Posted by: Sergio Carmona
March 1, 2016
ZOA in the news

ZOA Florida Director Quoted Criticizing Anti-Israel Play

The unhappy voices have spoken and the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center in North Miami Beach responded to them.

As a result, the MAR-JCC decided to cancel the remaining performances of its Cultural Arts Theatre’s recent production of the drama “Crossing Jerusalem” mid-way through its run after many in the community advocated passionately to put an end to the play because they felt it contained anti-Jewish stereotypes and a false paradigm of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The play, written by British playwright Julia Pascal, is regarded as controversial. It takes a look at 24 hours in the life of an Israeli family in March 2002, as they cross Jerusalem at the beginning of the latest intifada. The production included talk back discussions following the performances.

Gary J. Bomzer, the JCC’s president and CEO, explained the decision to cancel the remaining performances in a letter he wrote.

“Please know that our intentions in presenting ‘Crossing Jerusalem’ are good ones and yet we have unintentionally caused pain to many in the audience; for this we are sincerely sorry,” Bomzer wrote in the letter.

“Because the play is too one-sided to be the starting point for a fair and balanced debate, it put any pro-Israel audience member in the painful position of having to defend Israel’s right to self-defense before their friends and neighbors.”

Bomzer added in the letter: “The vision of JCAT leadership was to engage meaningfully with each other on Israel, across lines of difference and to build a culture in which complicated questions are ones we can openly discuss. While we are aware that the play deals with some very controversial issues, the last thing we wanted was to alienate members of our community or damage relationships.”

Bomzer also added in the letter that the JCC received many emails both in opposition to and in support of continuing the performances along with the accompanying “talk-back” session.

Michael Andron – the play’s director and the founding artistic director of JCAT – wrote in a statement inserted in the playbill: “Beyond the politics and history of the setting, this is a play about people. All the characters have their thoughts and ideas about the situation in Israel at the time, but each of those characters also has personal issues, secrets and emotional ‘stuff’ going on as well. These additional layers color their political views. Indeed, that’s what makes for engaging theater…it always has.”

Adam Schwartzbaum, who played a character named Gideon in the production, posted a statement on Facebook regarding his reaction to the show’s cancellation where he notes “In its four-show run, which played to three sold-out houses, audiences responded wonderfully to this thought-provoking and nuanced production.”

“However, a group of activists made a determination – many of them without having even seen the production – that it had to be stopped because it advances an “anti-Semitic, pro-Palestinian narrative,” Schwartzbaum added within the statement. “Under pressure from these forces and after dialogue with other people and organizations on both sides of the debate, the MAR-JCC closed the production rather than allow our community to experience this work of art for themselves.”

Schwartzbaum later noted in the statement: “JCAT’s production of ‘Crossing Jerusalem’ was created as an act of love by a group of actors, producers and artists who love the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Sadly, this precious act of love has been ended.”

Pascal noted in an email interview that she’s disappointed at the censorship of the play’s local run.

“It means many were prevented from seeing a play for which they had booked,” Pascal added. “It stopped Jews watching a modern drama about Israel which has had critical acclaim in London from the Jewish press and the quality dailies as well as several sites. It is astounding to me that the production has been aborted.”

Sharona Whisler, executive director for Zionist Organization of America’s Florida Region, noted in an email statement that ZOA applauds the JCC’s quick decision to cancel the remaining performances.

“The play portrays Israel in an unambiguously negative and unfair way that fosters hate for the Jewish State,” Whisler noted. “This is evident to any audience possessing moral clarity and in particular is hurtful and insulting to Israelis, who make up a very large part of the South Florida Jewish community.”

Charles Jacobs – president of Americans for Peace and Tolerance – noted in a blog he wrote on The Times of Israel on Feb. 21 regarding the play’s cancellation: “Yet now we hear howls of protest from those who claim the JCC’s cancellation is an act of censorship, even ‘book-burning.’ ‘Art’ is under attack. This is all nonsense. People are free in America to express negative reactions to so called ‘art’ by not endorsing it. There is no obligation to support plays or other cultural forms that express hatred to the people to which one belongs. A JCC is not required to provide space for anti-Semitic creations.”

Pascal responded in the email interview to a question regarding the accusations that the play is anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and pro-BDS.

“In the UK I have been accused of being a Zionist as I support a Jewish state but I have never been called ‘anti-Israel’ or ‘anti-Semitic.’ Where on earth does the accusation of being ‘pro-BDS’ come from? I am anti-BDS. This movement sickens me,” she noted. “I have many Israeli academic and artist friends with whom I have worked and would always support. This is calumny.”

The National Coalition Against Censorship was joined by dozens of artists, dramatists and theater advocates in releasing a statement criticizing the JCC’s decision to cancel the production’s remaining shows and urging it to re-schedule the performances. The statement, endorsed by the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund and the Arts Integrity Initiative, along with prominent artistic directors, was published on Feb. 23 at ncac.org.

“Work set in a context of political tension is often controversial, but that shouldn’t mean that such work should be avoided. On the contrary, it is precisely this kind of work, which generates some of the most needed and relevant conversations within a community,” stated Svetlana Mintcheva, NCAC’s director of programs, in a press release. “The JCC is betraying its very mission by succumbing to censorious demands and stifling open debate.”

Denise Tamir, an Israeli-American lawyer and mediator from Aventura, attended the performances and stated within a post she wrote on her Facebook profile and her blog, desperatejewish.blogspot.com, on Feb. 22: “Though the MAR-JCC laudably tried to have a fair and balanced discussion of painful truths about how Israel is wrongfully perceived by many (as false and anti-Semitic as that perception is), these discussions failed for two reasons.”

One reason Tamir noted in the post on why the discussions failed was that “they could not compensate for the extreme bias and false history pervasive in the play.”

“Because the play is too one-sided to be the starting point for a fair and balanced debate, it put any pro-Israel audience member in the painful position of having to defend Israel’s right to self-defense before their friends and neighbors,” Tamir noted.

Tamir later stated in her post: “Closing ‘Crossing Jerusalem’ after four performances (the same number of performances staged at Brandeis University) was not an act of censorship because those who promoted this play had a chance to share it with the community. The decision by the MAR-JCC to limit the number of performances is reasonable and appropriate.”

This article was published by the Sun-Sentinel and may be found here