In theatre, likening Israelis to Nazis is trendy

By John Nathan, October 3, 2008

Our playwrights are making disturbing comparisons between Arab and Jewish suffering

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 even-handed 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 levelled 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 Auschwitz. 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.

Last updated: 1:50pm, October 2 2008



Fri, 10/03/2008 - 12:38

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The problem is that Jewish playwrights, like the Brtish intelligentsia as a whole, view the entire Arab-Israeli conflict through a distorted lens. Thus Israeli actions are never explained in their proper context. An RAF plane bombing Dresden is a brutal act seen in isolation, but has to be seen in the context of a war of aggression which Britian did not start. Likewise Israel's actions towards the Palestinians must be seen as a response to suicide bombings or rocket attacks or whatever. What complicates matters further is that our playwrights imbibe along with everyone else, alot of disinformation (al-Dura and other lies) through our media that make out Israel to be worse than it actually is. They are inflected by the moral equivalence of our postmodern age which equates Arab aggression with Israeli self-defence, romanticises terrorists as freedom fighters and ignores altogether other important issues, such as the ethnic cleansing of Jews and other minorities from Arab lands.