Where politicians and diplomats fail, artists and storytellers may succeed. Not in ratifying a peace treaty between Israel and Palestine, but in building the social and political connectivity that enables resolution. In the absence of healthy relationships, and amid the persistence of narratives that reproduce staticity, Malek Najjar, Corey Pond, and I have curated Semitic Commonwealth, a staged reading series comprised of six plays exploring the human toll of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, not with timelines, statistics, and SWOT analyses, but a laser-sharp focus on the personal prices paid by those most affected.
We’ve assembled a team of distinguished playwrights of Arab and Jewish backgrounds who have written plays that propel the discourse beyond predictable enmities and righteous posturing, the monotonous talking points and selective memories that have stifled progress for far too long. They are plays that explore themes of identity, justice, occupation, exile, history, and homeland with remarkable honesty and integrity.
I believe theatre can and should push people to leave their comfort zone. I’ve purposefully programmed plays that vary widely in thematic content, dramatic structure, and setting, posing difficult questions without presuming to offer answers. They enable audiences to arrive at their own conclusions and encourage dissent. We never set out to achieve balance or moral equivalency, nor to provide equal airing to “both sides” (as if there are only two sides!). It is not about rooting for one’s team. There’s no home court advantage, and nobody keeps score. These artists find truth and humanity in characters with whom they agree and disagree, eschewing the didacticism, polemics, and thought-policing we associate with the worst of political theatre. No one is being force-fed a politic; we detest propaganda.
Semitic Commonwealth is not about legitimizing or delegitimizing. Such utterances as “There’s no such thing as Palestinians,” or “Jews have no connection to the land,” or “My claim is greater than yours” have no place in our discourse. Nor is it a competition over who has suffered greatest and longest. It is not a normalization campaign (normalizing military occupation and asymmetrical power) nor an anti-normalization campaign (opposing mutually beneficial cooperative relationships between parties). It is instead a series of thoughtful, well-written plays that help us evolve.
Anyone looking for anti-Semitism and Jewish conspiracy theories or anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, Palestinian victim-blaming or Jewish Holocaust denial had better look elsewhere. Ours is a space for neither the erasure of Palestinian displacement, nor what I call the “duality of Israeli exceptionalism” (Israel as exceptionally good or exceptionally bad). Rather, Jews and Palestinians are depicted neither as angels nor demons but real human beings, with all the hopes, fears, challenges, complexities, triumphs, and failures that characterize being human.
To varying degrees, all participating playwrights have faced efforts to censor and vilify their work—all the more reason to be producing them. The pursuit of justice continues to be undermined by an absence of Palestinian voices in American theatre. In his December 21, 2016 HowlRound essay entitled “American Theatre and Palestine,” director Gary English spoke courageously about the external and internal censorship faced by theatre companies around Palestinian narratives. As communities of theatremakers, we bear responsibility for perpetuating a deafening silence around Palestine, an inequity we should be addressing loudly and collectively. Many theatres are also reluctant to produce Israeli Jewish playwrights who question and challenge dominant narratives about Israel. The three Israeli playwrights joining us on this journey care deeply about Israel and its future—in my book, they’re Israeli patriots. And yet some accuse them of “disloyalty.” These allegations sabotage not only artistic freedom, but the robust dialogue we so desperately need.
A plethora of opinions already exist and are primed for deliberation. I’ve spoken to people who envision peaceful, equitable coexistence between the two nations and people who envision a carefully managed truce; people who wish to expand Israel’s borders and people who wish to dismantle Israel altogether; people with deep knowledge of the issues, and people who demonstrate profound ignorance and lack of empathy. I have been privy to testimonies about the deep love of homeland felt by both Palestinians and Jews. Those testimonies have affected me greatly. I want Palestinians to be able to exercise their love of homeland with the same freedoms and rights enjoyed by Jews. No matter one’s politics, I trust we can all agree on that.
Most theatregoers are eager to learn and be challenged. Our art form is both inspirational and aspirational. People attend theatre to be impacted, and I’ve yet to meet a playwright who doesn’t somehow wish to make the world a better place. When you create art from your own subjective experiences, your truth can elevate others. Good theatre not only touches the heart and mind, but the soul. On two unrelated occasions, I heard from a Jewish artist and a Muslim artist that the theatre is a “sacred space,” that encountering a play is the spiritual equivalent of reciting prayers or attending a service. I can’t say one way or the other, but I find the idea interesting to ponder.
Whether you view this conflict through a lens of peace, justice, and human rights, as I do, or through a nationalist lens, a religious lens, an identity lens, an anti-colonial lens, a post-Holocaust lens, an American interests lens, an engaged learner lens, or any combinations thereof, the theatre should be a space that enables you to “suspend your subjectivity” and engage new ideas, possibilities, and conversations. To audiences I say, we need your voices, you need our stories—call it constructive codependence.
While we would never suggest that twelve staged readings of six plays at a Chicago theatre will change the immediate circumstances surrounding Israel/Palestine, woe to those who would underestimate the potential ripple effects of Semitic Commonwealth. Our hope is that more theatre companies around the US begin to produce Palestinian and Israeli playwrights of conscience. Culture is destiny, I believe. We are planting seeds to grow into roots that sprout narratives and shape new realities. Not swords into plowshares, but plays into plowshares. Ambitious and bold? Why have it any other way.