Can a soldier decide not to fight for his country? That is the question posed by Joshua Sobol in his latest play. He talks to John Nathan
What have the plays “The Jerusalem Syndrome” and “IWitness” have in common — apart from being written by Joshua Sobol, Israel’s most renowned playwright? The answer is that both are linked to the intifada.
“ The Jerusalem Syndrome” — which deals with the Jewish revolt against the Romans — is the earlier of the two plays. It premiered in 1988 against the background of the first intifada. The parallels between the drama’s subject and the increasingly violent situation in Gaza and the West Bank were not lost on Israeli audiences. For many, it was practically treason to link a Jewish uprising with the Palestinian intifada.
The protests evolved into a national outcry leading to Sobol’s resignation as artistic director of the Haifa theatre, where the play was staged.
So when Sobol’s “IWitness” premiered at Tel Aviv’s Cameri theatre in 2003, the writer — whose best-known work in Britain is the award-winning “Ghetto”, which Nicholas Hytner directed at the National in 1989 — was prepared for more trouble.
“IWitness”, which receives its UK premiere at West London’s Finborough Theatre this week, staged by Israeli director Michael Ronen, is based on the true story of Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian farmer who was beheaded by the Nazis for refusing to join the Third Reich’s army. But as with “The Jerusalem Syndrome”, what makes the play controversial are the parallels.
“When I first read about Jagerstatter, I didn’t think I was going to write a play about him,” says Sobol, speaking from his home in Tel Aviv. “But then, in 2001, the second intifada started. And after that a growing number of Israeli combatants started to refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza.
“They declared at the same time that if Israel was involved in a war of existence, they would immediately rejoin their combat units. With that I realised there was something simi- lar in their very selective refusal to serve and Jagerstatter’s position, saying that he would not serve in the Wermacht but would gladly serve in any Austrian combat unit if Austria declared war on Germany. So I decided I wanted to bring the story of Jagerstatter to Israeli audiences.”
This time, however, reaction to Sobol’s play was very different from the response to “The Jerusalem Syndrome”. Some people accused Sobol of comparing the Israeli army with the Hitler war machine — “this was absolutely not my intention,” says Sobol. But many realised the play addressed a much more subtle issue with which the Israeli refusniks were grappling.
“It’s the whole question of not just conscientious objection,” says Sobol, “but the civil right to be selective about your duty to serve in the army.”
Instead of protests, the play led to debate. Many performances were followed by question-and-answer sessions with the audience. One performance was played to an auditorium entirely made up of Israeli refusniks and their families. For Sobol, the reaction, at times critical but never intimidating, is proof of the healthy state of Israel’s democracy.
“It proves that something has changed radically in Israel over the years,” says Sobol. “There’s a difference of 16 years between the two productions. The attitude in Israel has changed very much towards openness and readiness to debate any hot issue.”
For Sobol, it is a sign of growing democratisation in his country. “I think that the freedom of expression in Israel is outstanding. Take the example of the last war in Lebanon, where you could see during the war there was an open discussion in the media about the war’s objectives. And I wonder if there are many western societies where you could find such a discussion during a war, when part of the country is bombarded daily by the enemy and many people spend most of their time in shelters.”
Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol extols his country’s freedom of expression
Sobol — who served as a paratrooper in the Israeli Defence Forces — acknowledges that for some of Israel’s soldiers and air-force pilots, serving in the West Bank and Gaza is a huge dilemma.
“On the one hand I’m opposed to any form of collective punishment,” says Sobol. “On the other, what are you supposed to do with combatants who use there own population as human shields?” So, as a former Israeli paratrooper, would he serve on the West Bank and in Gaza? “It’s a very difficult question. I find myself torn to pieces.”