In the fall of 2011, I visited Theater J in Washington DC to interview artistic director Ari Roth and attend a reading for the Voices from a Changing Middle East festival as part of an article I was writing for American Theatre magazine. Around that time, a fringe pro-Israel activist group known as COPMA (Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art) had made a few headlines by protesting Theater J, asserting that the theater and the Voices festival in particular put forth anti-Israel views. COPMA’S actions weren’t a pervasive threat to Roth’s position, per se, but they did arouse some worry among the staff and board of the DCJCC (the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, which is home to Theater J), especially when COPMA called upon major foundations to withdraw their financial support. The JCC’s new CEO, Carole Zawatsky, began to mediate with members of COPMA with the hope of easing tensions.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of these incidents would lead directly to Roth’s being fired a few days ago. The decision is upsetting on a few levels. Roth was Theater J’s visionary. Beyond creating art, he was genuinely interested in fostering productive dialogue. When he produced Return to Haifa, a play written by an Israeli writer that focused on the complications involved in Israel’s founding in 1948, he hosted a post-show talkback every night of the production. As he recalls, “Every talkback was good. Some nights, it was sublime.” Heated conversation never roiled him. He wanted to present theater in order to intrigue, excite, and engage audiences. The widespread response across the arts world following his firing – including an open letter to the DCJCC from artistic directors of theaters across the country – has expressed the danger in suppressing creativity freedom.
To be sure, Theater J never had full creative freedom. For an arts company to exist inside a community organization is to be beholden to the latter’s standards, in this case to produce plays that do not in any substantive way criticize Israel. Most theater companies don’t have to look over their shoulder in that way. It's because the JCC has to accommodate its board members and funders – many of whom likely hold right-wing views on Israel – that Theater J’s Voices festival seemed problematic (the yearly festival featured work by Palestinian writers and by Israeli writers who wrote from a left-wing perspective).
The larger issue as I see it is that it is increasingly difficult to be liberal and pro-Israel. Many right-wing Jews would disagree with me on this, but I believe Roth is deeply supportive of Israel. Choosing plays that grapple with how Israel was founded or that offer a empathetic viewpoint on a Palestinian character do not amount to anti-Israel sentiments. It's very disheartening that right-wing support of Israel (unyielding approval for every military action, a startling lack of sympathy for Palestinians who suffer) is often viewed as the only valid way to support Israel. And conversely that siding with liberals on social and economic issues means rejecting Israel entirely.
And still, I'm sympathetic to the tight position that JCC's staff and board found themselves in. I grew up going to that JCC and have a lot of positive memories there. While I don’t agree with their decision, I do appreciate how hard it must be for a religious organization to balance opposing views. Roth may embrace controversial subjects, but the JCC understandably prefers to keep things calm. Of course, in their effort to do so, they may have damaged Theater J irrevocably: several artists have already pledged not to work there, and the JCC will have a hard time hiring a new artistic director who is on board with their strictures.
As for Roth, there is a new company, Mosaic Theater Company, to build. I hope audiences flock there.