The Art of War

In a scene from Alive from Palestine: Stories Under Occupation,
a couple exchanges a bullet and a gas canister as tokens of love. Mounds
of crumpled newspapers are the only scenery. The play debuted in the United
States at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater in late June as part of the annual
International Festival of Arts and Ideas. It offered New Haveners a glimpse
of life in Palestine and a rare chance to experience Palestinian art firsthand.
The series of dramatic vignettes were written and delivered in Arabic with
English surtitles by members of Al Kasaba, an acting troupe based in the
West Bank city of Ramallah. Invited to New Haven by Festival organizers
as the second intifada raged in Jerusalem, the actors asked their audience
to "see and hear us as no longer a news item but as we are: Palestinians,
living, dying, crying, laughing, commiserating, struggling for a normal
existence against a backdrop of uncertainty."

The Festival sponsored the play as part of its summer repertoire. Mary
Miller, the Festival’s director, attributed the play’s selection to its
artistic merit. "The criteria is artistic excellence," she told
The New York Times. Before premiering in the United States at the Long Wharf,
Alive from Palestine had played at the London International Theatre Festival
and was met with positive reviews and little controversy. Miller saw the
play as a good fit with the mission of the Festival. But in the weeks before
Alive from Palestine opened in New Haven, doubtful members of New Haven’s
Jewish community raged at her explanations.

Their main concern was a state contribution of $1.4 million to the Arts
and Ideas Festival, meaning the play-in which Israelis are referred to as
"the wicked ones"-was funded in part by public dollars. Jewish
community leaders derided the selection as insensitive, inappropriate, and
"bigoted" and charged that it "demonizes" and "stereotypes"
Israelis. Critics also protested that by showing the Palestinian perspective,
the Festival had the responsibility of showing the Israeli viewpoint as
well. Despite the claim of Al Kasaba and Festival organizers-that the play
should be viewed only as art-David Waren, the regional director of the Connecticut
office of the Anti-Defamation League, described the play as "pure political
propaganda."

The play’s inclusion sparked a crusade against the Festival itself. In
The Jewish Ledger-which turned the issue into front-page news for much of
the summer-an editorial described Alive from Palestine as "a rotten
apple that taints the whole barrel." The editorial urged readers to
take action: "The show should not go on. This play should be withdrawn
from the program. Ask Governor Rowland to do something about this now. Call
his office at 860-566-4840." A resident of Waterbury said, "With
more than 95 percent of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza living
under their own self-government, ‘a play about life under Israeli occupation’
would be appropriate for a festival about the art of propaganda, but it
is not appropriate for a festival of arts and ideas."

There was no public consensus in the Jewish community about what course
of action should have been taken regarding the play. Editorials and letters
from Jews from all over the New Haven area flooded local newspapers, calling
for a wide range of responses. Some Jews encouraged people to see the play,
stating that Alive from Palestine was "necessary viewing" and
engaged people in a civil dialogue on the issue. Waren did not call for
the play’s withdrawal, instead demanding that organizers "achieve a
degree of balance" by including an equivalent Israeli performance.
(At least one local Rabbi managed to find a bright side to the controversy:
"They’re making art in Ramallah? How wonderful!")

In response to the outcry, the Festival added a series of post-play discussions
to provide a forum for debate on the role of art in politics and politics
in art. (They also installed electronic security check-points at the theater’s
entrance.) But the show must go on, or at least that’s how Miller saw it.
And it did, selling out all five nights it was performed.

Alive from Palestine put the Jewish community-a demographic not
typically associated with censorship or conservatism-in an awkward position.
The Anti-Defamation League, one of the groups initially outraged by the
play’s inclusion in the Festival, recognizes the importance of free speech
when it comes to the Ku Klux Klan, a group with an obvious political agenda,
and adamantly defends the right of political extremist groups to express
hateful views in public. The actors, for their part, deny that they have
a political agenda at all. Nizar Zuabi, the play’s director, was dismayed
by the controversial opening in New Haven. "The play is art,"
he told the Los Angeles Times. "It is shaped by political circumstances,
yes, but it is art." In fact, some reviewers described the play as
pretty bland fare. "The company has chosen not to make any reference
to Yasir Arafat or to suicide bombers; that seems politically prudent, if
not chicken-hearted…. There is little in the show that is likely to
inflame anyone in any new way," Bruce Weber wrote in a review for The
New York Times.

In one scene from Alive from Palestine, a man picks through his
son’s book bag after a bomb attack leaves the boy dead. The boy may not
have been a political actor, but fell victim to a war beyond his control.
The Al Kasaba troupe may have arrived in New Haven to perform art, but they
were swallowed up by a political firestorm they could not contain.

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