Dramatizing the spectre of Jewish civil war unleashes pangs of my own / by R. Sheth

October 1, 2009
By Jamil Khoury

You may ask yourselves, “What is a nice Arab American artistic director like Jamil doing producing a play about right wing Jewish settlers living in the West Bank?” Or conversely you’re thinking “What could be more apropos?”

After all, Silk Road Theatre Project has demonstrated a penchant for defying narrow identity politics and agendas. So perhaps it’s inevitable that our first full production of a non-American play hail from the rough and tumble, sophisticated, and provocative world of the Israeli theatre. I’d even argue that Motti Lerner’s Pangs of the Messiah reflects the very raison d’etre of SRTP: it’s a play born of conflict yet bred of hope.

Set in 2012 amidst the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, Pangs of the Messiah focuses on the Bergers, a religious Zionist family passionately torn between fighting to stay in their West Bank settlement and obeying their government’s decision to dismantle it. Apocalyptic yet fiercely humane, the story dramatizes the anguish and divisions the Bergers experience as they find themselves confronting the unthinkable, resisting an Israel they feel betrayed by at the risk of inciting cataclysm: a Jewish civil war…or worse. Left hanging in the balance is the legacy of their beliefs. Of the many plays I have read that attempt to stage conflict in Israel/Palestine, Pangs of the Messiah subverts expectation. It resists the familiar trap of going “overly:” overly sentimental, overly polemical, overly righteous, overly “oh why can’t we all just get along.” It is not a play about making nice or turning lemons into lemonade. And despite what I read as its pessimism, it is a play that yearns for something better. Profound and prophetic, intimate and familiar, bold in the political, nuanced in the personal, and keenly aware of the interplay between one’s beliefs and one’s actions, Pangs of the Messiah posits humanity and ideology as a dialectic. And it’s a fascinating, troublesome dialectic at that.

Let it be known that I come to this play with lived experience of the issues at hand. During the first Intifada (Palestinian uprising in the Israeli occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip), I worked with (and advocated for) Palestinian refugee communities in Jerusalem and the West Bank as a United Nations Refugee Affairs Officer. I was an eye witness to human suffering and material damage wrought by some of the aforementioned right wing Jewish settlers. And I have long voiced support for a just and equitable solution to this agonizing conflict; a solution that guarantees the right of self-determination to Palestinians and Israelis alike, within an environment of genuine peace and mutual security.

Thus Pangs of the Messiah both speaks to me and challenges me on deeply personal levels. The story may emanate from the headlines, but it transcends the journalistic by rendering a complex, human, and occasionally likeable portrait of the settler community and movement that I am politically at odds with. The play elicits within me sympathy for the Berger family, at times empathy, and in so doing, it admittedly pains me, causes a distinct discomfort, a fear of committing betrayal and of forgetting, particularly as an Arab American. But as I first read the play, a conundrum arose; Pangs of the Messiah was simply too good to pass up. Unlike other similarly themed plays, this one I could not dismiss as “unproducable” or “not there yet.” And it was while swimming in those initial feelings of discomfort and unease that I knew instinctively I had to produce this play. Our aesthetic is defined by culturally specific and authentic stories that exude universal resonance. It is often said that Israeli society is characterized by three major divides: Jews and Arabs; Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardi/ Mizrahi Jews; and secular Jews and religious Jews. The fact that Pangs of the Messiah is not neatly dichotomized along any of these divides, but is instead a story of strife among religious Jews, liberates the play from the burdens of “balance” and “equal time.” Silk Road Theatre Project produces plays either about conflicts within communities or between communities; this play is characteristic of the former.

The questions it poses, and the scenarios it depicts, are as relevant to Americans as they are to Israelis.

While Pangs of the Messiah is situated in a specifically Jewish and Israeli context, its content reverberates well beyond Israel’s borders. The play illuminates the power of religious interpretation and the extent to which biblical literalism influences politics, identity, and national security. The questions it poses, and the scenarios it depicts, are as relevant to Americans as they are to Israelis. And its timeliness is affirmed by ever present images of the “imagined” events. The Berger family is religious and politically right wing. Playwright Motti Lerner is secular and politically left wing. With author and subject so seemingly at odds, one may expect a story etched out of pat stereotypes, crude caricatures, and partisan polemics. But to Lerner’s credit, such self serving devices are nowhere to be found. He has created a family that is complex and conflicted, with three dimensional characters that are neither angels nor demons, but real people caught in a dilemma that threatens their deepest convictions. Lerner has woven a story that is both humanizing and critical; one that endows each character with integrity and fallibility.

Yet Motti Lerner the engaged citizen sees in Israel’s Jewish religious right both a potent threat to secularism and democracy and a major obstacle to forging lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In my reading of the play, Pangs of the Messiah is sounding an alarm bell, intended for Israelis and supporters of Israel the world over, and for all communities forced to confront religious absolutism. Thus, I feel a powerful kinship with Motti Lerner. He is my long lost Jewish cousin, at least in the figurative sense. As a gay rights activist and a feminist, I am all too familiar with the hateful, mean spirited, and patently un-Christian crusades of America’s so-called “Christian right.” I am well versed in the very real damage that movement inflicts on America’s freedoms. Could this be a matter of same struggle, different creeds? There is also the phenomenon of modern Israeli Jewish culture that invests me in this play. Israeli Jewish culture, as a work in progress, represents this intriguing blend of world Jewry, this hybrid, fusion, collision, some would say battle, between Arab and Middle Eastern cultures on the one hand, and Central and Eastern European cultures on the other, as they both navigate the overarching influences of a globalized American culture. In my forays into the Israeli Jewish world, “traveling” as an American of mixed Syrian and Polish/ Slovak origins (an “AshkeSephardi” non-Jew), I couldn’t help but recognize my own family’s story in Israel’s cultural mosaic or melting pot, mirrored in familiar and familial cross-cultural overlaps.

Perhaps because Pangs of the Messiah evokes such seemingly contradictory feelings of angst and camaraderie within me, perhaps because it affords me no degrees of separation, I am utterly bound up and wound up by this play. But removing myself from the equation, at least momentarily, Pangs of the Messiah embodies everything that Silk Road Theatre Project audiences have come to cherish about the company’s repertoire. It’s an intelligent, provocative, and emotionally compelling play that allows audiences to arrive at their own conclusions. I’m still working on formulating my own. §