Theater Commentary: On The Firing Of Theater J’s Ari Roth
Ironically, those who smeared former Theater J artistic director Ari Roth with allegations that he is “anti-Israel” accomplished a feat that anti-Israeli activists could only dream of doing: making a Jewish Community Center boycott Israeli culture.
By Ian Thal
Over the past few weeks, the American theater world has been in an uproar over the December 18 firing of Ari Roth from Theater J, where he had served as artistic director for 18 years. Roth’s dismissal by the Washington, DC. Jewish Community Center (DCJCC), under whose auspices (and roof) Theater J operates, has triggered letters of protest from many of his fellow artistic directors, as well as from a number of prominent Jewish-American artists and intellectuals. Even the cast and crew of Theater J’s production of Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to The Scriptures voiced their protest from the stage by reading a statement of support from Kushner.
(Note: I recently argued in The Arts Fuse that The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide was too intellectually and politically challenging to be staged by any of Boston’s major companies. Apparently, our city’s artistic directors also found signing a letter protesting the firing of Roth to be too risky a move. This lack of support is particularly vexing given how many Boston-based artistic directors previously plied their craft in Washington, D.C.) (Correction: Peter DuBois, artistic director of the Huntington Theater Company, signed the letter. See comments below.)
The campaign against Roth had been building for some time: an ad-hoc group calling itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) had been formed primarily to target Theater J, its programming, and its artistic director. The five members of COPMA are experienced activists (three of whom are also board members of EyeOnThePost, Inc. a media watchdog group that monitors The Washington Post‘s coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict). Earlier in 2014, they exerted enough pressure on the DCJCC that it forced Theater J to scale back its production of Israeli playwright Motti Lerner’s The Admission to a “workshop presentation.” Of course, COPMA did not stop at that compromise. COPMA and its supporters’ most satisfying victory — before the ouster of Roth — must have come on October 29, 2014 when Carole Zawatsky, the CEO of the DCJCC met with the Theater J council and ordered the permanent cancelation of Theater J’s annual Voices From A Changing Middle East Festival.
Internal documents regarding the end of the festival were leaked to The Jewish Daily Forward and subsequently reported on November 25. While speaking at the Association for Jewish Theater (AJT) conference (essentially hosted by Theater J) on December 9, Roth and his staff had yet to craft a public statement on the decision. They could only confirm what The Forward had already reported: that Roth had proposed several alternatives that would insulate the DCJCC from further pressure from outside groups while also preserving Theater J’s artistic independence. One of the possibilities floated was to hand the festival off to another organization. This was the situation as it stood when, at the AJT general meeting, the membership unanimously voted, with no abstentions, to approve a draft letter of support for Roth’s continued leadership at Theater J. (Disclosure: I am a member of the AJT and was present at both the panel and meeting in question. After the announcement of Roth’s firing, an entirely different letter had to be drafted.
In an interview given to The Washingtonian (the day after The Forward published its article), Roth did little more than confirm what had been reported. But giving out that information made all the difference: the fact that Roth had spoken to the press without clearance from the DCJCC commnications department would be deemed an act of insubordination, as would his stating publicly that “I’m committed, whether at Theater J or anywhere else, to keep the ‘Voices’ Festival going.” The latter statement would be cited by DCJCC CEO Zawatsky as evidence that “[h]e had begun to work on a new venture, while still employed by DCJCC” in her open letter to The Israel Arts Community.
Indeed, soon after his firing Roth announced that he would begin work on a new venture, The Mosaic Theater Company, which will be based at The Atlas Performing Arts Center. In a Facebook post Stephen Stern, Co-Vice Chair of the Theater J Council, took issue with Zawatsky’s characterization of the artistic director as insubordinate, citing Roth’s efforts to arrive at a satisfactory compromise. He also noted that Roth’s firing conicided with the Council’s issuance of a letter to Zawatsky suggesting some ways out of the impasse.
Whatever led Zawatsky to conclude that she could no longer work with Roth didn’t stop her from taking credit in her letter for defending many of his judgments as Theater J’s artistic director (she even took bows for supporting the festival she had just canceled) while also shouldering responsibility for all of the DCJCC’s other programs.
An interview with managing director Rebecca Ende and acting artistic director Shirley Serotsky suggests there are no simple explanations for what happened. The tensions in a theater company are complex; still, artistic directors and literary managers are traditionally given freedom to program their seasons as they like. Also, they generally don’t need to clear journalistic interviews with the company’s communications department.The point, to put it bluntly, is that Theater J is not a conventional professional theater group. Most artistic directors aren’t as committed to doing the kind of challenging work that Roth and the team he assembled during his tenure (including Ende and Serotsky) tackled. Most of their counterparts at similarly sized theaters (Theater J’s auditorium seats 220) exercise their freedom of choice by programing whatever their colleagues at other theaters deem fashionable. Also, most similarly sized theaters with a penchant for the iconoclastic do not also exist under the umbrella of an organization that — in the very building that contains the stage — runs religious education classes, health and fitness programs, preschool, and summer camps.
Some have attributed the firing of Roth to the rise of an increasingly politically conservative Jewish-American community. In the 2012 Presidential election Republican candidate Mitt Romney won a wopping 30% percent of the Jewish vote, compared to President Obama’s 69% – the GOP’s best showing amongst Jews since George H.W. Bush’s 35% in 1988. Some say that the situation points out the vulnerability of large Jewish organizations to pressure from well-organized and well-connected, though tiny, fringe groups. Others argue that Roth’s firing is the product of the Jewish-American community clamping down on “criticism of Israel.” What many of these critics have missed is that the work that COPMA found most objectionable — and which it pressured the DCJCC to shut down — was the work of Israeli dramatists.
I have never attended the Voices From A Changing Middle East Festival. I have only occasionally taken in performances at Theater J. However, as a Boston-based theater critic, I have made it part of my regular beat to cover the work of Israeli Stage and its artistic director Guy Ben-Aharon. Many of the dramatists and in occasional cases the same plays that were presented in the Voices From A Changing Middle East Festival have been produced by Israeli Stage. While Israeli Stage’s presentations (like those chosen for the ‘Voices’ Festival) are not always explicitly political (many, at first glance, appear apolitical), they inevitably arouse conversation, debate, and even disagreement. Audience members generally leave Israeli Stage’s evenings with an appreciation of Israeli culture that goes beyond humus and the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. However, in those few instances when Israeli Stage’s choices have addressed the Palestinian conflict, audiences have been confronted with dramas that examine, with artistic depth, the complex moral choices that Israelis, as individuals and a community, must make every time violence breaks out.
In an interview I conducted with Motti Lerner, the Israeli playwright suggested that The Admission had been attacked by Jewish organizations who had not even bothered to read it. COPMA’s own statements bear out the dramatist’s hypothesis. Lerner made it clear that the initial inspiration for the play were rumors of a 1948 massacre of Arab residents in the village of Tantura, stories that he had heard while growing up in nearby Zikhron Ya’akov. COPMA insists that this means the script is an accusation that such a crime happened, even though historians have found no evidence of a massacre, (In his article A Visit to Tantura, Stephen Stern writes about a dramaturgical research mission he conducted for The Admission. He only came up with rumors.) But Lerner explicitly tells us that he did not set his play in Tantura. The first page of the script says that ”The Arab village of Jirin, which is mentioned in the play, never existed; it is merely a parable.”
Lerner’s parable is about how Israel’s Jewish majority and Arab minority must live together despite having different memories of the events of 1948. Popular memory is very different from the historical record as reconstructed by scholars: far more black-and-white, much less messy, and often far more ideological. The popular memory of 1948 includes atrocities large and small that have been verified by a preponderance of evidence, ones that exist purely in the realm of stories, and even those that few if any have a desire to acknowledge. In the same interview, Lerner states that The Admission “stems from my deep commitment to Israeli society and from my strong belief that it is legitimate and has the right to continue flourishing peacefully alongside its neighbors and to develop into the idealistic state for all its citizens that its early founders struggled to establish.” The dialogue that Lerner wants to generate is essential for the health of any democratic society that sees pluralism as a strength rather than a weakness. In a talk back after a 2012 reading of At Night’s End, Lerner insisted that while his plays are meant to be acts of tikkun (repair or reform) for Israeli society, his Palestinian and Arab counterparts are responsible for working for tikkun in their societies.
For this open-mindedness, COPMA charges both Lerner and Roth to be among “a few fringe revilers of Israel,” oblivious to the fact that much of what the group objects to is a conversation that Israelis are having among themselves about their own troubled society. It is this conversation that the Voices From A Changing Middle East Festival invited D.C. Theater audiences to be a part of. For example, in the festival Theater J presented Iris Bahr’s one-woman show Dai, in which the dramatist portrays characters sitting in a Tel Aviv café minutes before an attack by a Palestinian suicide bomber – not what one would expect from a theater festival whose critics have labeled “anti-Israel.”
COPMA’s manichaean world view, in which even the moderate is the enemy, has become compelling to some because recent events have made it harder than ever to accept the position that anti-Zionism is not rooted in anti-Semitism. The anti-Israel protests that erupted in Europe during the most recent armed conflict between Israel and Hamas didn’t just generate unambiguously anti-Semitic banners and chanting. In many cities, there where physical attacks on synagogues, Jewish-owned businesses, and the people within them. One can point to gains by far-right political parties in Europe that spout anti-Semitic ideologies (including Holocaust denial rhetoric), but more relevant to my discussion is the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, a largely, though not exclusively, far-left phenomenon that seeks to shutdown any interaction between Israeli civil society and that of western countries. The BDS movement has made little traction in the United States: last year the American Studies Association backtracked from its 2013 boycott of Israeli academics, even denying that the effort had any connection with BDS. Still, in other western countries, notably the United Kingdom, the movement has established a more visible presence.
One high profile example: the 2012 Globe to Globe Festival hosted by Shakespeare’s Globe in London. All 37 canonical Shakespeare plays were to be performed in 37 different languages by 37 different companies.A group of British stage, film, and television artists protested the inclusion in the festival of the Israeli state theater Habima, demanding that the Globe rescind its invitation. (Dramatist Caryl Churchill, the author of Seven Jewish Children, was one of those who signed the letter.) The Globe refused to be intimidated, and Habima’s performance of The Merchant of Venice went on, even as BDS activists harassed the actors and other audience members. Similar attempts to shut down the performances of Israeli dance troupes, theater companies, bands, and orchestras – even those with a history of hiring both Jewish and Arab artists and performing for both Jewish and Arab audiences – have become normal in Britain.
The irony of shutting down the Voices From A Changing Middle East Festival is not just that most of the plays it presented over the years were from Israel. It is that COPMA, no doubt motivated in part by a concern that BDS might somehow take hold in America, have accomplished what BDS activists could only dream of doing: pressuring a major Jewish communal organization to suspend its cultural ties with Israel. A powerful creative personality like Roth, who regularly travels to Israel and works closely with that country’s artists as well as engages with Arab artists, is a nightmare for the BDS movement. He is committed to a wide-ranging conversation, both in word (as this interview clearly shows) and in deed. Roth’s controversial festival contained many positive and sympathetic portrayals of Israeli society — and even the critical portrayals were affirmations of the freedom of expression valued by Israeli society.
Of course, facts are of little concern to citizens who see only propaganda where others see art.
The ideological war of extremists against moderate voices has created a toxic environment. For example, theater pundit Howard Sherman, when commenting on the Theater J fracas, felt obligated to state this: “I am a Jew who does not believe that my religion requires unquestioning support of the State of Israel and its political, social and military policies.” It is as if Sherman suspects, or fears, that his readers might think that the State of Israel, rather than being a multi-party parliamentary democracy (and like all democracies, not without its flaws), is a single-party totalitarian state that exerts power upon world Jewry. I don’t mean to pick on Sherman, only to point out that anti-Semitic notions about Jewish power are so pervasive that many liberals feel pressured to issue such a disclaimer or face possible ostracization within professional and social circles. What other members of an ethnic community in the United States with strong cultural ties to a historical homeland would be pressured to make such a statement? No citizen of a democratic state should be obligated to make such a disavowal of another democratic state – but this is the poisonous climate that COPMA, BDS, and anyone receptive to either group’s arguments have created.
The Theater J debacle points to the considerable difficulties a critically-thinking Jewish theater faces within the Jewish community. AJT president David Y. Chack believes that it “bode[s] disaster for Jewish theatre that is creative, edgy, and challenging.” After all, Roth was fired not for being a “reviler of Israel,” but because a small yet well organized group objected to a few examples of what he had mounted on Theater J’s stage over a period of 18 years. That there have been so few flaps in Boston and elsewhere suggests a lack of courageous leadership at most of our theaters (whatever their background or stated mission): They preemptively avoid controversy by presenting bland, less challenging plays; they know the game and play it safe. Engaged theater is the loser.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. Two of his short plays appeared in theater festivals this past summer. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.