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Loyalty, Truth, and Freedom of Expression

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post on March 30, 2014.

Given the controversy surrounding Theater J’s production of Motti Lerner’s play,The Admission, at the DCJCC, I expected a full scale indictment of Israel’s conduct during the 1948 War of Independence. Instead I encountered a play that probed the complexity of war, politics, memory, ethnic identity, love and survival with astounding sensitivity and nuance.

Ever since the play was scheduled last summer a small group of Washington area Jews organized themselves into a group called "Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art" (COPMA). COPMA exerted enormous pressure on the local Jewish Federation to cut funding to the DCJCC because its Theater J had sponsored plays that ask uncomfortable questions about the state of Israel. The effort is similar to actions taken in New York and San Francisco to shut down Jewish Film Festivals because some of the films are critical of Israel. In a display of Jewish communal courage all too rare these days, the executive director and president of the Washington Jewish Federation issued public letters declaring that the community would not cave to the pressure exerted by COPMA even though that action will likely cost the Federation tens of thousands of dollars in contributions.

In fact, the DCJCC did make a concession to the protesters. They downgraded The Admission from a full production to a “workshop” and then inserted into the spring schedule an additional production of Golda’s Balcony, a play about former Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir.

The incident is but one of dozens of examples of how the Jewish community currently labors under a not so hidden loyalty test as it relates to what one can and cannot say about the state of Israel. National Hillel is under increasing criticism for its attempt to enforce standards that would keep certain kinds of anti-Israel speakers from being sponsored by their campus chapters around the country. Jews who associate with J Street have been accused of disloyalty to the Jewish community despite the fact that J Street’s policy explicitly endorses a safe and secure Israel as well as advocates for a two state solution to the Middle East dispute. A recent study found that one-third of American rabbis are not comfortable speaking the truth as they see it as it relates to Israel out of fear for their jobs. Recently, the rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun, the famously liberal synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, were called to task for signing an ad that was seen as critical of Aipac.

I understand what is behind this atmosphere of fear and retribution. Israel is increasingly treated as a pariah nation in the international community despite being the only democracy in the Middle East and having a far better human rights record than any of its neighboring countries. While powerless to change the antipathy of so much of the world to Israel, some Jews try to demand of their co-religionists a loyalty to the country that allowed the Jewish people to reconstitute itself after the Holocaust. Yet with the passage of time fewer and fewer Jews carry these memories and their ties to Jewish communal solidarity weaken. Attempts to enforce communal discipline and require a non-critical assessment of the state of Israel not only cannot succeed in America, it is likely to alienate the very Jews the community hopes to engage.

Ironically a play like The Admission may do more to engage Jews with the issues at the heart of the Middle East conflict than foolhardy attempts to enforce loyalty. The play portrays an overly self-righteous son trying to come to grips with the fact that his father may have been complicit in the killing of Arab civilians during the 1948 War of Independence. The father, perhaps altruistically and perhaps out of a sense of guilt, has devoted his life to improve the quality of life of Arab Israelis. The Arab/Palestinian Israelis in the play are torn between their desire to stay out of trouble, get an education and improve the quality of life for themselves and their children and their desire to unearth evidence of an injustice done to their parents and grandparents a generation earlier.

Hovering over the play is the recognition that war has no victors. All in its wake are victims, even, to quote the Bible, “unto the tenth generation”. Those in the Jewish community who seek to stifle freedom of expression are no less living out the trauma of the Holocaust than those in the Palestinian community who say that there can be no peace in the region until they can return to the villages of their grandparents which are now inside the borders of the state of Israel.

One of the great gifts that Nelson Mandela gave the world was the understanding that no healthy nation can be built on back of an historical injustice without a process of truth and reconciliation in which all parties come to grips with the transgressions of 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.

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