Guardian theater review: Israel criticism as artistic criticism

“Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real and imagined wrong-doing committed by a single Jewish person or group is anti-Semitic”EU’s Working Definition on Anti-Semitism

I admit it. I know next to nothing about theater.  In fact I likely know as little about this art as Guardian theater critic Michael Billington knows about Israel. So, while I won’t engage in a critique of Billington’s artistic criticism, I do feel quite capable of fisking his amateur political analysis of the UK production of “Reading Hebron” (Guardian, Feb. 14)

Reading Hebron is “a play by Toronto-based Jason Sherman about a massacre that took place in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron in 1994.”

Billington opines:

“Sherman starts with an official Israeli inquiry into the facts: that in February 1994 Dr Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn-born Jewish settler, walked into the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and shot 29 Palestinians at prayer and injured at least 125 more. Despite oddities in the evidence, such as the fact that only one of six Israeli guards was in place at the time, the commission concluded that the massacre was the action of a lone shooter.”

I honestly don’t know what “oddities” Billington is talking about and quite frankly never read anything even suggesting that Goldstein didn’t act alone, yet we’re treated, in the writer’s opening salvo, to the suggestion that their may have been a conspiracy.  Are we to believe that the commission withheld evidence which would have implicated the IDF, or the Israeli government in the massacre of innocent worshipers?

Billington continues.

“The main thrust of Sherman’s gripping play concerns an attempt by the fictional Nathan Abramowitz to get at the truth about the shooting and to decide “whether those of us who allowed it to happen are as guilty as Goldstein”

So, now the moral urgency of the production is clear.  “Those of us” (Jews other than Goldstein) “allowed” the shooting to happen, and may therefore be as guilty as the murderer himself – a logically incomprehensible moral causality, and bigoted in its suggestion that individual Jews in the diaspora should be held responsible for the actions of individual Jews in Israel.

“But at the heart of the play lies the self-doubt and moral rage of Nathan, a secular Jew who has never visited Israel but who feels implicated in its policies.” [emphasis mine]

Indeed, at one point in the play Nathan attends a Passover Seder with guests which include three paradigms of objectivity and fairness – Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi – to offer their sage and, no doubt, nuanced meditations on the state of the Jewish and Israeli soul.

Of course, the notion that Jews in the diaspora should be “implicated” (a quite telling word choice) in the actions of the democratic Israeli state is not simply anti-Semitic, it also is a principle which has much wider implications.  If a Jew who’s never been to Israel, but merely shares a historical religious connection to the nation, is to feel so “implicated” one would have to wonder if a Chinese American should feel implicated in the crimes by the totalitarian regime in Beijing, or whether an African-American should somehow feel responsible for the political decisions made by various state actors in that continent.

Finally, Billington asks:

“It leaves us pondering one question: with Israeli-Palestinian peace-talks permanently stalled, has anything seriously changed since the massacre?”

Why, yes, much has changed since 1994.  A deadly campaign of terror from 2000 to 2004 left over 1200 Jewish citizens of Israel dead – victims of suicide attacks and other forms of violence directed against civilians and routinely sanctioned by Palestinian authorities, the state-run media, and religious leaders (not to mention more than a few sympathetic journalists and “intellectuals” in the West).

Unlike in Israel, where the deadly rampage by Goldstein was both anomalous and universally condemned, Palestinian society didn’t seem too keen on engaging in such self-criticism over the moral implications of their violent intifada, and we will likely never see a play, or some other form of artistic expression, questioning their societal culpability, one which engages in serious self-reflection.

Michael Billington, like so many of his colleagues at the Guardian, has grown up believing as much in the romanticized version of “Palestine”, as in the crude caricature of the Jewish state – what Jonathan Spyer characterizes as a place which bears little or no resemblance to the nation for those who actually live there: “mythical Israel…a place of uninterrupted darkness and horror, in which every human interaction is ugly, crude, racist, brutal.”

I can’t comment on Michael Billington’s adeptness at artistic criticism, but I certainly can hope that he, and his colleagues, will one day engage in the same level of self-criticism they are constantly demanding of me, my religion, and my nation.

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