Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Firing of Ari Roth and the Closing of the American Jewish Mind

Denial.  Anger.  Bargaining. Depression.  Acceptance.

There you have the five so-called “stages of grief.”  I’m still dealing with the second stage.  And my hope with this blogpost is to place each of you somewhere on this same continuum.

My anger relates to the firing this week of my friend, Ari Roth, as Artistic Director of Theater J, the Washington, D.C., Jewish theater.   The story has received a lot of attention – and not just locally.  Here are a few of the stories that have been written since the axe fell on Thursday:

·         The Washington Post
·         Washington Jewish Week
·         Washingtonian Magazine
·         New York Times
·         The Jewish Daily Forward

Roth’s firing by his employer, the Jewish Community Center of Washington, was the culmination to date of a campaign spearheaded by a group called COPMA, which stands for Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art.  COPMA didn’t take long to proclaim victory in an e-mail blast.  The DCJCC “Takes a Stand for Israel,” COPMA announced.  It went on to say that the DCJCC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington “did the right thing in refusing to continue their financial support of the anti-Israel programming that Mr. Roth spearheaded at the DCJCC – programming that falsely accused, maligned and undermined the State of Israel, and in doing so, caused harm to the Jewish people.”

You’d think from this description that Ari Roth had turned Theater J into an orgy of Israel-bashing.   Believe me, there are plenty of Jews who support just that.  But Ari Roth isn’t one of them.  Ari is a proud Jew and a lover of Israel.  As an intelligent, thoughtful mensch who has absorbed the central principles of the Jewish faith, Ari believes that high-brow theaters have an obligation to facilitate not only entertaining dramas but also a free and open marketplace of ideas.  To his credit, he doesn’t shy away from taking on the big issues, whether they involve theology (as when he twice ran a play about Spinoza’s excommunication) or politics.  When he has addressed the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, he tends to present both the Israeli and the Palestinian perspectives so that he can stimulate his audience’s hearts and minds, not to mention their dialogue.

As someone who has devoted considerable time to enhancing Jewish-Islamic encounters in the Washington area, I was asked to participate as a panelist on “talk back” programs after two of Theater J’s most controversial plays regarding the Conflict.  On each occasion, I was allowed freely to express my views, which are definitely pro-Zionist.   I cannot imagine why people who attended either the plays or the talk-backs would have concluded that the theater was “anti-Israel” unless they are themselves “anti-intellectual.” 

During Ari Roth’s tenure, Theater J has been one of the Jewish community’s shining lights in the Washington, D.C. area.  It has maintained both high artistic standards and a respect for the principles of Judaism as a living, breathing faith.    Fortunately, Ari has no intent to leave Washington. He is planning on continuing to put on quality theatrical productions in a different DC-area playhouse.  

So all is well, right?   Not even close.  What we have witnessed this week is a symptom of a larger problem.  The Jewish community is fracturing before our very eyes, much like the American body politic.  In each case, there are many folks who are turned off and tuned out – which is itself a symptom and outgrowth of polarization – but a huge percentage of those who haven’t given way to apathy are heading in one extreme direction or another.  What we’ve seen this week at the JCC is a victory for the right-wingers: the Jews who are so paranoid that they cannot abide knowing that their tribesmen are being exposed to the Palestinian narrative, even if it is being presented together with its Israeli counterpart.   But that type of paranoia doesn’t just happen in a vacuum.  It has grown together with the rise of groups like Jewish Voices for Peace on the left.  Just as it was once said of Rudy Giuliani that his every sentence included a noun, a verb, and a reference to 9/11, JVP cannot utter a sentence without a noun, a verb, and a reference to “the Occupation.”   And the more traction that JVP and other anti-Zionist Jewish groups are getting on college campuses and liberal Christian churches, the more paranoid Israel’s right-wing zealots are getting.   Extremism in both directions tends to feed on itself.    In this context, one result is that liberal Zionists like me are wondering if this is a train station with only two platforms, neither of which leads down the path towards a two-state solution … or a just and secure peace.  

No, I don’t want to sound like Chicken Little.  When it comes to the Jewish civilization, the sky never really falls.  We encounter horrible tragedies, but we also figure out ways to bounce back.  In today’s New York Times, there is an opinion piece stating that Netanyahu may indeed face a legitimate challenge in the next parliament election.   If he loses and a more progressive voice takes over the Israeli government, maybe the Jewish organizations here in America who frequently become mouthpieces for the Israeli government’s party line will themselves head back towards a more tolerant, less paranoid form of liberal Zionism.   

Last evening as I was completing this blogpost, my 93-year-old mother fell and broke her hip while I was in an adjacent room.   I told my wife, “All I want is to have hope.”   And that, indeed, is my attitude about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the American Jewish community’s ways of coping with the Conflict.  Sometimes when things in life look bleak, it is easy to lose hope, but we must never give in to those feelings.  

Life is frequently a war between fear and hope.  If you want to know what makes successful people – not to mention successful peoples – look no further than how they wage that war. 

No comments: