A huge story. Ari Roth has been fired as artistic director of the Jewish theater he built over 18 years at the Jewish Community Center in Washington. WHY? Because he staged a Nakba play, written by an Israeli. Because of free speech. McCarthyism is alive. The battle is on now inside the walls of the Jewish community.
Peter Marks in the Washington Post has the report on the firing:
Roth and [Carole] Zawatsky, who was hired [as ceo] by the JCC in 2011, clashed repeatedly over some of Roth’s programming choices, particularly as they concerned the Middle East. Earlier this year, Theater J’s world premiere of “The Admission,” a play by Israeli dramatist Motti Lerner about a purported massacre of Palestinian villagers in 1948 by Israeli soldiers, was downgraded by the center from a full production to a workshop. That occurred after a small local activist group’s campaign to stop the play asked donors to withhold funds from the JCC’s parent body.The group, calling itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, launched a similar effort in protest of a Theater J offering in 2011, “Return to Haifa,” a play that featured Arab and Israeli actors. From the highly regarded Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, Boaz Gaon’s drama — adapted from a novella by a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, later assassinated — portrayed a Palestinian family returning to the home it had fled in 1948 that was occupied by Israeli Jews.
The latest and apparently final dispute was over the fate of Theater J’s Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival, an ongoing series of which “Return to Haifa” and “The Admission” were a part. Last month, the Jewish Daily Forward reported that the DCJCC was eliminating iterations of the festival. Roth said his commenting to the media after the article appeared was the reason given to support the charge of insubordination.
Theatre J is suddenly in a tailspin. It’s advertising for a new artistic director, but who would agree to go work for them? It’s like going to work for University of Illinois and Urbana Champaign, where your speech is also monitored by pro-Israel donors.
Roth will start his own company.
Roth said, he will move ahead quickly with plans to create a new group, to be called the Mosaic Theater Company, that will be based at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE in Washington. The Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival is to be part of the new venture, Roth explained, adding that the new company would start up late next fall.
The news is rocking the Jewish artistic world. Writes the author David Harris-Gershon:
She [Zawatsky] cancelled my DCJCC book event over my refusal to say that Palestinian use of BDS—nonviolent resistance—isn’t legitimate.
The @16thstreetj hired & then rudely fired @TheShondes this year. Band was to headline DCJCC Jewish music fest…
Open Hillel asks:
@16thstreetj deem unacceptable next for not toeing (increasingly narrow/right-wing) line on Israel?
Max Blumenthal says, with a hat tip to Nicole Witte:
An assault on free speech – and speech supporting human rights – by NPR listening liberals in DC is far more disturbing than a threatened hack by a tinpot dictator’s foreign regime.
This is a huge moment. We keep hearing about the civil war between the settlers and Tel Aviv if Israel were ever forced to end the occupation. Israel is showing itself incapable of such a shift; but it is happening here. The Greater Israel crowd has control over Jewish institutions, and over the American mainstream debate about these issues. In its solidarity with Likud, it has destroyed the two-state solution. The New York Times’s latest piece trying to revive liberal Zionism felt like a piece of propaganda in the old Soviet Union; it shows that liberal Zionism is a collapsed idea in organized Jewish life. All the energy is on the right or in the burgeoning non-Zionist community, in Jewish Voice for Peace, in BDS, and in Open Hillel and IfNotNow. These idealists are the future inside Jewish life; and Ari Roth will surely join that coalition. J Street, which championed him before, is sure to deplore his firing; but J Street doesn’t have the community/spiritual energy to support Roth’s work meaningfully. For liberals there is no other game in town but the grassroots reexamination of Zionism, in which Roth participated, lending support along the way to David Zellnik’s wonderful play about Ariel Sharon’s dreams of Herzl.
Are you for free speech or donor-controlled speech? As John Mearsheimer said to me years ago, explain to me why the most liberal community in America is supporting apartheid. How did it happen? The access merchants destroyed the moral standing of the Jewish establishment, and the professionals smeared any dissidents in the name of Jewish Zionist solidarity. Intelligent young people will have nothing to do with those groups. The battle is on.
Mitchell Plitnick, formerly of JVP now of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, adds this, about the effect of McCarthyism on the Washington Jewish political scene:
I’ve spoken on numerous occasions with folks like Ari Roth, and I don’t think they’d need to do much nose-holding to go over to the JVP side of the debate in the Jewish community.A lot of them have come and are coming to view things very similarly to JVP. They may disagree on a few things, but those disagreements are far fewer than the ones they have with the so-called “pro-Israel” camp these days. It has long been clear that fear — and a justified fear, as we see here, with Ari being fired from a program that is successful almost entirely because of him — has been much more of a factor in people’s public treatment of JVP than any political, much less ideological, disagreements. That fear seems to be getting overwhelmed by anger over the McCarthyist tactics, slowly but surely. That will mean more support, and by extension, greater “kashrut,” for JVP in both the Jewish and general publics, but more importantly, it will open up the debate more broadly.