Jul 25 2009

At last, a sane voice

(for the Italian text published in today’s Il Foglio, click here)

Sex and passion, old friends and hidden secrets, well blended with Middle Eastern politics, suicide bombings and a little bit of Holocaust – these are the explosive ingredients that make for a summer theatrical success in the United States right now. The play, called “Peace Warriors”, was premiered 10 days ago in the Capital Fringe Festival of Washington DC, and will go on to performances in New York.

Peace Warriors (photo: Dixie Sheridan)

Peace Warriors (photo: Dixie Sheridan)

The Arab-Israeli conflict is indeed no stranger to the stage. But while other recent plays, such as “Seven Jewish Children” in London and “Samson and Dalila” in Antwerp, follow the stream of depicting Israel as the ultimate “bad guy”, this refreshingly funny drama tries to dissect the emotional and personal motivations behind the demonization of the Jewish state. And maybe even more interestingly, the author Doron Ben-Atar, an American Jewish historian, describes himself as a leftist, but a leftist who looks in dismay and puzzlement at what happened to today’s political Left.

The play’s three main characters – a man, his wife and her lover – are all Jewish American intellectuals. In a dense and difficult evening (resembling Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”), their political views are being confronted with their personal careers and with their triangular relationship.

“Peace Warriors” deals with the strange phenomenon of Anti-Zionist and Anti-Israeli Jews who are many times the most vocal and the most aggressive. As the play unfolds, it becomes clear how much being Anti-Israeli in today’s intellectual circles is fashionable, and how little the characters themselves care about what’s happening in reality. More then a question of politics, being anti Israeli is a matter of identity and self-positioning in the academic milieu.

“The test of the true assimilation is proving that even though you’re Jewish, you’re anti-Zionist”, says the main character, who is being blamed by his wife and her lover of becoming “too Republican”. And in an extremely heated dialogue with the lover, he tells him: “You are the gentiles’ Jew – the one who understands that people who take buses, eat pizzas or sit for a Seder deserve to be shredded into pieces… You wish you had the spine of a self-hating Jew! For you all this Israel bashing is a career move. It’s self-love, not self-hate”.

And just to accentuate how ridiculously lonely the reasonable guy finds himself, he says: “Once my preference for democracies over mullahs was exposed, I vanished from the radar. People I’ve known for years don’t say hello when our paths cross”.

Reading all this, one might forget that author Ben-Atar was a member of Peace Now movement and was even the American official representative of Meretz, a party left of Labor. But, he says, he had enough. In a phone interview from his house in Connecticut, he says that “there’s one thing to say that Israel is sometimes doing mistakes and another thing is to say that Israel is a Nazi state.

“I can watch TV and feel compassion for an elderly Palestinian woman standing in line in a roadblock. But is it with no reason at all? Where there no suicide bombings against Israel? Did Israel decide one day to impose restrictions with no background to it?”

He is still in favour of a Palestinian state, he says, “but something very frightening happened in the last couple of years. Israel is perceived as the international devil. Because I am a historian, it reminds me a pattern all too familiar towards Jews. Once they were blamed for killing Jesus, then as communists and then as capitalists. Now the worst thing in intellectual circles is to be an Israeli”.

Ben-Atar, head of the History Department at Fordham University in New York, says he doesn’t know if this is just a passing fashion. “It is disturbing that the whole world is dealing now with 20 apartments in East Jerusalem. Is this really the biggest problem the world is facing? And all this talk about the Israeli occupation – Ex Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinian President the whole territories just a few months ago, and Mahmoud Abbas refused. So it means the problem is not the occupation but the Palestinian refusal to accept the State of Israel”.

Since the premiere, he says, he’s receiving very good reactions, from Jews and non-Jews alike. Tickets are sold out, and The New Republic called his play “a savagely witty satire”. And yes, he says, he’d be delightful to show “Peace Warriors” on stages in Europe, because “many times European intellectuals, from the continent as well as from the UK, are leading this fashionable trend of Israel demonization. It seems to me that exposing the roots of this trend is very much needed”.

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