Chronicling what they see as ‘a deeply disturbing, and increasingly common, trend toward censorship in the American Jewish community,’ Jewish Voice for Peace have warned in an open letter of how damaging this trend is to the arts, and have called ‘on arts institutions to recommit to plurality.’

In the US, being Zionist and anti-BDS just isn’t enough to placate Israel’s self-styled defenders.

Last week’s firing of playwright Ari Roth from his position as Artistic Director of Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s Theater J has elicited expressions of sadness and outrage from artists and activists across the United States: a letter signed by over 60 prominent theatrical Artistic Directors in America deplores the actions of the JCC, which ‘in terminating him for blatantly political reasons, violate the principles of artistic freedom and free expression that have been at the heart of the non-profit theater movement for over half a century. Such actions undermine the freedom of us all. A free people need a free art; debate, dissent, and conflict are at the heart of what makes theater work, and what makes democracy possible.’ They have called upon the full Board of the JCC to renounce this action of the Executive Committee of the JCC. A further letter signed by 34 writers, theatre artists, academics, musicians and community activists, to the board of the JCC characterizes Roth’s firing as an act of censorship and the circumstances surrounding it ‘a form of creeping McCarthyism.’

Censoring provocative and intellectually stimulating work – much of it being produced in Israel itself – can only be seen as an act of capitulation to bullying. It is time to stand up and reject the opportunist excuses that “donors demanded it” or that “protocols were violated.”

Jewish Voice for Peace situate the treatment of Ari Roth as the latest and most high-profile instance of punitive action – taken at the behest of powerful interest groups – against artists and art deemed to have crossed a red line on Israel:

Earlier this year, the DC JCC cancelled a performance of The Shondes, citing the band’s support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement as the reason for the revocation. A few years ago, the Oakland Children’s Museum of Art decided to cancel an exhibit of Palestinian children’s art. This October, a small but vocal group tried (unsuccessfully) to force the Metropolitan Opera to cancel the performance The Death of Klinghoffer.

There are red lines, Roth told an interviewer this week, that he at least acquiesced to not crossing: they ‘were sort of implicit and inferred by simply my choosing to be part of a resident company at a Jewish community center:’

[plays that advocated] the dismantling of the State of Israel or that suggested that the State of Israel was an illegitimate endeavor, those were plays that would not be produced. There was a deep understanding from the time I got there eighteen years ago that we all had an attachment to Israel and that Israel was a part of our identity as American Jews and that Israel was important to the American population at large by virtue of our relationship with it.

It’s hard to imagine how any AD could satisfy these requirements: what are the ideological circumstances in which a work of art is rhetorically reduced to political ‘advocacy’ – and aren’t those circumstances antithetical to art?; given the Israeli state does not have internationally agreed borders and is maintaining an entrenched military occupation and colonisation of large areas of land, which configuration of this state is threatened with ‘dismantling’?

The red line on boycott was one Roth explicitly maintains he was comfortable adhering to:

Where we evolved to was an understanding by 2011 when the JCC was forced to restate its position on Israel—that the Center or its programs did not condone, or promote boycott, divestment, or sanctions of Israel. That became a red line, and it’s a long history of how that statement came to be. But I happen to oppose cultural boycotts in general and I would oppose cultural and academic boycotts on Israel, so it was easy for me to adhere to a red line that said our plays cannot promote boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS).

Along with ‘advocate’, ‘promote’ has become in this context an accusation of a menacing political agenda underlying a work of art – an accusation one should be wary of, that requires one to make further judgments on the political interests of all the interlocutors in the debate.

Was Ari Roth walking an impossible line, taking pains to placate the implacable? In the comment section of his Howlround interview, he attempts to set his producing record straight:

my Israel programming at Theater J was always a balancing act of point & counter-point. For every PANGS OF THE MESSIAH by Motti Lerner set in the West Bank home of religious settlers, there’s been DAI by Iris Bahr, set in a Tel Aviv cafe before a suicide bomber cuts short the life of 14 different Israelis, each with his or her own story. […] And with the Cameri Theatre production of RETURN TO HAIFA that we presented in Hebrew and Arabic, we actually got to experience a Palestinian narrative that recognized the trauma of the Holocaust on Zionist immigrants, as a Palestinian man of letters (and political activist, to be sure), Ghassan Kanafani, gave voice to the wrenching heart-ache of two mothers — one Israeli and one Palestinian who shared the same son — one as birth mother and one as nurturer. This was moving, dual narrative stuff. And the production was mediated by the work of an Israeli adapter (Boaz Gaon, again) transforming the Palestinian prose into Israeli-produced drama for mixed audiences. To create a space where oppositional forces meet and reckon; to allow opposing narratives to intermingle — to love Israel by celebrating its extraordinary range — and respect the threats it is negotiating internally as well as externally — this was our charge and our mission. That it didn’t get accurately presented to some looking in from afar is a result of the mischaracterization of our work by those who wanted to distort our agenda.

For those – funders, Zionist interests groups and others – that Jewish Voice for Peace identify as ‘shut[ting] down open artistic expression,’ so terrified are they of ‘the truth that might break through, the resistance that might break out,’ Roth’s act of ‘balancing’ out a work of art that ‘promotes’ this perspective with its opposing one, and ensuring that a Palestinian narrative is ‘mediated’ by an Israeli writer – well, this will never be enough for the bullies that threaten to silence and punish those who refuse to follow orders. Bullies like COPMA:

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Jewish Voice for Peace, again:

We call on the American Jewish community to recognize and celebrate artistic expressions of the multiplicity of Jewish opinion and experiences. Let us lift up the insubordinate among us: it’s these voices we desperately need.

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