Ken Kaissar’s The Victims:
Sympathy for the Suffering
by Michael Malek Najjar
The full title for Ken Kaissar’s play is The Victims or What Do You Want Me To Do About It? This playful subtitle gets to the heart of the frustrations most feel regarding the situation in Palestine and Israel. As outsiders to this conflict, we are constantly barraged by stories of death, violence, and political intransigence. Kaissar’s main theme is victimhood, and the play asks audiences to remember that everyone claims the role of victims but the only thing that really matters is finding a way to achieve peace. According to Kaissar, “our sympathies should be with whomever is suffering…We should be concerned with the good and welfare of all people. There can be no peace unless all live in peace.”[i]
There are many identifiable characters in the play: innkeepers, restaurant owners, cell phone salesmen, soldiers, and police officers. However, there are also many ambiguous characters listed in the play: “Jadi, the frightened one”, “Bassee, the tired one”, “Paula: a peacemaker”, and “Assav, the adversary.” By providing these enigmatic descriptions, Kaissar refuses to allow directors, actors, and audiences alike the comfort of easily identifying who might be Israeli or Palestinian, protagonist or antagonist, right or wrong. The play forces us to see the characters as humans first, and as Israelis or Palestinians second. In his artistic statement for the play, Kaissar writes:
The prospect of empathizing with the other is terrifying because we perceive that the needs of Israelis and Palestinians are mutually exclusive. Acknowledging that the other side has a legitimate point threatens to render our own narrative invalid. That fear tends to shut down all dialogue.[ii]
In the play Kaissar also introduces a perspective not often heard in American plays about Israel—that of the Yemeni Jewish experience. The character David is a Yemeni Jew who was born and raised in New York, finds himself somewhat lost in Israel. He doesn’t speak Hebrew well, doesn’t know his way around Israel, and he learns that his outside perspective on this conflict is shaped more by the media than by facts on the ground. After fearing all Palestinians hate Jews, the character Mas’ud tells David,
Do you know what we hate, David? We hate living under Israeli occupation. We hate that the Israeli government targets Palestinian civilians. We hate that there is not a moment of peace for us. That there is no freedom. That’s what we hate…Our fight is with the oppressive Israeli government. Not Jews.[iii]
David also faces the harsh realities of the Israelis as well. Yael berates him for being a “peacenik” and judging Israeli society from afar. He also meets Palestinian Christians, Israeli Arabs, and Israeli soldiers serving their compulsory military service. Elad even raises the specter of American intolerance of Jews, a frightful premonition given the current political climate:
And where will you go when the Americans decide they’ve had enough of the Jews? … It’s happened everywhere else. Why wouldn’t it happen in America? Because America is some magical place where everyone is equal. Except for Blacks. Oh, and Muslims. And gays. So…you don’t think the Jews are next?[iv]
Is the play’s ending hopeful or hopeless? As he has done throughout the play, Kaissar refuses simple answers to such a complex and difficult situation. By employing humor, a complex variety of characters, biting dialogue, and shifting perspectives, The Victims or What Do You Want Me To Do About It? provides a fascinating perspective on such a perplexing quagmire.
[i] Ken Kaissar, e-mail message to author, January 5, 2017.
[ii] Ken Kaissar, "Artistic Statement." January 16, 2017.
[iii] Kaissar, Ken. The Victims or What Do You Want Me to Do About It? Unpublished playscript, 2017. 56.
[iv] Kaissar, Ken. The Victims or What Do You Want Me to Do About It? Unpublished playscript, 2017. 89.