Sobol’s dilemma

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

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS/ -

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.”

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