Motti Lerner’s “The Admission” at Theater J: What’s the fuss about?

Where to start…….

I guess first, for those of you who won’t read beyond the first paragraph, the most important thing is whether you should go and see the “staged reading” of “The Admission”, playing an abbreviated run at Theater J through April 6.  The answer is: “Definitely”.

Now on to the interesting stuff…….

First, a little about the play, and the historical basis for the play.  Set in Israel in 1988, the focus is on Israel’s 1948 War of Independence (fending off the post-partition attacks by its surrounding Arab neighbor states), and in particular what happened in the Arab village of Tantur (a shortened version of the real village of Tantura).  The facts are clear that following fighting in Tantur, there were no Arabs remaining in the village.  The majority of the former residents left the village, either voluntarily or under force, depending on your point of bias, but they left.  It is also clear that there was fighting in the village, and that a number of Jews and a larger number of Arabs were killed.  This is where the agreed upon facts end.  And where the discussion begins.

How many Arabs were killed?  Was it 20?  What is 70?  Was it more than 200?  And were they killed during combat?  As a battleground necessity?  Or were they simply lined up and murdered by the Israeli army after all the fighting has stopped.

Forty years after the battle of Tantur, we find ourselves with two families in Haifa, one Jewish, one Arab. The Arab father is a native of Tantur, and was present at the battle.  The Jewish father was the commander of the Israeli troops during the battle of Tantur, and is now a real estate developer, planning a large housing development in Tantur at the site of the 1948 conflict.  For decades, these families have been surprisingly close.  The Jewish father has helped the Arab family finance their Haifa restaurant on very favorable terms, and have paid for the education of the Arab daughter.  There were two sons in the Jewish family – one was killed in his tank during the 1973 Yom Kippur War; the other seriously wounded and crippled in the Lebanon war in the early 1980s.  There are two Arab children – the daughter, a student who has been studying in London, and a son who runs the family restaurant.  They have never spoken about what happened in 1948, until now.

The thought of the housing development on what the Arab father believes to be consecrated ground sets up the conflict between the two fathers and, perhaps even more importantly (and as a result of a bit of historical research) between the remaining Jewish son and his parents, as the son becomes more and more convinced that something bad happened at Tantur, that his father was involved, and that he has been keeping some big secrets and engaging in major denial, or worse, purposeful lying about what happened during the war and what his father’s role was.  His own experience in Lebanon, where he was wounded, but where before that he had engaged in operations that resulted in civilian deaths, makes the emotional situation even more stressful for the son, as does the son’s long time relationship with the Arab daughter.

That’s the framework for the play.  Does the play “take sides” and declare the Jewish father (and therefore Israel) guilty of war crimes or worse?  No.  Does the play conclude that the Arabs are lying and no “massacre” of more than 200 Arab residents took place?  No.  Does the play show the complexities of reconstructing history, even (or perhaps especially) when presumed participants and witnesses are still alive?   Yes.  Are the emotions that are displayed by the characters credible and therefore their actions and words credible?  Absolutely.

In my title, I asked “What’s the fuss about?”.  And, boy, has there been a fuss.

When it was announced that the play would be performed as a part of Theater J’s 2013-2014 schedule, a new organization appeared, Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) to oppose production of the play and, more than that, to attack Theater J and its talented artistic director Ari Roth, personally and  maliciously.  Reading the first paragraph on COPMA’s website (www.copma.net), you see the following:  “Theater J at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center (DCJCC) has for years, under the directorship of an individual named Ari Roth, been staging plays and holding workshops that denigrate Israel.  The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has been providing funding to Theater J, and despite COPMA’s efforts, continues to knowingly funnel dollars to support Theater J.  This violates the Federation’s fiduciary obligation to donors to monitor the destination of its donor contributions.  We would not support Jewish Federation funds going to support the Palestinian Authority, and we should not support Jewish Federation funds going to attack Israel in its struggle for peace and security.”

Needless to say, this is nonsense.  And the constant barrage of attacks from COPMA have failed to stop the Federation support, and have only increased interest in “The Admission” and guaranteed that its two week run (shortened from a substantially longer run as a way to attempt to compromise – possibly a mistake) has large audiences for every performance.

More from the COPMA site, under the heading “The Latest Outrage”:  “The Admission centers on a false allegation of a slaughter of Palestinians by Israelis in the Palestinian Arab village of Tantura (renamed in the play) during the War of Independence.  The play depicts the modern day effort by the Israeli commander of the unit who committed the slaughter to profit by erecting a shopping mall over the site where the bodies of the Palestinian victims are buried.  The author of the play – and now Theater J – want the audience to believe that play is about real life events in Tantura in 1948, but the allegation of a massacre was long ago challenged in Israel and shown to be false.”

Well, COPMA’s description of what The Admission “centers on” is less than accurate and, to my knowledge and especially since the play is still being work shopped, rather than a final product,, no one at COPMA had actually read the script or seen the play before starting their “boycott the Federation” campaign.  And, now that I have gone to one of the performances, the idea that the play is concluding that there was a “massacre” in Tantura (or Tantur) is ridiculous.  The play is not a political polemic – it is a highly emotional play showing how parties on two sides of a conflict, and their children, living together long after, come to grips with their own narratives of what happened forty years before.  At the end of The Admission, you don’t know what happened – you know that there was fighting, and you know a large number of people, disproportionately Arab, were killed.  Whether they were killed in combat, where they could have been spared without jeopardizing the battle or perhaps the war, how many were killed, these things you don’t know.  Was the Arab witness’s memory faulty or perfect (and in fact, he said contradictory things during the play) you don’t know.  Whether the Jewish commander’s memory was faulty or perfect, whether after years of saying nothing, he was now speaking “the whole truth”, you have no idea.

It’s a tautology but war is war.  It is also sad but true that there appear to be massacres (or alleged massacres) somewhere in the world on an almost daily basis (look now at Nigeria, Central African Republic, Iraq, Burma and of course Syria, to name a few places of present day concern).  It’s obvious that historic memory is faulty, but that the faulty recollections can become the history, and the history can impact on the present and make final reconciliation almost impossible for a lot of people.

The members of COPMA fear that history is being rewritten in a one sided manner, to the detriment of Israel.  They have no first hand experience of what happened at Tantura.  If it turns out that the Israelis did things that they should not have, the COPMA membership doesn’t want to know that.  Let sleeping dogs (or sleeping bones) lie.  Many Israelis agree with COPMA, I am sure, and many disagree.  Palestinians and Israeli Arabs undoubtedly are of at least two minds as well.  So, the discussion goes on, and The Admission is part of that discussion.

But perhaps what is most interesting is that the play parallels the Theater J/COPMA dispute.  The Jewish father/commander clearly would rather forget everything that happened at Tantur in 1948.  In fact, he has been working his entire life to assuage any guilt he might feel for having done things one way or another, by helping to bring about Jewish/Arab reconciliation in Israel.  This is how the two families in The Admission got together in the first place.

Having done all of that for so many years, he does not understand why he has to revisit the incident now.  But in fact he has kicked up the long hidden resentment of his Arab friend by rubbing salt in a long festering wound through his development plans.  The Jewish father is aghast – he is just like COPMA.  He does not want to discuss it.

But like COPMA , he is not able to stifle the conversation.  He cannot ignore it.  There is too much pressure, from too many sides, so the conversation continues, the conflict continues, victims continue to fall.

But there are differences.  The father has his financial security, his psychological health and, it turns out, his relationship with his son at stake.  COPMA has nothing at stake, other than misguided beliefs that the play was something that it was not, that Theater J and Ari Roth are anti-Israel, that somehow the play will harm Israel’s security, and that it is possible to determine, in an objective and rational way, what is “art” and what is “propaganda”.  Perhaps, they have learned their lesson.  More likely, they have not.

While billed as a “staged reading”, the performance is much beyond that.  None of the actors are on-book, there is furniture and a modicum of a set, and there is significant movement on the stage.  The acting is universally good – no reason to give a special shout out to anyone in the cast in particular.

It should be noted that every performance is followed by a discussion with different speakers or panelists.  Last night’s was very successful, moderated by Steven Stern and featuring Dennis Ross, American Camp David negotiator and now with Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and Ghaith al-Omari of the American Task Force on Palestine.  It was interesting that, while typically 2/3 or so of the audience will leave a theater and skip the talk-back, last night I would estimate that 90% of the audience stuck around.

The Admission is part of Theater J’s “Voices from a Changing Middle East” festival.  The next event we will attend is Monday night, a reading of “1948” by famed Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk, a memoir of his first year in Israel and his time in the young country’s military.  We look forward to it.

 

 

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