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December 18, 2014 10:42 am

New Play Explores the ‘Arrogance’ of American Jews Critical of Israel, Playwright Says

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

Playwright Oren Safdie. Photo: Wikipedia.

In his new play Mr. Goldberg Goes to Tel Aviv, playwright Oren Safdie tackles an issue that is a cause of great concern to him: the relationship between Israelis and left-leaning Diaspora Jews with their “I know better” critical views.

At the heart of the one-act play is Tony, a Jewish and gay Palestinian sympathizer who expresses strong anti-Israel sentiments when the play begins and at one point even sides with a Palestinian terrorist who holds him captive. Tony, who is also an award-winning author, arrives in Tel Aviv to give a speech but things don’t pan out so smoothly for him. His scheduled trip to Gaza has been blocked by the Israeli government, he deals with an obnoxious hotel waiter fresh out of the Israeli army who brings him cold tea, and then finds himself at the center of a major operation to assassinate an Israeli minister. Up until the final moment there is enough suspense and drama to fill the hotel room where the entire play takes place.

On the surface, Mr. Goldberg Goes to Tel Aviv shows the struggle between a Jew, Tony, and a Palestinian extremist. But Safdie said the real “battle” in the play has a lot more to do with Israelis versus a growing Jewish diaspora critical of Israel. “The people more like the liberal Jewish community in North America versus the Israeli perspective,” he explained.

In an interview with The Algemeiner, Safdie talked about how bothered he is by American Jews and their sense of “arrogance, thinking that they know better” than those living in Israel. He asked, “Why is there a need to second guess Israelis who live in the middle of this small country surrounded by enemies?”

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“I don’t see them protesting and speaking out against the leaders of many more brutal countries than Israel but they think because they are Jewish they have a special responsibility like some ‘holier than thou father’ that they can set them straight,” he said. “The truth is the Israeli population is very diverse, well educated [and] experienced. And how somebody who lives in a little brownstone in Brooklyn can question what 80 percent of Israelis believe is so annoying to me. Arrogance to me is one of the worst traits in people and to me there is nothing more arrogant than that.”

Mr. Goldberg Goes to Tel Aviv was inspired by two events, according to Safdie. One was the failed boycott against Israeli films during the Toronto Film Festival several years ago, promoted by several Jewish-Canadian artists and writers. The second was the controversial public reading of the play Seven Jewish Children that took place at the New York Theatre Workshop and Theatre J in Washington, which was organized by Tony Kushner. Many Jews found the play to be anti-Semitic since it correlated Israeli settlers with Nazi Germany. In defense, Kushner claimed that open dialogue would benefit everyone. Safdie said that during one talk-back following a reading of the play, an audience member asked Kushner where he would feel more comfortable living as a Jewish homosexual, Tel Aviv or Gaza? Kushner had no reply.

Safdie believes that when Jews speak out against Israel they give cover for non-Jews, “like the Jimmy Carters,” to also denounce the Jewish state. He asserted that if one person makes it alright for people to be critical of Israel, and that person happens to be Jewish, others will follow suit, saying, “OK, if they’re saying it, we can say it too.”

“I hold them responsible for other things when other leaders in influential places come out with just the craziest accusations against Israel. They are being allowed to do that because of the Jewish people in prominent places who came out before them,” he added. “That’s why I wanted to start off with this character who in a sense is going to Israel to give a lecture, to meet in Gaza with the leaders there, and I think through the play he learns a certain lesson. He falls in the middle of this terrorist plot to assassinate the Housing Minister and he tries to show this Palestinian that he is on his side…but things turn.”

Tony’s allegiance shifts at one point during the play, though audiences are left asking if it is genuine or merely done for survival. The play’s third character, the hotel waiter, then risks his life to save Tony regardless of how poorly he treated him. His actions symbolize something that people do not value enough about Israelis, Safdie said.

“To me that was indicative that, despite being criticized by many American Jews, Israelis would go out of their way in a sense to defend their country, which, in a sense, protects American Jews when they don’t even realize it,” he said. “The fact that American Jews know that Israel is there and will always be there no matter what, I don’t think they appreciate that very much.”

The first staged reading of Mr. Goldberg Goes to Tel Aviv was on Dec. 6 at the Rialto Theatre in Montreal as part of their Pipeline Series.

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