When Return to Haifa—which makes its American debut at Theater J this weekend—first opened in Tel Aviv in 2008, playwright Boaz Gaon and the Cameri Theatre found themselves barraged by protestors on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. The play’s opening brought Palestinians objecting to an Israeli adaptation of a novella by one of their own (Ghassan Kanafani); right-wing Zionists responded in kind, aghast that Israel’s flagship theater company would even attempt to present a story first written by a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
“We had weeks of demonstrations with people dressed as Palestinians holding plastic guns,” Gaon told the Chicago Tribune last year in describing the play’s Israeli detractors. Palestinian supporters, meanwhile, were upset over Gaon’s more sympathetic treatment of the Jewish characters than in Kanafani’s original novella. In a video posted on Theater J’s blog documenting the reaction, Gaon says more than a few actors and crew members were hesitant to take part in the production because “they didn’t want the headaches” associated with wading into the powder keg of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Theater J is no stranger to visceral reaction. Imagining Madoff, which posited a dialogue between the disgraced financier Bernard Madoff and Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and novelist who’s foundation lost nearly all its assets in Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, collapsed last spring when the playwright Deb Margolin walked out over complaints raised by Wiesel. More recently Theater J found itself criticized by one-time- Marxist-turned-right-wing-activist David Horowitz over a character with a similar background in Willy Holtzman‘s Something You Did.
It’s well-known that Theater J’s artistic director Ari Roth likes to push the envelope, but Return to Haifa, in his mind, is “unassailable.”
“This play is absolutely humane,” Roth told me last week. Which is not to say that Roth isn’t expecting the possibility of a negative reaction from Theater J audiences. Citing a political climate in which the Tea Party movement has “touched the Jewish community based on the politics of Israel,” Roth admits that the plight of a Palestinian couple pushed out of their home might fall on a few deaf ears.
Roth also posited that some might find the subject matter of Return to Haifa quaint amid a Middle Eastern debate more focused on dividing walls and the prospect of bombing Iran. But he calls the play’s depiction of a Palestinian couple exiled from their home in 1948 returning years later to find Holocaust survivors living there a “primal conversation” worth having across international borders.
“Palestinians need to respect the history of the Holocaust,” Roth said. “And no one’s really talking about the right of return.”
If Return to Haifa displeases anyone, they can protest with their feet, Roth says.
“People are still getting over the Kinsey Sicks and trying get over their line ‘O come ye, o come ye, just not on my face’,” Roth said about the recent holiday show at Theater J. But Roth has high hopes for Return to Haifa‘s potential impact.
“This play has the potential to be a plea for mutual recognition and to hear the cry of the other.”