This story illustrates the extent to which Zionist pressure and interference in the arts poses a significant threat to freedom of expression. The tactics employed by pressure groups conform to a pattern that is familiar to artists and arts organisations in the UK. These tactics include: threats and campaigns to defund, writing to sponsors; internal pressure from within organisations by pro-Israel advocates; and reputational damage, following smears.

The US playwright Ari Roth, who had served as artistic director of Theater J for 18 years, was fired on Thursday; Theater J is a program of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center (DCJCC), which is a partner agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. The firing of Roth by the Executive Director of DCJCC was the culmination of a five year campaign of threats and smears initiated by a Zionist lobby group against Roth and the theatre for their programming of several productions considered sympathetic to the Palestinian cause – including Return to Haifa, a play based on a novella by assassinated Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani -, bringing Roth into conflict with donors and the executive committee. He told the Washington Post that the Centre offered him a severance agreement that he refused to sign: ‘“They’ve crafted a letter that’s saying I’m resigning, not fired,” said Roth, adding: “I was terminated abruptly.”’

This is an excerpt of a statement that was read at the curtain call of Theater J’s current production of Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures:

…Yesterday, Ari was fired by the CEO of the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center in consultation with the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustee of this Center. This decision is of grave concern to theater artists and audiences alike.

Ari wasn’t fired, as the Executive Committee has claimed, because of “insubordination.” That’s a preposterous and cowardly whitewashing of the truth. Ari was fired because he believes that a theater company with a mission to explore Jewish themes and issues cannot acquiesce to demands for an uncritical acceptance of the positions of the Israeli government regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or to an insistence on silence. Ari was fired because he refused to surrender to censorship; he was fired because he believes that freedom of speech and freedom of expression are both American values and Jewish values…We call on the full Board of the DCJCC to renounce the action its Executive Committee has taken, and by renouncing it, demonstrate its support for theater that engages with contemporary reality in all its complexity, free of the fear of censors….

Read and watch video of the statement.

The campaign against Ari Roth began in 2009: the Washington Post reports that ‘Roth said there were festering strains between him and the center’s higher-ups, including the organization’s 17-member executive committee, going back to Roth’s 2009 decision to present readings, followed by discussions, of [Caryl Churchill’s] Seven Jewish Children.’ Out of that controversy a group was formed with the absurd name, Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA).

COPMA describes itself as:

a group of concerned citizens who believe there is no place in our Jewish community centers and institutions for anti-Israel propaganda and that the use of our charitable donations to support activities harmful to the State of Israel is a breach of the trust that donors place in these institutions. Theater J at the DCJCC, under the direction of its Artistic Director, Ari Roth, consistently produces plays, readings and panel discussions hostile to the State of Israel…

Since 2009, COPMA has sent several letters of complaint to the Jewish Federation, including a lengthy letter and report in March 2011 that called on the Federation to ‘establish guidelines for withholding funding from partner agencies that engage in political propaganda and activism denigrating Israel….’

The Post reports that although the 2011 production of Return to Haifa came from Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv and travel costs were underwritten by the Israeli government, ‘it proved so inflammatory that, Roth said, the Israeli Embassy’s cultural attache shouted back at the Israeli and Arab actors during the performance. In the aftermath, the JCC ended its affiliation with Theater J’s Peace Cafe, an after-play forum founded by Roth, his longtime supporter Mimi Conway and Andy Shallal, the Iraqi-born owner of the Busboys and Poets restaurants.’

In the summer of 2013, Robert Levi, chairman of the board of the National Council of Young Israel, joined COPMA’s call for the discontinuation of Jewish Federation support for Theater J, due to its planned performance of Motti Lerner’s The Admission from March 20-April 27, 2014. ‘As you may be aware, [The Admission] reflects a neo-anti-Israeli perspective, which is contrary to the mission of the Federation,’ Levi wrote. ‘The climatic scene of play implies a fictitious 1948 massacre conducted by a colonel in the Israeli defense brigade. You may not be aware that many of Mr. Lerner’s dramas are not performed in Israel due to their harmful message.’

There was also a call from the theatre’s detractors to withhold donations from the Federation because of its support for the theatre. The Federation responded to COPMA with an ‘open letter to our community’ in which it stated that ‘Love of Israel and openness to a diverse array of thought are compatible goals.’ However, The Admission, initially planned as a full production, was downgraded to a staged workshop; Theater J denied the decision to cancel it was a result of outside pressure.

Then, reports Haaretz, ‘came an article published on November 25 by the Forward’s Nathan Guttman. Based on leaked, internal documents, Guttman reported on a decision by the JCC to cancel its annual theatrical festival, Voices From a Changing Middle East. The story included a written statement by Roth, in which he criticized a headline of the article that was later changed: “Theater J has not moved to cancel anything. The DCJCC has made an executive decision and informed me and our Theater J Council of such. I’m committed to the future of the Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival and would never move to cancel such an acclaimed, important signature initiative.” Both Return to Haifa and The Admission were staged as part of the Voices festival.

‘The DCJCC, said Roth, didn’t appreciate that he had spoken out without consulting the communications officer. “Like any institution, the DCJCC has a communications protocol,” Carole Zawatsky, the chief executive officer of the DC Jewish Community Center, told the Forward. “Ari has made choices to work outside of the bounds of that protocol.”’

Reporting on the story, Philip Weiss, Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net, poses the rhetorical question, ‘Are you for free speech or donor-controlled speech?’


For more on censorship and campaigns to defund art in the US that is critical of Israel, read ‘Where do Jewish federations draw the ‘red line’ on opinions about Israel?‘ and ‘DC JCC Continues Pattern of Promoting Viciously anti-Israel Plays‘.

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