Timeline: Ari Roth’s Firing From Washington DC’s Theater J

December 21st, 2014 § 5 comments

Ari Roth

Ari Roth

I have never attended Theater J in Washington DC. I have become increasingly aware of its work as controversy over that work has risen in recent years, while at the same time I have become aware of the high regard in which the company and its longtime artistic director, Ari Roth, are held by many theatre professionals I admire and call my friends. That Roth was fired this week after nearly two decades is simultaneously shocking and wholly unsurprising, as the theatre seems to have been on a collision course with the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, of which Theater J is a resident program (as opposed to a tenant), for some time over work that some in the Jewish community perceived as anti-Israel and therefore not deserving of a place in a JCC.

I cannot judge the work itself, because I have neither seen nor read it. I cannot be seen as impartial, at least by some, because I am a theatre professional who regularly speaks out against censorship, and because I am a Jew who does not believe that my religion requires unquestioning support of the State of Israel and its political, social and military policies. I do believe in the importance of Israel for the Jewish people and its right to exist, but I also believe in the rights of Palestinians to their own homeland as well, and the right and necessity of both populations to live in peace.

So rather than opine at length, I choose to share with you excerpts from many stories about Theater J, with links to the full reports, which in turn link to yet more. I decry the pressure that Theater J has been subjected to and the manner of Ari Roth’s firing. I believe that Roth’s artistic vision will ultimately be best served at his planned new company Mosaic Theater Company – a name I love for its ability to invoke both the Moses of biblical times, as well as the ancient art form of arranging multi-colored tiles to create art, suggesting the coming together of many fragments to make a larger and more cohesive whole. As for what happens to Theater J now, I hope it doesn’t become a home for only feel-good Jewish stories, but manages to sustain itself as a place that challenges those who attend and fosters debate among them, characteristics that I was taught from a very early age were a central part of Judaism.

From “Theater J incident illustrates larger dialogue on Israel at Jewish institutions” by Peter Marks in The Washington Post, August 6, 2011:

Andy Shallal, an Iraqi-born Muslim, was deeply proud of the open conversation channel he had maintained with Ari Roth, longtime artistic director of Theater J, a highly regarded branch of the D.C. Jewish Community Center. Together with another local theater lover, Mimi Conway, they’d created the Peace Cafe, an after-play forum, complete with plates of hummus and pita bread supplied by Shallal’s popular Busboys and Poets dining spots, that had become a mainstay of Theater J’s programming.

The makeshift cafe — established 10 years ago, during the run of a politically charged solo play about the Mideast by David Hare — has been important as an outlet for debate over issues raised in Theater J’s sometimes provocative repertory, especially for an outsider such as Shallal. “It was an emotional experience for me, to walk into a Jewish community center, to grow up as a Muslim, thinking of Israelis as really scary people,” he says. “I walked through that door, and it was a very beautiful experience.”

Then, suddenly, a few months ago, a curtain was drawn. The community center’s then-chief executive officer, Arna Meyer Mickelson, told Shallal that the Peace Cafe could no longer use the facilities of the center, at 16th and Q streets NW. “She said, ‘We appreciate what you’ve done, but we can’t have Peace Cafes at Theater J anymore,’ ” Shallal recalls. “I think she was waiting for the right moment to cut the strings.”

From “Heated Dialogue, Onstage and Off, at Theater J” by Lonnie Firestone in American Theatre magazine, February 2012

Maybe it’s the temperature, maybe it’s the politics—but there’s something about plays from the Middle East. Ask Ari Roth, artistic director of Theater J in Washington, D.C., who has produced more plays from that region than any other theatre artist in America. Roth can attest that the dialogue in plays from this part of the world is “more scalding than subtle. But that’s good, arresting theatre.”

Heated dialogue has become a Theater J trademark, both during the plays and at post-show talkbacks. A focus on Israel and the Middle East is one surefire way to attract passionate audiences (and occasional detractors). Since taking the helm of Theater J in 1998, Roth has been as avid about producing work that engages with Israeli life, culture and politics as he has about producing plays about American Jewish life.

From “Where do Jewish federations draw the ‘red line’ on opinions about Israel?” by Jason Kamaras on JNS.org, September 23, 2013:

Ari Roth, artistic director of Theater J, told JNS.org that “The Admission” is all based on “actual research done by three historians,” rather than implying the “fictitious 1948 massacre” that Young Israel’s Levi described in his letter. “The Admission” was also featured in an April 2013 workshop that was underwritten by the Israeli Consulate of New York, which Roth called an Israeli “hechsher” on the play.

COPMA does not acknowledge Theater J’s slate of more than 35 plays and workshops relating to Israel over the last 16 years, said Roth, who among other plays the group has performed cited “Dai” (“Enough”), which details the experiences of 14 different Israelis in the moments before a suicide bombing.

Theater J also never actually produced “Seven Jewish Children,” explained Roth. Instead, the group held a “critical dissection” of the play, featuring readings of “Seven Jewish Children” and response plays, as well as a talk to start the event that included “what troubled me about the play,” Roth said.

The DC federation, in an April 2011 statement, said it would not fund “any organization that encourages boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel in pursuit of goals to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish State.” Theater J “stands squarely” against the BDS movement, Roth told JNS.org.

“We are all about bringing Israeli art over here, engaging with Israel,” he said. “We are a leading importer of Israeli cultural talent to Washington.”

Hanna Eady, Elizabeth Anne Jernigan, Leila Buck, Danny Gavigan, Pomme Koch, Kimberly Schraf, and Michael Tolaydo in The Admission (Photo by C. Stanley Photography)

Hanna Eady, Elizabeth Anne Jernigan, Leila Buck, Danny Gavigan, Pomme Koch, Kimberly Schraf, and Michael Tolaydo in The Admission (Photo by C. Stanley Photography)

From “Theater J Scales Back Show as Pro-Israel Critics Pressure Washington D.C. Troupe” by Nathan Guttman in the Jewish Daily Forward, October 9, 2013:

In an apparent bow to the right in the Jewish culture wars, Theater J, a celebrated theatrical group housed at Washington’s DC Jewish Community Center, will not produce a play set to open this spring that has been denounced by critics as anti-Israel.

The troupe will instead run a workshop on the play and a moderated discussion. . .

The compromise reached between Theater J and the DCJCC will likely not put an end to the heated political debate about the play. Activists from a group called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, which organized the pressure campaign, have made clear they will not discuss anything short of removing the play altogether. The group’s chairman, Robert Samet, told the Forward earlier that he would accept only the play’s cancellation.

Carole Zawatsky, CEO of the DCJCC, told the Forward that the decision to cancel the full production was not a result of the outside pressure. “This had nothing to do with COPMA,” she said. “COPMA is trying to shut down the conversation and we are trying to broaden it.”

The DCJCC explained the decision as stemming from their “guiding principle” that plays from Israel should be done in partnership with Israeli theater companies. And since a planned partnership did not materialize, Theater J will not present a full production in Washington. The workshop, Zawatsky said, will include the play’s author, Motti Lerner, alongside other historians, artists and political figures.

The controversy surrounding production of The Admission is only the latest in a series of attacks against the capital city’s Jewish theater company involving plays related to Israel. Theater J rejected the earlier rounds of criticism, insisting on its right to stage the plays in question as a matter of artistic freedom.

This time, however, the debate was deepened by a call from the theater’s detractors to withhold donations from the city’s Jewish federation because of its support for the artistic group.

From a letter by The Dramatists Guild and the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the DC JCC, January 27, 2014:

We understand that a group that calls itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art has been formed to discourage Theatre J’s production of The Admission by advocating a boycott of your organizations and other intimidating tactics. Yes, private citizens have a right to object to the plays you produce by not funding you, and no, their actions do not constitute “censorship” in the strictest sense, but the bullying tactics of this group in order to impose their political worldview on the choice of plays you present must not succeed. As the representative of writers of all political persuasions, religious beliefs, etc., the Dramatists Guild strongly opposes their actions and agenda.

We find it ironic that COPMA’s wish to stifle the play is purportedly in defense of Israel, yet the Israeli minister of Home Security himself has said: “In the past, some plays by Motti Lerner have created stormed discourse … This discourse is taking place in the public sphere and that is where it should be. The State of Israel is proud of the freedom of expression in the arts in it and especially the freedom of expression in the theater.”

Should the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the DCJCC have a lower standard for the freedom of expression than Israel? Surely if a state under siege since its founding can withstand criticism in the form of drama, so can your audiences.

From “For Jewish groups, a stand-off between open debate and support of Israel” by Marc Fisher in The Washington Post,” May 28, 2014:

The D.C. Jewish Community Center runs a popular music festival featuring klezmer, a cappella, Broadway, liturgical and classical sounds. This year, they invited a Brooklyn feminist punk rock band called The Shondes — Yiddish for “disgrace” — to join the lineup.

Weeks later, the center uninvited The Shondes because the band’s leader had made public statements questioning whether Israel should exist as a Jewish state.

The JCC has staged an “Embracing Democracy” series over the past year, tackling tough issues with speakers on American Jews’ relationship with Israel and the birth of the Jewish state. David Harris-Gershon was asked to speak on his memoir about how he changed after a Palestinian terrorist’s bomb in Jerusalem seriously injured his wife.

But the JCC withdrew Harris-Gershon’s invitation after discovering that he had written a blog post sympathetic to the boycott and divestment movement against Israel. . .

“A wonderful aspect of Jewish tradition is healthy debate,” says Stuart Weinblatt, rabbi at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md. “But ultimately, a big tent does have parameters. It’s not inappropriate for the JCC or any institution to ask, ‘Does this play or speaker convey a narrative that helps people understand Israel’s ongoing struggle?’ There are plenty of venues willing to host productions critical of Israel. The Jewish community doesn’t need to be that place.”

“You have to push the envelope, you have to challenge,” says Gil Steinlauf, senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in the District. “This is the essence of what it means to be Jewish: We welcome dissent. And I do see a move away from that welcome in the Jewish community.”

From “DCJCC Cancels Theater J’s Middle East Festival, Prompting Censorship Debate” by Nathan Guttman in the Jewish Daily Forward, November 25, 2014:

Theater J, a nationally acclaimed group under the auspices of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, is battling a decision by the JCC to cancel its annual Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival. The theatrical festival, which in the past has included works critical of Israeli policy, was asked to accept a rigorous vetting process of artists this year to limit that criticism.

“Increasingly, Theater J is being kept from programming as freely, as fiercely, and expressing itself as fully as it needs,” the artistic director, Ari Roth, wrote to the company’s executive committee in September, in an internal document obtained by the Forward. “We find the culture of open discourse and dissent within our Jewish Community Center to be evaporating.”

Theater J and the DCJCC are not the only institutions caught between donors concerned about negative depictions of Israel and creators arguing for artistic freedom; New York City’s Metropolitan Opera is still reeling from the protests against its decision to produce “The Death of Klinghoffer”; the JCC in Manhattan came under fire in 2011 for partnering with progressive organizations, and in San Francisco, the Jewish film festival was the first, in 2009, to face pressure from donors to change its programming.

“It’s pervasive,” said Elise Bernhardt, former president and CEO of the now-defunct Foundation for Jewish Culture. “At the end of the day, they are shooting themselves in the foot.” Bernhardt said that attempts to censor Jewish art will only deter young members from being involved in the community.

From an e-mail sent by DCJCC Executive Director Carole Zawatsky to the DC JCC board on December 18, 2014:

I am writing to let you know that Ari Roth will be stepping down as the Artistic Director of Theater J. Ari has been a great leader of our theater program for the last 18 years and has grown Theater J into an award-winning and groundbreaking destination for our community. Under his guidance, Theater J has become the premier Jewish theater in the country and has gained national critical acclaim. We are so proud of the heights we have reached with Ari at the helm. While Ari will no longer be the Artistic Director of Theater J, we have offered Ari the opportunity to continue to curate the Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival and use its branding wherever his next endeavor shall be.

To all the people who have worked most closely with Ari to make Theater J the incredible success it is today, I want to assure you of our continued commitment to Theater J’s mission of presenting thought-provoking, engaging theater. While a search is underway for a new Artistic Director, Theater J will continue operating under the leadership of two people you already know well: Managing Director Rebecca Ende and now Associate Artistic Director Shirley Serotsky.

From “Artistic director Ari Roth is fired from Theater J” by Peter Marks in The Washington Post on December 18, 2014:

Ari Roth, longtime artistic director of Theater J, an organization he has built over the past 18 years into one of the city’s most artistically probing and ambitious theater companies, said he was fired Thursday. Roth said notice of his dismissal was delivered by Carole R. Zawatsky, chief executive officer of the DC Jewish Community Center, of which Theater J is an arm. The cause given, he said, was insubordination, violating what he called the JCC’s “communications protocol.”.  .  .

On Thursday night, the DCJCC released a statement quoting Zawatsky as saying: “Ari Roth has had an incredible 18-year tenure leading Theater J, and we know there will be great opportunities ahead for him. Ari leaves us with a vibrant theater that will continue to thrive.”

Roth and Zawatsky, who was hired by the JCC in 2011, clashed repeatedly over some of Roth’s programming choices, particularly as they concerned the Middle East. Earlier this year, Theater J’s world premiere of “The Admission,” a play by Israeli dramatist Motti Lerner about a purported massacre of Palestinian villagers in 1948 by Israeli soldiers, was downgraded by the center from a full production to a workshop. That occurred after a small local activist group’s campaign to stop the play asked donors to withhold funds from the JCC’s parent body.

The group, calling itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, launched a similar effort in protest of a Theater J offering in 2011, “Return to Haifa,” a play that featured Arab and Israeli actors. From the highly regarded Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, Boaz Gaon’s drama — adapted from a novella by a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, later assassinated — portrayed a Palestinian family returning to the home it had fled in 1948 that was occupied by Israeli Jews.

The latest and apparently final dispute was over the fate of Theater J’s Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival, an ongoing series of which “Return to Haifa” and “The Admission” were a part. Last month, the Jewish Daily Forward reported that the DCJCC was eliminating iterations of the festival. Roth said his commenting to the media after the article appeared was the reason given to support the charge of insubordination.

From “Ari Roth’s Firing From Theater J Is Part of a Larger Conflict About Jewish Criticism of Israel” by Benjamin Freed in the Washingtonian on December 19, 2014:

But the aggressive pushback that Israel’s critics like Roth and Judis from their fellow Jews isn’t a recent phenomeon, says Alan Elsner, the vice president of communications for J Street, a left-wing Middle East policy organization that calls itself pro-Israel and pro-peace. The group was founded in 2008 because the subject of Israel “had become so toxic that institutions, people, synagogues felt they couldn’t discuss it intelligently anymore,” he says.

Elsner believes the loud, hawkish voices that attack people like Roth are a slim portion of the the American Jewish community, but they do include some wealthy donors flexing their political clout. But those reactions, Elsner says, come at the expense of the Jewish population’s future.

“It’s a formula for driving away young people, driving away people who love Israel, but are not supportive of the settlements, and see the current government destroying the country,” he says. “The right has been in power in Israel with short breaks since 1977, and they’ve pursued building settlements and had three or four wars. The problem is, how do American Jews who support Israel and love Israel engage in a meaningful dialogue with Israel without being cast out of the tent?”

From “Ari Roth’s swift departure from Theater J follows a tumultuous tenure” by Peter Marks in The Washington Post, December 19, 2014:

As Ari Roth, Theater J’s longtime artistic director, recalled it, he sat down over a couple of lunches with Rabbi Bruce Lustig of the Washington Hebrew Congregation and the JCC’s chief executive, Carole R. Zawatsky, in an effort to undo the ire and mistrust that had soured his dealings with his boss.

“We went to marriage counseling,” is how Roth wryly describes those attempts. “We worked on our relationship.”

The meetings apparently came to naught, for on Thursday, Roth was fired by Zawatsky from the job he had held for 18 years, a tenure during which he built Theater J into one of the leading Jewish theaters in the country and one of the most important outposts for plays about Israel and its neighbors. His termination came after he refused to sign a severance agreement that would have given him six months’ salary and required that he keep quiet about the nature of his exit.

The firing, which was greeted with expressions of disbelief and widespread condemnation by everyone from Washington actors, directors and artistic directors to playwright Tony Kushner, was in point of fact the culminating event of a difficult, years-long struggle between Roth’s company and those in charge of the august Jewish institution on 16th and Q streets NW that housed it. Furious over some of his programming decisions — including producing a play based on a novel by a onetime spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and a staged reading of another playlet, Caryl Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children,” labeled by some as anti-Semitic — activist groups and others had exerted pressure on the JCC to try to stop them.

The dismissal, though, was not merely the wrenching end to a long-simmering personnel matter involving a headstrong staffer. It was also an illustration of a growing rift in the Jewish community, over what kinds of dialogue concerning Israel can be tolerated at a multipurpose Jewish organization — and whether, in fact, programming perceived as critical of Israeli policies has any place at a center for Jewish culture.

“The work that Ari’s been doing isn’t more or less controversial than it was 10 years ago, but the atmosphere for airing different voices has changed,” said Joshua Ford, who was the DCJCC’s associate executive director until leaving in March. “That’s in part because there’s a perception that Israel is more besieged than ever, and that’s a perception with some reality to it. And part of it is that it’s very, very hard for artists and institutions just to get along in general.

“Artists need to be artists,” Ford added, “and institutions need to answer to more than just their artistic impulses.”

From “Ari Roth, Director of Jewish Theater, Is Fired” by Michael Paulson in The New York Times, December 19, 2014:

Under Mr. Roth’s leadership, Theater J has periodically produced work that has tested the Jewish Community Center. This year, the agency scaled back a production of “The Admission,” which depicted a disputed incident of Israeli soldiers killing Palestinians in 1948, and canceled a Middle East festival; in 2010 the theater scuttled a production of a play about Bernie Madoff after objections from Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and writer; in 2009 there was controversy over a play by Caryl Churchill that some saw as anti-Semitic.

Mr. Roth said he was fired after unsuccessful efforts to negotiate an agreement to allow him to do some of his most contested work as a freelancer, or to make Theater J, which is producing six shows this season and has a $1.6 million budget, financially independent from the Jewish Community Center. He said he had recently been reprimanded for speaking to the news media without permission, and that he believed the J.C.C. wanted him gone to eliminate a possible source of concern for donors during a coming capital campaign.

“This was a long time coming, but it was becoming clear that for the theater to fully express itself, not just on the Middle East but on a whole range of issues, there was a growing artistic impasse,” he said.

Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide... at Theater J

Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide… at Theater J

At the conclusion of Friday’s evening’s performance at Theater J, the following statement from playwright Tony Kushner was shared with the audience, read by members of the company of Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, Theater J’s current production:

We know it’s been a long evening of theater, but we’d like to take one more moment of your time. We wouldn’t be standing here tonight without the hard work and fierce dedication of our friend and colleague, the artistic director of Theater J, Ari Roth. Yesterday, Ari was fired by the CEO of the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center in consultation with the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees of this center. This decision is of grave concern to theater artists and audiences alike. Ari wasn’t fired, as the executive committee has claimed, because of ‘insubordination.’ That is a preposterous and cowardly whitewashing of the truth. Ari was fired because he believes that a theater company with a mission to explore Jewish themes and issues cannot acquiesce to demands for an uncritical acceptance of the positions of the Israeli government regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or to an insistence on silence. Ari was fired because he refused to surrender to censorship; he was fired because he believes that freedom of speech and freedom of expression are both American values and Jewish values. “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide” has 3 more performances. We can’t continue without expressing our shock and dismay at this violation of principles we cherish. Theater artists and administrators across the country are already speaking out in protest. We join them, and we hope you’ll join us. We call on the full Board of the DCJCC to renounce the action its executive committee has taken, and by renouncing it, demonstrate its support for theater that engages with contemporary reality in all its complexity, free of the fear of censors. Thanks for listening, thanks for being a great audience, and Ari, thanks for everything–shabat shalom, Godspeed, and good night.

In a New York Times Magazine article, “Can Liberal Zionists Count On Hillary Clinton?” published on Sunday, December 21, 2014 and wholly unrelated to the firing of Ari Roth at Theater J, one paragraph struck me as particularly apt to the themes and reality surrounding the theater and its place in discourse about Israel and the Middle East, echoing the observations of others:

“In many segments of American Jewry,” Zemel said, “one is free to disagree with the president of the United States, but the prime minister of Israel is sacrosanct. How patently absurd!” Zemel’s criticism of the current Israeli government pivoted to a discussion of how the Holocaust and that summer’s flare-ups of anti-Semitism in Europe reminded them all that Israel was existentially necessary. “We must love Israel even harder,” he concluded, quoting from the Israeli national anthem. “Od lo avda tikvateinu. We have not yet lost our hope.”

From “An Interview With Former Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth” on HowlRound.com, December 21, 2014:

If you look around the country, how many plays are there on an annual basis that touch on the Middle East conflict? And then you think it’s such a rich source of drama and there are so many talented people writing about it, why aren’t they touching this subject? I don’t think they should use my example as a cautionary tale, they should use my example as a reason to do more of it. I shouldn’t be one of the only TCG theater artists engaged in this issue. It’s inexplicable to me that we don’t have a dozen other theater companies engaging in this theater subject. It isn’t the third rail, it isn’t that volatile or lethal. There’s not that much paranoid Jewish money that is so concerned about this issue being voiced. I think artists ask themselves how much do they know, how much more could they learn about the conflict and what’s my responsibility to reflect that on our stage? A lot of people could be doing this work and should be.

Via Twitter, a final observation from The Washington Post’s Peter Marks:

Peter Marks twitter

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Update, December 22, 2014, 1 pm: The artistic directors of a broad cross-section of U.S. theatres have sent a letter regarding Ari Roth’s firing to the Board of Directors of the Washington Jewish Community Center. It reads:

We, the undersigned Artistic Directors, are outraged by the action of the JCC in Washington DC in summarily dismissing the long-serving Artistic Director of Theater J, Ari Roth, on the morning of December 18.

The stated cause was ‘insubordination’, and it is absolutely clear that Roth was fired because of the content of the work he has so thoughtfully and ably championed for the last two decades.

Ari Roth is a capable, brilliant and inspiring leader of the American non-profit theater. The actions of the JCC, in terminating him for blatantly political reasons, violate the principles of artistic freedom and free expression that have been at the heart of the non-profit theater movement for over half a century. Such actions undermine the freedom of us all.

A free people need a free art; debate, dissent, and conflict are at the heart of what makes theater work, and what makes democracy possible. We deplore the actions of the JCC, offer our complete support for Ari Roth, urge the American theater community to protest these events in all possible ways, and call upon the full Board of the JCC to renounce this action of the Executive Committee of the JCC.

Update, December 28, 2014 11 am:

From “D.C. Jewish Community Center head details ‘insubordination’ of Ari Roth” by Peter Marks in The Washington Post, December 26, 2014:

The battle over the firing of Theater J artistic director Ari Roth took another bitter turn this week, with the circulation of remarks by his boss at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, Carole R. Zawatsky, accusing him of “a pattern of insubordination, unprofessionalism and actions that no employer would ever sanction.”

That pattern, Zawatsky charged in a letter sent by e-mail Wednesday to “Members of the Israel arts community,” included an attempt “to force the DCJCC to give up Theater J to his sole control.” She added that after that failed to occur, “he had begun to work on a new venture, while still employed by DCJCC,” and that “despite clear and written warnings” he “continued to disregard direction” from his superiors.

“Ari Roth,” she contended, “was not fired because of his politics or because of outside pressure.”

From “The Facts on the Ground at Theater J” by Isaac Butler in American Theatre magazine, December 28, 2014:

In their own ways, both Zawatsky and Roth’s versions of the story identify the same problems: an untenable relationship between the theatre and the center, mirrored or manifested by their own untenable relationship; a document outlining possible ways those relationships could change; and Roth’s future plans for a new company and decision to leave. But both use these points of evidence for radically different, somewhat incompatible interpretations of the last few years.

And if you assume the politics of Israel-related programming was the cause of Roth’s firing, a few additional ironies seep into the story. For one, Roth is hardly a radical leftist on Israeli politics: He is instead a mainstream, left-of-center, two-state-solution-supporting moderate. He has said, both in his interview with HowlRound and with me, that he willingly embraced the DCJCC’s “red line” about work that promotes BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, a movement that tries to use economic and cultural pressure to end Israeli occupation of Palestinian land).

What’s more, the work that actually landed him in hot water in the first place was a staged examination of whether or not a play by the greatest living English-language playwright was anti-Semitic—and then two plays by Israeli Jews attempting to reconcile with the events surrounding their nation’s founding.

But the past is prologue. Leaving aside the trail of events that brought Roth, Zawatsky, Theater J and the DCJCC to this impasse, the question is: What now?

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I will continue to add to and amend this post if I discover thoughtful and pertinent information I believe to be constructive to the narrative and the issues.


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  • Pingback: Reaction to Ari Roth's Dismissal Articles and Video Reaction by Cast and Tony Kushner-Update: Ari is Interviewed by Polly Carl and Howard Sherman Article - DCMetroTheaterArts()

  • Richard Stein

    In November 2011, Ari Roth asked me to stage a reading of Taher Najib’s “In Spitting Distance” as part of his Peace Café series with Andy Shallal. By then, he was no longer permitted to do it at the JCC, so Andy offered his newest Busboys & Poets location in Hyattsville, Maryland for the Sunday morning reading. That area of the café was a private room with a stage & the audience filled all the booths and tables. The talented DC area actor Maboud Ebrahimzadeh performed the solo piece. Author Najib is a Palestinian actor living in Ramallah, and his piece was produced in Israel by an independent company and featured a well-known Israeli Arab actor. Ari and I had seen it in a special performance at Tel Aviv’s largest theatre, the Cameri, in 2007 at a theatre conference, and I had the rights to mount a production in the US since that time. The play depicts the true life experiences of the author traveling from Paris to Tel Aviv on the first anniversary of 9/11, and the various indignities he expects to experience. It’s a beautiful piece about his love for his homeland, his love for Paris, his love for a woman and his love for his cat. There is nothing overtly political about it, but one can’t deny that it is a Palestinian’s perspective on life under occupation. (I talk about this play in a lengthy feature article on Israeli theatre that appeared in the May/June 2008 issue of AMERICAN THEATRE magazine.) Shortly before the performance, Ari pointed out to me two women seated at a front table taking notes on a laptop and on a pad of paper. They were “observers” from the COPMA group to document and build their case for the censorship of this kind of material from Theatre J’s programming. During the post-performance Q&A, Ari introduced the two women to the rest of the audience in a cordial manner and invited them to participate in the discussion. I believe one simply expressed that she did not believe this kind of play was appropriate for Theatre J to be involved in, but otherwise demurred. Personally, I was appalled that “spies” had been sent in an effort to wage a campaign against Ari and Theatre J.
    Ari has been a courageous advocate for theatre that is committed to sharing honest stories of humanity impacted by conflict, and I look forward to the next chapter in his career.

  • Joel Markowitz

    I have compiled all the articles about this situation on DCMetroTheaterArts. http://dcmetrotheaterarts.com/2014/12/21/reaction-ari-roths-dismissal-articles-video-tony-kushner/

  • John Stoltenberg
  • Pingback: » Silencing Theatrical Debate Over Israelis & Palestinians In North Miami Howard Sherman()

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