“Some ideas are so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.” So said George Orwell. His observation could apply to recent Washington Post coverage of Theater J’s production of “The Admission.”
The work, by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, raises but does not answer directly a question: Did Israeli forces massacre civilians in the village of Tantura in 1948? Never mind that the question, or rather allegation, already had been answered twice in Israeli courts, the second time on appeal to the Supreme Court. The massacre claim, made in a master’s thesis at Haifa University, was held to libel the soldiers who fought in the battle for Tantura.
Regardless, Lerner’s play pivots on insinuations of a slaughter of non-combatants in the village of “Tantur” and its destructive reverberations generations later. The District of Columbia Jewish Community Center houses Theater J. Its production of “The Admission” became particularly controversial when a local group, Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA), campaigned against staging the play at an institution subsidized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
In a lengthy pre-performance feature, post-performance review and freelance commentary, The Post failed to tell readers in a straight-forward way that the Tantura massacre claim was libelous. Neither did it make clear that objections to Theater J’s “The Admission” were not attempts to censor criticism of Israel but rather demands that Jewish-community funded institutions talk about Israel honestly.
In the tank for ‘The Admission’
The Post’s first attempt, “Theater J stages its pressure play,” by Style section reporter Nelson Pressley in the March 15 print edition, was a chain of errors, omissions and manipulative wording. The article:
* Let Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth claim he had to stage “The Admission” because “there is a debate that needs to be convened and not stifled.” But as noted, that debate took place in Israeli courts. The Post obscures the libel verdicts, writing of “a messy ending that has never been fully cleaned up.”
In fact, it was well scrubbed. When Haifa University gave Theodore Katz an unusual, post-verdict chance to revise his thesis with new material, he failed. The school eventually granted Katz a certificate of completion, not a degree that would qualify him to pursue a doctorate.
* Pressley helped Roth dig himself deeper. He wrote that days after Theater J, “under pressure … scaled back plans” for the play last fall, The New Yorker magazine “featured a bombshell article claiming a 1948 massacre of Arab civilians by Israeli soldiers, this time in the town of Lydda. … The article was excerpted from [Ari] Shavit’s new book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which has received significant acclaim—and ‘important and powerful book,’ declared The New York Times—along with a certain amount of pushback.”
Here The Post ballyhooed another false massacre charge, either without fact-checking or by virtually hiding the results. The historical record on Lydda, like the judicial proceedings in the Tantura libel suit, is clear. It amounts to much more than Pressley’s “a certain amount of pushback.”
Lydda surrendered to Jewish forces on July 10, 1948. Its Arab leaders agreed to the town’s disarmament within 24 hours and that the residents would live peacefully with the Jews. The following day the Arab residents broke their word, attacked and killed some of the Israeli troops, then lost a battle in which approximately 200 were killed. Thousands more were not massacred but allowed to leave for Jordanian-held territory. Those too old, young or sick to travel were permitted to stay unmolested. (See “Ari Shavit’s Lydda Massacre,” by Alex Safian, Oct. 26, 2013.)
* Leveraging Shavit to certify Theater J’s staging of “The Admission,” Pressley tossed Roth a softball, asking “does this new heavyweight claim by Shavit change anything for ‘The Admission’ as it begins its public workshop performances Thursday? ‘Obviously, it validates the inquiry,’ Roth says. ‘It tells you that Motti Lerner is not a lone voice.’”
Only if “heavyweight” is a synonym for erroneous, “validate” for two-wrongs-make-a- right, and “inquiry” means fable. Pressley and Roth channel Alice in Wonderland’s Humpty Dumpty—“When I use a word, it means exactly what I want it to mean, neither more nor less.”
* The pair confirmed the slipper
iness, for themselves, of words when The Post reporter wrote “‘It is not a slam-dunk,’ Roth, the theater’s artistic director, says of the history Lerner is stirring up. ‘There is a debate that needs to be convened and not stifled. We can’t have intimidation shut down really important cross-cultural conversations about our history. That’s the case the play makes: to have the conversation. The play doesn’t prove a damn thing about what happened. It demands that we reopen the history.’”
Every which way but real
History regarding Tantura and Lydda has been opened and reopened, by lawyers and judges dealing in allegations and facts, by historians sifting and resifting the historical record. In both cases the substantiated conclusions were—no massacres. Pressley, writing without journalism’s requisite professional skepticism, enabled Lerner and Roth to engage in revisionism by insinuation. Posing as an artist involved in “cross-cultural conversations,” Roth demands a historical exhumation but peremptorily announces he and Lerner are free to imply anything but required to prove nothing.
Lerner has said his neighbors and family members all knew about the massacre. DCJCC officials defended production of “The Admission” as “opening a conversation” about Israel. Yes, and the play “Macbird” was based on some people “knowing all about” Lyndon Johnson’s role in John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Its theatrical presentation answered a need to “open a conversation” about that conspiracy theory.
Lord Acton, the British historian famous for saying that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” also stressed “truth is the only merit that gives dignity and worth to history.” Though they are different endeavors, the same applies to journalism and to art.
Journalism absent truth is an oxymoron. The “Weekend Update” segment of television’s “Saturday Night Live” may be humorous, but viewers conflate it with news at their peril. Art not grounded in life, especially art claiming to be based on historical events, may prove temporarily stimulating. But if lacking authenticity, eventually it misleads.
The Post stated that COPMA had sponsored talks at two Washington, D.C.-area synagogues by CAMERA’s associate director Alex Safian on Tantura and Lydda. In fact, the well-attended talks were sponsored by CAMERA.
Roth characterized CAMERA as a “rump group” and Pressley apparently accepted his description without question. A member of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, CAMERA has 65,000 members in more than a dozen countries; Web sites in English, Hebrew and Spanish; and more than 30 full-time professionals, including half-a-dozen in its Jerusalem office.
Pressley termed CAMERA a “conservative” organization. CAMERA takes no policy positions, right, center or left on negotiated outcomes of Arab-Israeli conflicts. It does monitor news and other communications media according to traditional journalism standards of accuracy, objectivity, and comprehensiveness.
Pressley went out of his way to note that Safian’s doctorate is in physics. But his article refers to Paul Scham, executive director of Israel studies at the University of Maryland and supporter of Theater J’s staging “The Admission” as a historian. Scham’s post-bachelor’s degree is in law.
Would Theater J stage a work based on the claim that Israelis and/or Jews had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and so stayed away? The late poet Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones) made that charge in “Somebody Blew Up America.” Antisemitic, anti-American, anti-white, Baraka also was a much-honored artist. Do his historical views demand a cross-cultural conversation?
Many people around the world believe, in some form or other, in the international Zionist conspiracy depicted in the Czarist-era forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Would a staged reading of selected extracts qualify as a blow against censorship and in favor of dialogue? At Theater J, with The Post’s endorsement?
If not, where does The Post draw the line between history and falsehood, between art and agitation? It’s hard to tell because the paper followed “Theater J states its pressure play” with the review “ ‘Admission’ grips Mideast’s anguish” (March 27) by reviewer Peter Marks, and then published “What lies beneath the drama over Theater J” (March 30), a local Op-Ed by Rabbi Sidney Schwarz.
The ‘competing narratives’ scam
Marks mistakes what, according to him is a technically quite professional production, with over-arching truth about the Arab-Israeli conflict. He refers to “a disputed incident, a purported massacre of Arab villagers during the 1948 war that won Israel its independence as a Jewish s
tate.” He does not say the massacre charge was false.
The Post reviewer writes “good theater does not depend on an investigative journalist’s fealty to who, what when, where and why. It succeeds when it finds metaphors that illuminate deeper truths, those that don’t necessarily correspond to one verifiable set of facts.”
This, whether the reporter realizes it or not, is a nice summary of the literary deconstructionist conceit: Reality is illusion, we each have our “competing narratives” so nothing’s fundamentally true or false, and history’s a hegemonistic construct of the ruling classes. Art must “illuminate deeper truths” than truth.
Theatricality does not depend on factual accuracy, granted. Great scripts, perhaps especially comedies, don’t always include much plausibility. But for art allegedly based on history, Marks’ description of “The Admission” as “boldly explor[ing] … the opposing versions” and “competing archives of victimization” of Israelis and Palestinian Arabs is a warning, not an endorsement.
The reviewer acknowledges that “ ‘The Admission’ promulgates the idea that a terrible reprisal occurred in the Arab village of ‘Tantur’ … [but] Lerner’s play is more interested in the residual layers of guilt, fear and psychic pain on all sides of the conflict than it is in laying out a hardnosed expose’.”
Then it doesn’t matter if a surgeon amputates the wrong limb, so long as he or she does it skillfully? If no massacre took place in Lerner’s “Tantur” or history’s Tantura, then the Israeli guilt and Palestinian victimization the playwright seems to imply—an unpublished dissertation accusing one of the main characters of leading a massacre at “Tantur” sparks the action—are false.
The Post’s review suggests that what “The Admission” presents is not an artistic “higher truth” about Israel and the Arabs, but rather a conspiracy theorist’s “truthiness.” “This is not agitprop,” Marks declares. No? If it walks like a duck, and squawks like a duck ….
Schwarz, founding rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md., and a senior fellow at Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, does not review “The Admission.” Rather, in his Post Op-Ed “What Lies beneath the drama over Theater J” he casts the protest against its production as one of several alleged “attempts to enforce communal discipline and to require a non-critical assessment of Israel ….”
Schwarz sees “The Admission” protest, objections to J Street, and to “certain anti-Israel speakers” at Hillel chapters on university campuses as “part of a not-so-hidden loyalty test.” Nonsense. J Street, as CAMERA among others has documented (see, for example, “J Street’s Spin Reversed by CAMERA Op-Ed, Washington Jewish Week, May 23, 2013) falsely claims to be “pro-Israel, pro-peace.” Its deeds, as opposed to its words, reveal a pro-Palestinian, anti-AIPAC agenda. (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is the country’s largest registered, pro-Israel lobbying group.)
What is not so hidden about Schwarz’s “certain anti-Israel speakers” barred by Hillel—which bills itself as “the foundation for Jewish campus life”—is that they support the boycott, divestment and sanction movement. BDS, as CAMERA has noted, opposes a two-state peace agreement between Israel and Palestinian Arabs, working instead for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state (“BDS, Academic/Cultural Boycott of Israel, and Omar Barghouti; The Campaign to Delegitimize Israel,” Feb. 24, 2010).
Years ago Congress outlawed participation by U.S. businesses in the Arab League’s long-standing economic boycott of companies that traded with Israel. The league was founded before the Jewish state came into existence as part of the Arab effort first to prevent, then, failing that, to strangle it. Does Schwarz believe Hillel houses should host those calling for similar actions to the same end?
The rabbi, like The Post’s reporters, resorts to moral relativism in his case for Theater J’s production of “The Admission.” “…[N]o healthy nation can be built on the back of a historical injustice without a process of truth and reconciliation in which all parties come to grips with the past. There is plenty of blame to go around on all sides. Until the parties to the Middle East conflict are ready for such a process, perhaps art will have to suffice.”
Not competing narratives, but history
Does Schwarz mean Israel was “built on the back of a historical injustice?” In the 1930s British Mandatory Palestine was the only place willing to accept large numbers of Jews seeking to escape the rise of Nazism. Jewish development of Palestine drew large number of Arabs into mandate lands, which both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt recognized. But Arab opposition to Jewish immigration—especially the murderous rebellion by Palestinian Arabs from 1936 to 1939—helped induce Great Britain virtually to close the door. This trapped European Jewry just before the Holocaust. This is the unadmitted al nakba, catastrophe or injustice, Arabs imposed on Jews.
There is plenty of blame to go around, but it does not attach equally to all sides. In 1947, the Arab states and Palestinian Arab leadership rejected the U.N. partition plan; the following year they attacked the new Jewish state, which had called for peaceful coexistence. Though they killed more than one percent of the Palestinian Jews, more than 6,000, they failed in their announced goal of destroying Israel.
Approximately 500,000 to 600,000 Arabs fled. This was the nakba Arabs imposed on themselves. Then and in succeeding years more than 800,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries, leaving behind property worth perhaps several times that of the Arab refugees. Nearly three-fourths of the Jews settled in Israel. This was the dispossession Arabs imposed on Jews, and ignore.
Since then most Arab countries and the Palestinian leadership have refused to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Middle East. They perpetuated rather than resettled their refugees, in contrast to Israel. By rejection, incitement, terror and war the Arabs have continued the conflict. In the two Arab countries formally at peace with Israel, Egypt and Jordan, it might be suicidal for a tourist to identify openly as Israeli.
Schwarz’s “there is plenty of blame to go around on all sides” is neat but false. When a “truth commission” accompanies the Arab-Israeli reconciliation he hopes for, the Arab—especially Palestinian—side will have much to acknowledge, much that harmed Israelis and, perhaps even more, the Arabs themselves. While Israelis are hardly perfect, they do not have a century and more of systemic hatred and violence for which to answer.
But Schwarz is right that until reconciliation, “perhaps art will have to suffice.” How about a Theater J production, spotlighted by The Post, on the causes and persistence of Arab rejection of a Jewish state, a cross-cultural conversation about oppression of non-Arab, non-Muslim ethnic and religious minorities and the subordination of women throughout the Arab Middle East, mentioning also Arab-against-Arab warfare. That would be a gutsy place to start.
(This essay draws on, among other things, CAMERA letters to the editor of The Washington Post and Washington Jewish Week and the writer’s remarks at Alex Safian’s presentations about Tantura and Lydda.)