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January 2, 2015 1:05 am

Liberating Theater J From Diva Ari Roth

avatar by Eric Rozenman / JNS.org

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Mike Nussbaum in Theater J's "Imagining Madoff." Theater J's artistic director, Ari Roth, was recently fired. Photo: C. Stanley Photography.

JNS.org – Before the campaign to portray Ari Roth as a martyr to freedom of artistic expression gains traction, let’s review:

Roth was recently fired as artistic director of the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center’s Theater J. His dismissal came not, as playwright Tony Kushner would have it, “because he refused to surrender to censorship.” It did not happen because Roth believes, in Kushner’s telling, in freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

Ari Roth had to go because anti-Israel exhibitions had become his theatrical pornography.

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In 2009, Roth’s Theatre J gave a series of staged readings to British anti-Zionist Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children. James Kirchick, then at The New Republic, said the 10-minute rant “draws a straight line from Nazi Germany’s mass murder of European Jewry to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, an old trope in the quiver of rabid Israel haters.”

Roth tried to camouflage Seven Jewish Children‘s anti-Semitism in deconstructionist jargon. Calling Churchill a great writer to whom Jews should not turn a deaf ear, he termed Children an “elusive, evocative, wispy play that has mysteries in, and we are trying to decode them in a public discussion.” The late Herman Taube, Holocaust survivor, poet and novelist responded, “We have some Jews who, you spit in their face, and they say it’s raining.”

In 2011, Roth’s compulsion to “decode in public discussion”—translation: provide a Jewish-funded forum for pro-Palestinian propaganda—led him to stage Return to Haifa, based on a novella by Ghassan Kanafani. Kanafani was a senior aide to George Habash, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

The PFLP pioneered anti-Israel terrorism including airliner hijackings. It’s still a US-designated terrorist organization, more recently involved in suicide bombings. Kanafani died in a car bombing not long after he was photographed working with members of the Japanese Red Army, whose 1972 attack on Ben-Gurion International Airport murdered 26 and wounded 80.

Return to Haifa was Israeli playwright (and Roth favorite) Boaz Gaon’s predictably sympathetic set-up about a Palestinian couple returning years later to their former residence, home after Israel’s War of Independence to Holocaust survivors. You remember the 1948 war, when Israel, defying the 1947 UN Palestine partition plan, invaded five Arab countries and attempted to drive the Palestinian Arabs into the sea? Oops, other way around—though theater-goers would be hard-pressed to remember if relying on any of Roth’s “elusive, evocative” manipulations of Israel’s past and present.

Early this year, Theater J featured The Admission, another Roth selection intimating that the Jewish state was born in sin. By Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, stuck on the same one note sounded by Gaon, The Admission pivots on an allegation of a massacre by Israeli forces of Arab civilians in 1948 at the village of “Tantur.”

Roth claimed, as the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) noted at the time in a letter published by The Washington Post, that he had to stage The Admission because “there is a debate that needs to be convened and not stifled.” But that debate took place in Israeli courts. On multiple occasions, they found the allegation of a massacre (at the real Tantura) libelous, the second time in an appeal before Israel’s Supreme Court.

It’s appropriate that Kushner promotes an effort to beatify Roth. The former’s own attitude toward Judaism and Israel is hopelessly conflicted. He’s said, among other similar comments, “I want the state of Israel to exist (since it does anyway) and I want the cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs honored and I want to shokl with Jews at the Wailing Wall and at the same time… I think the founding of the State of Israel was for the Jewish people a historical, moral, political calamity.”

As the door slams on Roth’s 18 years at Theater J and superficial lamentations arise over “censorship by the Jewish establishment,” it will be worth recalling a letter by Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek, in Potomac, Md., to the Washington Jewish Week about one of Roth’s anti-Israel productions. Weinblatt wrote, “I find it most disturbing that our local JCC would want to put on a play with such negative portrayals of Israelis and Jews and such harsh judgment. Why not just put on a dramatization of Protocols of the Elders of Zion?”

Theater directors across the country reportedly condemned Roth’s ouster as a blow against freedom of expression. In fact, his chronic productions of anti-Israel boilerplate amounted to personal license. Theater J is now free to be broadly creative—and representative—in Jewish-themed programs. And self-respecting Jews, their organizations, and their philanthropy no doubt will be on board.

Eric Rozenman is Washington director of CAMERA, the 65,000-member Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. A non-partisan organization, CAMERA takes no position with regard to American or Israeli political issues or with regard to ultimate negotiated agreements to Arab-Israeli conflicts.

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  • Jim Trees

    “Ari Roth had to go because anti-Israel exhibitions had become his theatrical pornography.”

    A statement worthy of Goebbels himself.

    Worthy of a philosophy where dissident views – or views that simply admit the possibility of political complexity – are associated with degenerate behavior.

    Or as Goebbels and friends might have termed it, “Entartete Kunst”

  • WhoKnew?

    So, Ari Roth WAS fired for political reasons? The “Diva” headline had me expecting shocking revelations of tantrums and abused staff people. The DCJCC has said it was for insubordination, but I guess you know better.
    BTW — the “Return to Haifa” production you pillory was imported from Israel’s Cameri Theater. Perhaps you can explain why Israeli audiences can see that production (supported by Israeli government funds) and DC audiences should not have seen Theater J’s presentation with the same actors, director and designer (supported by Israeli Foreign Ministry funds)?

  • Elise Ronan

    Simply because Ari Roth decided that something was worthy of production doesn’t mean that it was.He may have been artistic director for over a decade but that doesn’t mean he was irreplaceable. In reality its not even about Jew-hatred and anti-Israelism, its about the people whose money is used to fun the theater not liking what he had chosen and deciding to fire him. He is not entitled to his job if he doesn’t please the people who pay him.And simply because he chose to make this political doesn’t mean that they have to fund his politics either.I suggest to Ari Roth and Tony Kushner that they join the real world and simply grow up.

    • Anon

      Who decided what was worth producing? The people who sat in the seats did. They don’t have the clout of those who envision Theater J as a feel-good, completely irrelevant venue, but it can’t be said the work itself – as a whole (some realize Theater J most certainly was not “anti-Israel” was not respected and attended.

      The other thing civilians don’t seem to be aware of – and that’s understandable – is that an Artistic Director, whoever they are, isn’t just anyone. They are a despot or they aren’t an AD.

      The DCJCC doesn’t want theater there. They think they do, but real theater goes where it goes. This wasnt “anti-Israel.” To think that it’s wrong to allow ideas in a theater demonstrates a misunderstanding not of Roth but of the art form.

  • Robert Fontenrose

    As one of the goyim who until now has subscribed to Theatre J’s productions, I appreciated Ari Roth’s stewardship of his theatre and his intellectually stimulating choice of drama. An evening in his theatre was one I always looked forward to.

    The vehemence of the criticisms of Mr. Roth, especially that of Mr. Eric Rozenman and including some of the comments here, can only derive from ignorance. Certainly Mr. Rozenman could never have attended this theatre or he would never have labeled its productions as even remotely “anti-Israel”. True, a very few plays have questioned the Israeli foundation narrative, but is this not a debate worth having?

    Apparently the DCJCC has decided that, when it comes to Israel, there is only one point of view that can be tolerated. So be it. Ari Roth will be less fettered at his new home. More power to him there. If the surviving remnant of the theatre has any gumption, it will also leave the premises rather than submit to the intellectual straitjacket the DCJCC is becoming.

    Needless to say, I will not be renewing my subscription.

    • FCUK no the “narrative” of the founding of Israel is not a debate worth having. Is questioning the foundation of the US narrative a debate worth having?

      I’ll tell you what narrative IS worth having… The history of the Palestinian people prior to 1948…. That is, if you can find any history of Arab pAlestinians. That’s right, there isn’t any… Or didn’t you know Robert?

      • Anon

        Yes, all narratives should be questioned. Americans benefitted from finding out they weren’t saints.

  • Reform School

    Is the ‘h’ in Roth silent, as in ‘kashruth’? Rot. How apt!

  • charlotte gottlieb

    Thank you, Mr. Eric Rozenman, for your thoughtful response to all the hoopla surrounding the firing of Ari Roth as Artistic Director of Theatre J, of the Washington, D. C. JCC. I agree with you in every aspect of your response. With all the anti-semitism going on around the world today, and all the anti-Israel utterings, we don’t need anti-Israel propaganda in the form of “artistic” plays being produced in a theatre run by a Jewish organization. Ari Roth is planning to open his own theatre in the Wash. D. C. area, and I’m sure he is enjoying all the free publicity he is getting.

  • Elle

    Exactly1 there is plenty of Jew hate without Jewish funded Jew hate.

  • Morrie Amitay

    Rozenman lucidly makes the case for firing Roth. What the Jewish community in Washington does not need is a serial self-hater and apologist for Israel’s enemies. This move was long overdue since, thankfully, Roth represents only a tiny, but vocal minority here who seem to revel in self-abasement,while seeking to burnish their liberal credentials at Israel’s expense. Good riddance, and my gratitude to Rozenman.

  • steven L

    No need for censorship. This is not the kind of topics this theater is interested in. People are fired for a yes or a no all the time. Why make a big deal of an antisemite. There are so many to be concerned about. Theater directors all over the country can hire him asap. What about trying this against Islamists. They wont dare! Cowards!! One tried and he got locked by Obama and ROTS in Jail still.

  • nelson marans

    Certainly the choice of theater productions by Ari Roth has shown a pro-Arab bias, not worthy of a Jewish theater which is partially supported by the UJA. I wrote and had published a similar but shorter condemnation to the Washington Post.

  • I was fortunate to have a very open and inspiring conversation with Ari Roth about his vision and values (which I greatly admire). In it he explained that his commitment to bridge building through theater is based in an ethical principle: “There’s an imperative to reconcile, not an imperative to exact revenge.”

    The full conversation can be found here: http://dcmetrotheaterarts.com/2014/12/26/imperative-reconcile-conversation-ari-roth-john-stoltenberg1/

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