Last June, the Jewish Plays Project announced the winner of their annual Jewish Playwriting contest: Zionista Rising, Alexa Derman’s scathing comedy about a young, AI-generated Zionist activist come to life. At a reading in September, before the Jewish high holidays, JPP founder and executive artistic director David Winitsky said he didn’t think the group would have been able to program the play a few years prior—and especially not at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, which hosts the readings. But at theatres that weren’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers, the climate seemed ripe for the play, which follows Jewish college students interning at a Jewish media company, and features self-inserts from Derman deconstructing how the history of Israel is taught in American Jewish settings.
Less than a month after the reading, Hamas launched its brutal attack in southern Israel, and Israel retaliated in a war that has killed thousands and brought Zionism and anti-Zionism, national and cultural identities, and the meaning of Jewishness to the forefront of American thought and institutions, including theatres.
Though most theatres are wary of making drastic programming changes mid-season, the ongoing war—which has been hotly debated domestically for myriad reasons, most prominently because the U.S. funds Israel’s military and defense infrastructure—has brought new considerations to theatres across the country. Does every production of a play by a Jewish playwright require an accompanying statement? Do extra security measures need to be taken for plays with Jewish themes or Jewish actors? Should plays with Jewish themes be balanced by plays about Arab Americans or the Middle East, or does such a framework play into the binary narrative that pits Jews and Palestinians in opposition in the first place?
For Jewish American theatre companies, questions about programming, security, and dramaturgical materials that educate audiences on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are nothing new. (Neither is the hemming and hawing over official statements and social media posts, which has arguably distracted from the actual conflict on the ground and the deaths of thousands.) Jewish arts organizations, like most Jewish institutions, had already reassessed their security protocols after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in 2018. These concerns, and costs, have risen again since Oct. 7, as both antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents have escalated in the U.S., according to organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The cost of security has increased “dramatically” for Theater J since Oct. 7, says managing director David Lloyd Olson, who adds that this is par for the course at all Washington, D.C.-area Jewish institutions. “There has been higher demand for security, so the prices have increased significantly,” he told me, noting that D.C. already has more law enforcement officers per capita than most cities.
Tension between the call for security and the possibility of alienating community members is also nothing new for Jewish organizations, where Jews of color are more likely to be stopped by synagogue security for not looking like the “right” kind of person to be attending a religious service. These tensions reached a crescendo after the Pittsburgh shooting, with many Jews of color expressing the concern that their welfare was being sacrificed amid increasingly armed security details at synagogues and Jewish community centers.
Sidestepping, ignoring, or erasing Jews of color is a recurring theme in both American Jewish and non-Jewish society, and has reared its head again as the war between Israel and Hamas rages. It is easier for non-Jewish and non-Arab Americans to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a binary geopolitical situation in which non-white people fight a white colonizing force. While the majority of American Jews are indeed white (whether their peers see and treat them this way or not, a topic—or a dissertation—for another time), this is not the case in Israel, where most citizens are Mizrahi, i.e., either from or descended from Jewish populations in Arab countries, North Africa, Iraq, or Iran.
The New York Times recently published an essay spotlighting the contributions of American Jews in the theatre industry and posted an Instagram carousel of photos of white Jewish theatre artists. “Where are the Jews of color!?” actor Ari’el Stachel asked in a Nov. 29 Instagram post. The individual identities of the interviewees notwithstanding, Stachel, whose father is a Yemenite Jew and whose mother is Ashkenazi, or a Jew of central and Eastern European descent, has long used his social media to advocate for the inclusion of Jews of color in the performing arts. In 2018, he won a Tony Award for his performance as an Egyptian man in The Band’s Visit, a musical about an Egyptian band visiting Israel. In the years since, Stachel has spoken at length about typecasting for Arab American actors, especially in the years following the 9/11 attacks. “For me, the difference between Jews and Arabs doesn’t exist,” he wrote on his Instagram page on Oct. 9, attempting to break down the binary that has long left Mizrahim conflicted and othered.
Some programming changes at Jewish theatres reflect debates in American culture that were already heated before the current war. Six Points Theater in St. Paul, Minn. decided to swap their typical Hanukkah programming, aimed at elementary school-age children, for educational theatre about the Holocaust for high school-age children. The decision to stage Wendy Kout’s Survivors came as states ramped up arguments over how to teach topics like slavery, the Holocaust, and the Civil Rights Movement in schools, with some districts severely restricting the content of history and social studies classes.
Barbara Brooks, producing artistic director of Six Points, believes that the rise of far-right and neo-Nazi demonstrations across the country made the decision even more relevant. Last month, Brooks’s fears were realized when a neo-Nazi group known as the Blood Tribe held a rally in neighboring Wisconsin, marching from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to the state Capitol. Wielding swastika flags, the group chanted “Israel is not our friend” and shouted racial slurs at passersby, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. (Though the neo-Nazi group is obviously antisemitic, its anti-Israel stance is about sowing division and attacking Jews, not supporting Palestinian self-determination.)
“I almost decided not to do it because of the current environment,” Brooks told me of Survivors, referring to both domestic white supremacist incidents and the war. “I didn’t want it to be appearing that we were minimizing what was going on in Gaza. I was afraid it would be taken as a one-sided viewpoint, but the flip side is that this is history, and we can learn from it.”
As soon as they learned of Hamas’s attack on Oct. 7 (a Saturday), Brooks and her team began drafting a statement that they posted on the Six Points website. By Monday, they began revising it as the Israeli government declared war and the IDF began its bombardment of Gaza. “As an organization that tells stories about life through a Jewish lens, it’s really important that we take a stand on major events that affect the country and the world,” Brooks said. This approach extends to the “innocent Palestinians [who] were caught in the middle” of the unfolding violence.
Brooks was not worried that the statement would alienate Six Points audiences, which she estimates are about half Jewish and half non-Jewish. “Our audiences tend to be, for the most part, more progressive and understanding,” she said. “We have a shared humanity, which is integral to the focus of the work we do.”
While refreshing, this sentiment is not being universally echoed by organizations in New York and elsewhere across the country. The pressure to get statements “right”—as determined by patrons, donors, social media followers, people with friends and family caught in the conflict, news anchors, people who had never heard of your organization before they read the statement, your mailman, and pretty much anyone with access to the internet—is overwhelming, can easily cause controversy, and has distracted the American populace from the casualties and real-world ramifications of the war. Putting out the “wrong” statement might result in lost subscribers or donors and widespread media attention, and the criteria for what makes a statement adequate seem to be nebulous, subjective, and evolving.
Rather than focus on outward-facing statements, Theater J has prioritized the mental health and well-being of its staff since the war began, recognizing that working for a Jewish organization has taken a specific toll—especially as they rededicate themselves to active threat training. “There’s been a processing space and an opportunity for staff to meet weekly,” Olson told me. “That has been helpful in responding in this moment.”
The theatre is no stranger to controversy stemming from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and artistic work about it. They have been targeted by the group Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (which also goes by the less-vague name Coalition of Pro-Israel Advocates) for staging readings of anti-Zionist plays (Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children), as well as for collaborations with Israeli theatre companies (The Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv’s Return to Haifa, about a Palestinian family). A 2014 reading of Israeli playwright Motti Lerner’s The Admission, about the killing of Palestinian civilians during the 1948 war that established the state of Israel, led to the high-profile dismissal of artistic director Ari Roth.
Olson and current artistic director Hayley Finn are perhaps suffering from the kind of exhaustion unique to arts administrators handling a full season of programming in the midst of actual turmoil and the anticipation of further turmoil. Though the war is physically far away, Israel is home to the largest Jewish population in the world, meaning that many American Jews have friends and family members who have had to evacuate cities near Gaza or Lebanon, have been called up to mandatory military service, were killed or taken hostage in Hamas’s initial attack, and/or are facing arrest and repercussions from peace protests. The folks at Theater J also share a concern held by many American Jews and Arab Americans: If the conflict goes back to its status quo ante, will the international community continue to care about the peace process and the healing needed after the trauma of the war? How will we respond when the war is over?
The answer, short of diplomatic breakthroughs, is the same tool that theatres like Theater J and Six Points have always turned to: their art. They have long believed that theatre can help people connect across differences, and this moment, while still raw, is no different.
“The people that are coming into the theatre, the artists that I’m speaking with, are still in that space of tenderness,” Finn said. “Theatre is a place that increases empathy and understanding. My hope is that the empathy muscles are activated and keep complacency at bay.”
The remaining question, though, is what kind of art will best exercise those empathy muscles. Works like Derman’s Zionista Rising? Roth had programmed the play for this year’s Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival, but Derman pulled it when the war broke out to be able to update the script, according to Roth. How will a play like Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic, which opens on Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in January, be received now, as compared to last year’s Off-Broadway run? Will Jewish artists with opposing viewpoints bond over a shared tragedy or fall prey to the in-fighting that is plaguing many American Jewish communities? Perhaps questions like these distract from the realities of war as much as social media statements do. But when so much is out of our control, the least we can do is try to answer.
Amelia Merrill (she/her) is a journalist, playwright, and dramaturg. A contributing editor at American Theatre, her work has been featured in Mic, Hey Alma, Narratively, and more. @ameliamerr_
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