Scripts like The Hearing also provide an optic through which to examine our own nation’s problems.
The Hearing, conceived by Renana Raz. Translated from the Hebrew by Natalie Fainstein and Guy Ben-Aharon. Staged reading directed by Ben-Aharon. Presented by Israeli Stage at the Paramount Center, Emerson College, Boston, MA, on November 12.
By Ian Thal
January 2014, Kiryat Tiv’on, Israel. A hearing has been convened: A teacher, Adam Verete (Lonnie Farmer), has been called to meet with three administrators over what he is teaching in his classroom. The panel includes the deputy director of Human Resources Meirav (Melinda Lopez), regional manager Leah (Maureen Keller), and Avi (Nael Nacer), the principal at the technical and vocational school where Adam teaches part-time.
Adam teaches philosophy. The panel has been convened to consider whether he violated the Israeli Ministry of Education’s regulations regarding the expression of opinion in the classroom. Adam disputes their strict interpretation of the regulation; he argues that it is meant to protect students from teachers who might coerce or manipulate them into adopting points of view. So long as teachers respect that directive, the teacher’s freedom of speech is protected. After all, in a philosophy class opinions, even those of the teacher’s, are there to be critiqued.
The issue that Adam wishes to address, and the panel does not, is that his classroom methods have only come under discussion because he has been receiving death threats over social media. The play is based on a real incident. A twelfth grader, Sapir Sabah, whose political sympathies leaned towards the far right, wrote a letter of complaint to then Education Minister Shai Piron (a member of the centrist liberal-Zionist Yesh Atid Party, which at that time was part of the coalition government. For reasons left unexplained in The Hearing, the letter also ended up in the hands of the far-right former Member of the Knesset Michael Ben-Ari, who frequently likens Israeli leftists to Hamas and Hezbollah. After Ben-Ari posted Sabah’s letter on Facebook, his followers responded with angry calls to publicize Verete’s home address, including suggestions that he be subjected to harassment and even violence. This is a social media tactic that has become familiar in recent years in America as well, especially in the hands of the loosely defined Alt-Right.
Strategically, the panel has chosen to narrowly focus the hearing on Adam’s teaching methods, treating the student’s conduct and the threats on Verete’s safety as a side issue. Indeed, Avi has refused to look into Adam’s concerns for his own safety because the principal has no interest in Facebook (and has never heard of Ben-Ari or his movement until the hearing in question).
Other students in the class write letters of support, undercutting Sabah’s character assassination. They argue that even if their views differ from those expressed by their teacher he has always treated their positions with respect. More important, Adam contends that his views were libelously mischaracterized in Sabah’s letter in order to incite hatred against him. Positions accepted as normal among secular, liberal Zionists (and even amongst the centrist wing of the center-right Likud party), such as supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are distorted in Sabah’s account. The pupil accused the teacher of being opposed to the Jewish state’s right to exist and denying Jewish history in the Jewish homeland. Adam rejects both positions as ridiculous.
The most contentious debate in Adam’s class was triggered by the thesis that the Israeli Defense Force is the most moral army in the world. Supporters of this thesis point to the Ruach Tzahal– the IDF Code of Ethics that is both in every commander’s office and printed on a card carried in the breast pocket of every IDF uniform. Missions are planned with lawyers in the room, thus ensuring that operations are conducted with the intent to minimize chance of harm to non-combatants. Those who violate principles like “purity of arms” are quick to face investigation and court martial. Even during Israel’s many brief wars with Hamas, the IDF imported food and medicine into Gaza for the use of the Strip’s civilians.
Yet, even in Israel, this thesis is open to debate. Adam asked his class what “The IDF is the most moral army in the world” would mean if a soldier acts immorally. The Hearing does not cite other examples, but it is not hard to imagine other possible questions: What of the officer who gives an illegal order? The fate of a unit that doesn’t follow a lawfully formulated mission? What if there are moral questions raised by the policy itself? (Never asked, of course, is what the armies of other countries do.)
Adam’s students, like most Israeli youth, enter military service soon after graduating high school. And if Adam is to be believed, this pupils were keen to debate the moral responsibility they were soon to accept as soldiers in a democratic society. Sabah, however, views Adam as a traitor for even raising these issues.
At Israeli Stage, The Hearing is a play in translation. In its original context, the text is a recording of an actual 2014 hearing between a teacher and administrators. Renana Raz, who is perhaps best known in Israel theater as a dance and movement choreographer, brought it to the stage by having it performed by actors. On stage they would listen to the recording through earphones and then act out what they heard, with all the potentially chaotic risks. The staged reading is a transcription and translation by (frequent Israeli Stage collaborator) Natalie Fainstein and Guy Ben-Aharon.
Farmer is earnest and collected as Adam Verete, investing the character with a calm gravitas. Perhaps because of the hearing ‘s formal nature and the professionalism it demands, administrators Lopez and Keller don’t seem to have the opportunity to fully sketch out the distinctions between Meirav and Leah. (Leah seems more fanatical than senior administrator Meirav, who finds considerable value in Adam’s educational philosophy). Nacer’s Avi gives a fairly spot-on portrait of an educational bureaucrat who has been promoted, according to the Peter Principle, beyond the level of his competence. He has no interest in meeting with teachers, handling student discipline, or even attending the hearing. It’s an entertaining comic performance. Though anyone who has worked in education for more than a few years has surely interacted with a buffoon of this type.
The Hearing ends ambiguously. In the real world, Verete neither resigned nor was dismissed after the January 2014 hearing, as shown here. At the end of the school year he was reportedly sacked when the entire Jewish philosophy track at Kiryat Tiv’on was axed – the official line was budget cuts.
The importance of theater in translation is not simply that it offers a revelatory glimpse into a different national culture. Albeit mediated through American norms. Translator Fainstein, who was in attendance, was impressed with the quality of Ben-Aharon’s cast, but amused by how American actors’ interpretations were far more polite than Israelis’. Scripts like The Hearing also provide an optic through which we can examine our own nation’s problems. Early on, Leah suggests that she finds Adam’s pedagogy problematic because it lends itself to being misinterpreted, particularly by intellectually and emotionally immature students while elevating closed-mindedness into a virtue. This approach puts the responsibility for the harassment on social media onto the victim. American audiences will no doubt see parallels with the alt-right’s strategy of “doxxing” to harass and intimidate journalists and “SJWs.” But administrative kowtowing to a right-wing student activist also dramatizes how often left-wing student and internet activists weaponize valid psycho-social phenomena, such as micro-aggressions and post-traumatic stress, and use them as triggers to ostracize or intimidate those who disagree with their stance. Theater from another country can provide a provocative mirror on the vicissitudes of our own democracy.
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. 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 The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report