dialogue. If so (and why not, as you speak more quickly than you read and process), it is hard to know what nuance you might be missing (this, of course, is the case with word by word translations, too), but this did not seem particularly bothersome. In many instances, however, the surtitles seemed to lag behind the spoken word by a couple of seconds. Without knowing the technology, I think this could be cleared up, but can be a bit disconcerting – you see the action on the stage and hear the dialogue; you look up, a couple of seconds pass before you see what was spoken, and the actors are already on to something else. It must be a challenge to those on stage, as well. Sort of like that TV ad for some fast connection cell phone, where the man who owns that phone laughs long before the others in the car who have slower connections.

The play itself seems to educate a lot of people – to bring home to them one of the ultimate problems in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In 1948, when Israel declared its statehood and a period of war and chaos followed, an Arab family living in Haifa fled the country. The circumstances of their departure remains somewhat uncertain – the husband was fighting the Jews, and the wife had put her baby to sleep, and stepped out into her front yard for some air and was somehow swept away, unable to return.

Their house was empty – but there was a sleeping baby upstairs. A baby that appeared to have been abandoned – although the parental narrative was that they just could not get back to the house and had been living with this horrible event ever since.

It is now 1967, nineteen years later. The Six Day War has ended, Jerusalem is reunited, and the border to the West Bank, closed for so long by the Jordanians, has reopened. The couple, now living in Ramallah with their two somewhat younger children, decide to return to Haifa, to go to their own house, and (presumably) to look for their son.

The son, meanwhile, in effect “conveyed with the house”. When a Jewish couple, refugees from Poland, ask to be able to take over the house, the “agency” (is it the Jewish Agency? not sure) representatives says that the house is only available for families with children and if they take the baby (their own only son was presumably killed in Poland), they can have the house. They do, and they raise the baby boy as their own son.

The story revolves around the meeting of the two couples, and eventually the son (who comes home with his laundry from the Israeli army for a short visit). The son knows he was born an Arab, but believes that his parents abandoned him, and is clearly a self-identified Israeli – presumably he was converted to Judaism, but this is not stated.

Israel has a right of return law. It encompasses Polish-Jewish refugees (as it does all Jews) who have never been to Israel, but does not cover non-Jewish Arabs, who left (voluntarily or otherwise) in 1948. This right of return is one of the primary planks in the Palestinian program – as much a part of the negotiations between the two parties as the future of united Jerusalem or security issues.

The cast talk-back after the show (a Bard College visiting professor, a Palestinian, was also included) saw some interesting topics raised: Is it possible to permit Palestinians to return (or certain Palestinians with particular histories) to Israel, and allow West Bank Jews to remain where they are, but under Palestinian rule and could this be done without making the Jews citizens of Palestine, or the Arabs citizens of Israel? Why should Palestinians have any right of return, or why should this be part of their negotiation demands? Jews are not demanding the right to return to reclaim their residential property in Poland. And, as one of the actors pointed out, he was a Jewish Egyptian, forced to leave that country in 1950, and does not have any right to return (whether he would want to is another question).

Clearly, one of the most pervasive facets of history is the movement of people from one place to another. Except for native Americans, everyone in the United States came from somewhere else – driven here by internal and external forces. Clearly, there have been population transfers as a result of national conflicts (think Greece/Turkey after World War I) or war. Virtually none of these have been accompanied by a demand to be able to return – most peoples have accepted their displacement and moved on, often very successfully. Why should the Palestinian narrative be different? (Of course, this begs the question of why the Jews should have the right of return to a land that Jews have basically been deprived of for over 2000 years.) And how authentic is this narrative – is it the narrative of an indigenous population still fighting a territorial war that began with the Balfour Declaration of almost 100 years ago? Or is it a contrived narrative – created as a political measure by Arab (not exclusively Palestinian) leadership to keep this battle alive, but now adopted by the Palestinian masses as their own? Are we dealing with two people whose positions are both right, or two peoples who positions are both wrong?

This is a good play that brings home this lingering issue and is especially instructive to those who may not have focused on the centrality of the “right of return”. I wonder, though, if the central issue of play, the Arab born boy turned Israeli soldier and patriot, adds to or detracts from the other very credible story line; I tend to think that it does not, as it takes the real and overarching problem of Jews and Palestinians and tries to explain with an unnecessary and hard to accept premise that adds more confusion than clarity. I know that most probably do not agree with me, but I think this good play might have been better if it focused on the conflict between two families without admixing them in this manner.

But this is not the fault of the playwright. The play is an adaptation of a novella by Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani. Kanafani, in addition to being a literary figure, is a political one, a voice of the Palestinian liberation movement. The play, adopted by the talented Israeli playwright Boaz Gaon, does apparently change the focus of the novella a bit, being much more sympathetic to the Jewish side of the dispute and, according to the Bard College participant in last night’s discussion changing the name of the younger daughter of the Arab couple from a name signifying “Eternal” to one signifying “Hope”. Quite a difference.

The reaction to the production in Israel has been very mixed, as has the reaction to the decision of the Cameri Theater to stage it. For this reason, the staging was quite courageous and, in the Israeli political scene, helpful in raising an issue that many are unwilling to even think about, much less discuss. As someone said last night, here in the United States, it is very different. Here you can discuss anything, and it is only a discussion. There, it is more than a discussion – the discussion itself can be viewed as a threat and something to be avoided at all costs.

Theater J is currently staging its very exciting Voices from the Changing Middle East festival over the next several weeks. “Return to Haifa” is the linchpin of that festival – and a very appropriate linchpin it is.

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