In the­atre, liken­ing Is­raelis to Nazis is trendy

Our play­wrights are mak­ing dis­turb­ing com­par­isons be­tween Arab and Jewish suf­fer­ing

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis - JOHN NATHAN

THERE ARE three new plays by Bri­tish Jewish writ­ers out at the mo­ment, each of which is highly crit­i­cal of Is­rael’s treat­ment of Pales­tini­ans. Shel­ley Si­las’s Eat­ing Ice Cream On Gaza Beach, re­cently seen at the Soho The­atre, Jonathan Licht­en­stein’s Mem­ory, and Sonja Lin­den and Adah Kay’s Wel­come to Ra­mal­lah all por­tray Pales­tinian suf­fer­ing at the hands of Is­raelis. My orig­i­nal in­stinct was to stand up for th­ese three dis­sent­ing voices. But there are nag­ging doubts about two of them that I just can’t shake off.

I was go­ing to start by point­ing out that, since David Hare’s 1998 play Via Dolorosa, the Is­raeli/Pales­tinian con­flict has proved fer­tile ground for Bri­tish drama­tists.

There were those who ac­cused Hare of bias in favour of the Pales­tini­ans. Some ac­cused him of an­tisemitism. Id­iots. Via Dolorosa is per­haps the au­thor’s most bla­tant at­tempt at even-hand­ed­ness, even though be­ing even­handed has never been the job of the play­wright.

I was also go­ing to sug­gest that this prin­ci­ple might be worth re­mem­ber­ing when watch­ing the lat­est wave of plays by Bri­tish Jews ex­am­in­ing the Is­raeli/Pales­tinian con­flict — a sub­ject that many feel should be drama­tised only if the play re­flects their views.

“It’s bi­ased” was the most per­sis­tent com­plaint lev- elled at My Name is Rachel Cor­rie, about the Amer­i­can pro-Pales­tinian pro­tester who was killed by an Is­raeli bull­dozer. Well, of course it is. It is a play re­flect­ing Cor­rie’s point of view. Why wouldn’t it be bi­ased?

And to those — thank­fully few — fools who think that Jewish writ­ers must sup­port Is­rael in their plays, I was go­ing to point out that play­wrights are by na­ture a con­trary lot. If they have a re­spon­si­bil­ity, it is to ques­tion.

Separat­ing Bri­tish gen­tile and Bri­tish Jewish play­wrights is an awk­ward dis­tinc­tion, but if Bri­tish play­wrights never (or hardly ever) write plays sup­port­ing their Bri­tish gov­ern­ment, why should Jewish or Is­raeli play­wrights be any dif­fer­ent?

And now here comes that long-awaited “but”. But there is an emerg­ing theme in two of the re­cent dra­mas that will worry not only the afore­men­tioned fools and id­iots, but the ra­tio­nal too.

Both Wel­come to Ra­mal­lah and Mem­ory not only (le­git­i­mately) por­tray Pales­tinian suf­fer­ing at the hands of Is­raelis, but they do so in part by de­ploy­ing Nazi im­agery.

In Mem­ory, the action shifts be­tween Jewish suf­fer­ing in Berlin and Pales­tinian suf­fer­ing in Beth­le­hem. And in Wel­come To Ra­mal­lah, an el­derly Pales­tinian re­mem­bers be­ing ex­pelled from his vil­lage (now an Is­raeli kib­butz) by Jewish sol­diers led by a man with a whip who con­ducts a se­lec­tion process, not ut­terly dis­sim­i­lar to that which took place on the ramp at Ausch- witz. Arab men are then taken away and mur­dered.

It is as if the hoary old fash­ion for com­par­ing ev­ery atroc­ity and dic­ta­tor with the Nazis and Hitler (of which Jews and Is­raelis are as guilty as much as gen­tiles) is find­ing its way into drama, but in a more sub­tle form.

To be fair, both plays, es­pe­cially Licht­en­stein’s, are care­ful to draw dis­tinc­tions be­tween the Holo­caust and Pales­tinian suf­fer­ing. And Licht­en­stein is par­tic­u­larly fo­cused on the seizure of Jewish prop­erty in Nazi Ger­many and the de­struc­tion of Pales­tinian prop­erty in the West Bank. Mean­while, Ra­mal­lah di­rec­tor Sue Lefton says that, as long as the play re­flects a truth, it is le­git­i­mate to put it on the stage. Which is fair enough.

But still, what­ever the au­thors’ in­ten­tions, al­lud­ing to both Jewish suf­fer­ing at the hands of the Nazis and suf­fer­ing meted out by Jews, in the same play, is bound to in­vite com­par­i­son. Jews and Nazis might also share a lik­ing for strudel, but that doesn’t make them in any way the same or the com­par­i­son in­struc­tive. On the con­trary.

And the ques­tion has to be asked, if Jewish suf­fer­ing led to the gas cham­bers and Pales­tinian suf­fer­ing does not, can com­par­ing what the Nazis did to the Jews with what Jews have done to Pales­tini­ans (or for that mat­ter what Pales­tini­ans have done to Jews) ever be right? John Nathan is the JC’s the­atre critic. Wel­come to Ra­mal­lah is re­viewed on p34

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