If you’re not familiar with Julia Pascal’s 2003 play Crossing Jerusalem, that’s because the play has only had two productions in the U.S. Or perhaps it is more correct to say that it has had one and a half productions, because the play’s second U.S. run, by J-CAT, the Cultural Arts Theatre at the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center in North Miami, a community theatre, was shut down by the JCC after giving only half of its scheduled performances.
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The play takes place during the intifada of 2002, and focuses on an Israeli family that chooses to take the risk of crossing Jerusalem to dine at a favorite restaurant to mark a family birthday celebration, a restaurant owned by a Christian Arab (in the script’s description) and staffed by two Palestinian Muslims. The characters represent a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as interpreted by Pascal. In 2015, on the occasion of the play’s first London revival, Pascal spoke about her intention in writing Crossing Jerusalem with The Jewish Chronicle Online.
“I think that it’s the playwright’s duty not to take a simplistic line,” says Pascal. “I’ve been examining what plays have been done on Israel [in Britain] over the past 50 years, and almost all of them have been from an anti-Zionist point of view. So, because of who is allowed to write about Israel and who is commissioned to write about Israel, you only get the simplistic Israel-bad/Palestinian-good point of view through the plays we have seen. I fee it’s my duty to show all sides. Whether that’s comfortable or not is another question. It’s the kaleidoscope that’s important.”
Speaking just this week from London, after the J-CAT production was canceled, Pascal said, “Jews told me, ‘You’re very tough on us.’ Palestinians said, ‘You portray us all as terrorists.’ People tend to bring their own attitudes to the play.”
“I see right and wrong on both sides,” Pascal explained, “and I get it in the neck from both sides.”
As to her Jewish perspective, Pascal says, “I think it’s painful to be a Jew, but we have to deal with it. The way the state of Israel was built up was painful and in the long continuum of history, it’s no one group’s fault.” However, she described the media conversation around Israel in England by saying, “The British press is very anti-Israel. That is the default position.”
Ultimately, Pascal says, she wrote Crossing Jerusalem because, “There was no play in England that represented Israel in all its complexity.”
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It seems clear that J-CAT and the JCC were fully aware of the potential for controversy in producing the play. Program statements from Paul Kruss and Gary Bomzer, the Chairman of the Board and the President and CEO respectively, began as follows:
“Throughout our history of community theatre, it is not unusual to periodically present a play whose content may be viewed as controversial and be a catalyst to stimulate audience discussion after the performance. For us at the MAR-JCC, it shows an openness to present theatre which may not reflect the views or opinions of the MAR-JCC’s lay leadership and staff, but has the potential to serve as an educational opportunity to delve into social, and even political questions and issues that the production raises. Crossing Jerusalem certainly falls into this category…from family dynamics to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Crossing Jerusalem touches upon subject matters that are heavily discussed in Israel’s open and democratic society. And for you, the audience, we invite you to participate in some of this discussion as part of a talk-back at the end of the show.”
The program also carried a statement from Michael Andron, the head of J-CAT, an employee of the JCC and director of Crossing Jerusalem:
“This is a challenging play. Its setting is in one of the most complex places on the planet. If it were easy to ‘show’ all the history and the political problems clearly, perhaps it might be easier to find solutions to them. Clearly, it is not so easy.”
Later in his program note, Andron continued:
Those in our audience who might care to argue that one actor’s statement, or another’s line or stated idea, is inaccurate (or, as in Politifact’s lingo: true, mostly true, mostly false, pants on fire), or that some clear insight or additional point of view is lacking in the play, would miss the point somewhat, I think. We will try, after the show, to add a layer of factual education on some of those issues.
The company’s website noted that the show contained “mature themes and language.”
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With all of that understanding up front, how did it lead Bomzer, the JCC president and CEO, to terminate the run after only four of nine performances had been given? On February 16, he wrote to the JCC community:
We have heard the voices of many in our community advocating passionately to put an end to the show because they feel the message is inappropriate and troublesome. Please know that our intentions in presenting Crossing Jerusalem are good ones, and yet we realize that we have unintentionally caused pain to many in the audience; for this we are sincerely sorry.
The vision of the 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 were 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…
We must together devise constructive and participatory ways forward to get at our differences, even when they remain dramatic. Meanwhile, our leadership has made the decision to suspend performances of Crossing Jerusalem in order to avoid any further pain and to engage in rigorous, vibrant conversation that advances our community.
From being aware of potential controversy in his program note to apologizing for that controversy and accepting and advancing the idea that the play was causing pain, Bomzer’s shift in position and tone is significant. Instead of publicly defending the play, JCAT and his own role in seeing Crossing Jerusalem produced, with the intention of starting valuable discussion, Bomzer quickly disowns it, even though his letter acknowledges receiving many communications from people both in support of and against the play.
Michael Andron issued a statement via his Facebook page regarding the cancelation. It reads, in its entirety:
I want to share two thoughts about the cancellation of JCAT’s “Crossing Jerusalem”. (If you haven’t followed it, search it). Ten months ago, JCC CEO Gary Bomzer and I agreed that we would produce Crossing Jerusalem at JCAT as both a gripping drama and as an educational learning opportunity about the Middle East. We determined this should include my playbill director’s notes to the audience, a few brief remarks before the show about the complexity of a play set in a complicated part of the world, Israel, one that we both love and support, and an opportunity for a talkback with the cast and creative team after the show. I proceeded to direct an incredible cast and honored all the plans Gary and I agreed to.
As far as the cancellation is concerned: Personally, of course I would have preferred to continue the show to the end and let the audience decide for themselves. I directed this powerful play to portray all sides and stimulate discussion, education and insights. But insights shouldn’t incite (as I wrote in the playbill) and I feel horrible that they did. I’m saddened for the actors and crew who worked so hard on this production, as well as for those in the community who didn’t get to see the piece and decide for themselves what they felt and thought about it. This my opinion and I am not speaking on behalf of the JCC. But JCAT is part of the JCC and I understand and accept the difficult decision that the organization had to make.
When contacted, Andron declined to answer any questions regarding the cancelation beyond his Facebook post.
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I wrote to Gary Bomzer on Sunday asking for an interview, saying that I planned to write about this situation within two days, and he responded just a few hours later, writing, “Thank you for your email. Please send me your questions and I will respond as best as I can.” I sent him eight questions at 8 pm Sunday evening and as I write on Tuesday morning, I have not heard from him again, even having re-sent the questions at 8 am this morning.
Some of my unanswered questions were:
4. The Miami Herald article cites Avi Goldwasser and Charles Jacobs expressing opposition to the play, with Goldwasser having participated in at least some of the post-performance discussions. How did Mr. Goldwasser and Mr. Jacobs, who as I understand it are based in New York and Boston respectively, come to be involved in speaking at and in connection with your production from the moment it began performances? Did members of your community reach out to them and include them in the dialogue before performances had even begun?
5. Corollary to number 4, I have a copy of a document prepared by Mr. Goldwasser which seems to be framed as a rebuttal to sentiments and statements expressed by the characters. Was this document inserted into programs or otherwise distributed at performances? If so, who made the decision to make this material available? Was any other historical or dramaturgical material available in the program or as handouts?
8. Are you concerned that by canceling the remaining performances in this play’s run, you may face situations in the future where members of the JCC community seek to have other cultural offerings canceled because they differ from their own personal viewpoints? Will this potentially limit the range of the JCC’s cultural offerings in the future?
In the various articles that have come out thus far about the cancelation of Crossing Jerusalem at the JCC, all reporters seem to be relying, as I am, on the same documents, statements and Facebook posts. Very little is being spoken aloud. The Miami Herald’s feature on the cancelation contextualized it by citing other conflicts over politics and culture in South Florida, notably over Cuban artists, but that article also mentions the controversy over The Death of Klinghoffer at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014.
In regards to the portrayal of Israelis, Palestinians and Jews (since not all Jews are Israeli), the Klinghoffer example is certainly pertinent. I would add the controversy over the New York Theatre Workshop’s planned production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie in 2006, which was canceled and ultimately produced else where in New York as a commercial production, and the clashes between Ari Roth during his tenure at Theater J, the resident company at the Washington DC JCC, over the content of his artistic choices which included a range of viewpoints about the social and political situation in Israel, which ultimately led to Roth forming his own company Mosaic Theater. A production of Rachel Corrie was also canceled in 2009 at the Mosaic Theatre Company in Plantation FL (no connection to Ari Roth’s new company), a professional company in residence at the American Heritage School prior to production.
Crossing Jerusalem at the MAR-JCC once again raises the question of whether complex, messy portrayals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the human stories within it can successfully be produced within the context of Jewish Community Centers, or for that matter by artistic institutions in areas with significant Jewish populations. It seems quite possible that based on past examples, JCCs will shy away from this kind of work in the future, lest they be subject to the kind of criticism that has been levied upon the organizations cited above.
Will there be only one kind of approved narrative in the US for exploring this seemingly intractable situation through art? As someone with significant religious training in my youth, I was taught that Judaism is a non-dogmatic religion that values discussion and debate. I do not see those principles being sustained in the censorious actions of the MAR-JCC; I am one of the signatories to a letter developed by the National Coalition Against Censorship urging the JCC to reinstate the canceled performances.
Having read Crossing Jerusalem, I can see why people with strong viewpoints might object to some of the statements and opinions within it, though in my reading every statement is counterweighted by another conflicting one. I have certainly seen plays with which I do not agree, some of which even made me quite angry, but I support their right to be heard and seen by those who choose to attend them. I fear an ever-increasing artistic orthodoxy when it comes to portrayals of Israel in the U.S.
The first step in avoiding a singular viewpoint is for Crossing Jerusalem to be seen and heard once again at the North Miami JCC. If people choose not to attend? That’s OK. If there are protests? Also fine. Based upon my scanning of Facebook commentary, there are plenty of people in North Miami who want to see Crossing Jerusalem, perhaps even more now that it has become a cause celebre. They should have the opportunity to do so, or not, according to their own artistic, political and religious compass. If the play was sufficiently worthy for the JCC to produce in the first place, knowing its potential for controversy, Bomzer shouldn’t be going back on his word now, and should let audiences decide for themselves.
Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts.
Respectful debate on all aspects of this column are welcomed, however comments are moderated.