PEACE IN OUR TIME: STAGING PALESTINE AND ISRAEL
by Michael Malek Najjar • December 29, 2016
Michael Malek Najjar is an assistant professor of theatre arts at the University of Oregon and is a director, playwright, and scholar of Arab American drama. He is a co-curator and lead director of Semitic Commonwealth.
"I believe the role of the playwright is to create public discourse about phenomenon which threaten us as individuals and communities. The playwright must ring the alarm, but the cathartic experience he offers must strengthen the spectator to face these threats more honestly, more courageously, and with deeper solidarity with others in his community."
--Motti Lerner, playwright
In many ways I believe this Semitic Commonwealth project started thirteen years ago when Jamil Khoury asked me to direct his play Precious Stones. That play, which premiered at the Chicago Cultural Center in January of 2003, was the genesis of our collaboration which revolved around the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For that production we cast two brave actresses—Roxane Assaf and Nicole Pitman—and asked them to play characters that they identified with culturally and characters they may have not identified with at all politically. This was a tall order, especially during the height of the second intifada which lasted from 2000 to 2005. It was during that production that we explored the possibility of "being in the other's shoes" both figuratively and literally. Despite the highly political nature of such a project, the artists and audiences reacted positively and we had some very passionate and interesting dialogues surrounding that production.
Here we are over a decade later and, unfortunately, the situation between Palestinians and Israelis has further deteriorated. The Oslo Accords have all but collapsed, there has been a wave of violent attacks throughout Palestine and Israel, the Israeli occupation (of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights) continues into its fiftieth year, more settlements are being constructed, the separation wall has divided more land and families, and there is seemingly no end to the conflict that seemed solvable in 2000 after the Summit at Camp David. Furthermore, we've seen the rise of the so-called "Islamic State", the horror of the Syrian Civil War, a fractured and devastated Iraq, the slaughter and displacement of millions of people, the mass migration of refugees, the destruction of many ancient shrines and archaeological treasures, and further conflicts between many of the ethnic, religious, and cultural groups that inhabit the region. Now the Trump administration has signaled that the United States will move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which effectively undermines any Palestinian claim to the holy city as their capital. There may be an even greater casualty due to this new administration—the two state solution. Several Israeli officials have celebrated the Trump victory because, according to Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, "the era of a Palestinian state is over."[i]
What can a collection of plays possibly accomplish in dealing with the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict? What is the point of art when real lives are being destroyed on a daily basis? How can a play have anything important to say about such a tragic and impossible situation? The answer: perhaps nothing, or perhaps everything. Beyond the tragic loss of human lives, the greatest loss in this conflict is the loss of empathy for the other. Somehow, both sides have found ways to delegitimize and dehumanize one another through war, propaganda, hate speech, and violent acts committed in the name of God, the state, or the homeland. This dehumanization has systematically destroyed the already tenuous relations between Arabs and Jews in the region, and has allowed heinous acts to be perpetrated on a daily basis. The extremists, it seems, have won the argument and the moderates are left hopelessly bereft.
The plays we are presenting here are an attempt by these playwrights and artists to re-humanize the other. The characters in these plays are, just like the rest of us, deeply flawed individuals. They often act out of their worst, rather than their best, instincts and intentions. However, this "Semitic Commonwealth" is offering audiences a glimpse into the world not as it is, or the world as it should be, but rather as a dream of life that might be. Can we not take time to examine the wrongs that have been committed, and find constructive ways that we might be able to go on living with one another? Is there a way we can rise above our past and envision a better future? These are the questions a Semitic Commonwealth poses and dares us to ask ourselves as citizens, as artists, and as dreamers both through the plays and the interactive dialogues that surround this event.
These six plays are written by six very different, yet very talented, playwrights. They each attempt to understand different aspects of this conflict. Ismail Khalidi's Tennis in Nablus reimagines pre-1948 Palestine during the British Mandate, Zohar Tirosh-Polk's The Zionists transports us back and forth from 1930s Europe to contemporary Israel, Hannah Khalil provides a kaleidoscopic overview of decades of the conflict in her Scenes from 69 Years, Mona Mansour's Urge for Going dramatizes the lives of Palestinians living in exile in Lebanon, Motti Lerner's The Admission is a compelling play that examines the complicated and painful history of the horrors of war and how history haunts the present, and Ken Kaissar's The Victims dramatizes two abstract yet entwined stories that conclude with a cage and a dream. These plays speak to us as artists, as scholars, as Americans who have a vested interest in this conflict, and as people who are helplessly watching the tragic events in the Middle East unfold. We chose these plays because we believed in these playwrights and their desires to attempt to capture in words and images the joys, griefs, triumphs, and suffering of the Palestinian and Israeli people.
Each of these playwrights offers a deeply personal and very powerful message about the pain they feel with this ongoing conflict as part of their lives. For most Americans, the Israel-Palestine conflict is a distant problem that is brought to our attention whenever events there spiral out of control; but when you grow up in an Arab or Jewish household the conversation about Palestine and Israel is ever-present. Many American Jews have taken trips to Israel while many Palestinians have either visited their relatives in Palestine (when they are allowed), or have visited Palestinian refugees in the surrounding nations. Whenever violence breaks out those of Arab and Jewish descent are seized with a terrible feeling of helplessness and grief, something not shared by others around them who have no ties to the land.
Is a Semitic Commonwealth possible? Could there be a day when tourists book a high-speed rail tour that travels from Tel Aviv to Beirut, to Damascus to Baghdad, and other Middle-Eastern destinations? Can we imagine a time when all of us can look back at this Palestinian-Israeli conflict the way we look back on the Hundred Years' War—a horrific era that eventually found a solution rooted in a European Union? Can we dare to envision such an ambitious future for the Middle East? Perhaps, if we remind ourselves that Europe itself was in ruin just seventy-two years ago, we might be able to imagine a time when these tragic conflicts are also a distant memory. It may take generations, but we must find hope now if that dream is ever to materialize. Until then we must fight for a vision of Palestine and Israel as a land of peace, not as a land of perpetual war. Perhaps if we dream it, it might come to fruition.
[i] Andrew Blake. "Trump Win Means No Two-State Solution in Middle East, Israeli Official Says." The Washington Times. 9 November 2016. Web.