Many historical dramas are content to use the past as a lens through which to view the present, but “Hand in Hand Together” does more than explore how conflicting ideologies influenced the creation of Israel. Dramatist A. B. Yehoshua explores the other possible routes history may have taken.
Hand in Hand Together by A.B. Yehoshua. Staged reading directed by Guy Ben-Aharon. Presented by Israeli Stage. At the Goethe Institut, Boston, MA, September 9, 2012.
By Ian Thal
Israeli Stage, a company presenting staged readings of contemporary Israeli drama in translation to Boston-area audiences (see both my and Arts Fuse Editor Bill Marx‘s interviews with founder and artistic director Guy Ben-Aharon) opened its third season with a reading of A. B. Yehoshua’s new play, Hand in Hand Together. The script has received considerable attention in Israel because it examines the ideological split between the Zionist left and Zionist right in the decades before Israel’s founding, dramatizing two in a series of meetings between Labor Zionist and future Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion and Revisionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Indeed, because of its sympathetic portrayal of Jabotinsky, Hand in Hand Together was performed in the Knesset where the secular right, which sees Jabotinsky as their ideological forefather, currently holds a legislative majority.
It is 1934 and the play opens in a London hotel room. Pinchas Rutenberg (Richard McElvain), a veteran of the Bolshevik Revolution turned founder of the Palestine Electric Company, is mulling over final arrangements for a clandestine meeting between the leaders of rival factions of the Zionist movement: Labor Zionist David Ben-Gurion (Bret Silverman) and Revisionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky (Andrew Clarke). He hopes to broker an agreement that would end the conflict (sometimes violent) between the two groups and encourage them to work towards the common goal of establishing a Jewish homeland.
As one revered Boston sage once noted, “all politics are local”; “left” and “right” in Israel (or British Mandate Palestine of the 1930s) does not easily translate into “left” and “right” in current American political discourse. Ben-Aharon, who translated the play from the Hebrew, does an able job of conveying these ideological distinctions. Ben-Gurion viewed capitalist exploitation as undermining democratic egalitarianism and, as a Marxist, believed in the value of organized labor, especially in the case of Jews, who in many countries were often barred from owning land or entering certain professions. He argued that the empowerment of the working classes would cure the Jewish consciousness of alienation, be it alienation from land, alienation from the economy, or alienation from civil society. Jabotinsky’s opposition to socialism was not from the position of a free-market capitalist, but as an advocate of the middle class. He took the position that organized labor had a role in improving working conditions, but that it should not be the organizing principle for society or politics. Ironically, Jabotinsky’s views on labor would make him a “radical” leftist in the eyes of American conservatives.
Seven more meetings followed between Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky (the play only portrays the first and last), but whatever the two men could find to agree to in private would not be accepted by their respective movements. Jabotinsky, despite the regard in which he was held as a literary figure (both as a poet and a translator), was perceived to be a reactionary by Jewish socialists, including the Labor Zionists in Ben-Gurion’s Mapai Party, while Ben-Gurion’s socialism was anathema to Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionists. Perhaps because they each represented the most moderate factions of their respective movements they continued to meet even after their first agreement had been rejected, hoping that pragmatism would reign.
While many historical dramas are content to use the past as a lens through which to view the present, Hand in Hand Together shapes its dialectical clash between the Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky to do more than show how these conflicting ideologies influenced the creation of Israel. Yehoshua explores the other possible routes history may have taken. Well aware that the ascent of Nazism to political power in Germany bodes disaster for European Jewry, they debate the proper response to the German persecution of the Jews, which was in its early stages. Jabotinsky favors a boycott. Ben-Gurion advises using international pressure to release Jewish property seized by the German government. Of course, both strategies would be represented by Hitler as world Jewry’s declaration of war upon Germany and become justification for even greater oppression against Germany’s Jews.
Jabotinsky sees the need for a Jewish state to be so pressing that he is willing to start a war of independence with the British, who are restricting immigration into Palestine. Ben-Gurion sees this as a war that the Zionist movement cannot afford to fight because it risks losing everything his Labor Zionists have painstakingly built. Of course, the audience already knows what is around the corner and cannot help but wonder if so many millions of Jews would have been killed in the Final Solution had a Jewish state been formed before WWII.
After the London meetings, the two men would never meet again. In 1935 Ben-Gurion would ascend to the leadership of the Jewish Agency. Jabotinsky would see the beginning of WWII but dies in 1940, before the full scope of the destruction of European Jewry or the creation of a Jewish state in 1948 with Ben-Gurion as Prime Minister. Ben-Gurion’s organization would build the institutions that ensured a functioning state apparatus once Israel declared independence. Jabotinsky’s successors would form paramilitaries that, outside the chain of command of the new state of Israel, engaged in some of the most controversial actions of the 1948 War of Independence. They would eventually integrate into Israeli society and become the predecessors of the modern Likud party.
Yehoshua’s mission as a dramatist in the script may be didactic, but does not forget the tools of the literary trade. He gets much comic mileage in the second act when Ben-Gurion offers to make an omelet for Jabotinsky (an incident that Yehoshua claims to have inspired the play in his interview for The Arts Fuse) He also plays Rutenberg as a clownish busybody who boorishly suggests early on that the three men should form a triumvirate. The historical Rutenberg, who somehow managed to be prominent Bolshevik before fleeing to Palestine to become a successful businessman, and thus have a foot in both Zionist camps, was probably not so oafish. Rutenberg’s secretary, Marussiah (Tracey Oliverio), the refugee daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest being persecuted by the communists, is a darkly comic reminder of how philosemitism and antisemitism are so closely related. Despite, or perhaps because of, her gratitude towards her employer for keeping her safe from the Soviets, and her admiration for the great men in her presence, she harbors conspiratorial notions of Jewish power and influence that reaches into Stalin’s inner circle. It never registers to her that Rutenberg, Ben-Gurion, and Jabotinsky are all unwelcome in the Soviet Union.
The playwright also ironically plays with his protagonists’ visions of the roles they would want to take in a future Jewish state: Jabotinsky imagines himself as Defense Minister, a position that Ben-Gurion served in at times; Ben-Gurion by contrast, sees himself as a Minister of Identity, attempting to correct the damage that the diaspora had done to the Jewish spirit, a role that Yehoshua has chosen for himself as writer and polemicist, given his controversial belief that Diaspora Jews “are partial Jews while I am a complete Jew.”
Still, the didactic nature of Hand in Hand Together is a potential obstacle towards a successful staging for a non-Israeli audience. It no doubt plays well when performed in the Knesset, where many elected officials see either one of the protagonist’s as their ideological forebears, or for an audience that is steeped in Israeli history. But to an American audience the distinctions between Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky may come off as a purely academic exercise.
This disconnect leads to an important question raised by theater in translation: how should one stage a play outside its home country? Will an American audience be riveted by two men debating about early twentieth-century Zionism? Should it be staged with a nod towards naturalism, or given the importance of its ideological and historical discussions, would the story be best brought to the stage with theatrical effects and puppets used in a Brechtian manner? Perhaps an explanatory dumb show as the heroes debate? Would that self-conscious approach improve the storytelling, or would it be seen as mocking the central conflict? When a play is performed outside of its native country, should the mode of theatrical presentation become another part of the translation? These are certainly questions that translator and director Guy Ben-Aharon may have to consider should Israeli Stage choose to present fully staged productions.