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The Wall: a moving and controversial play on the Israel-Palestine conflict

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June 3, 2011 by Antony Lerman

By Merav Pinchassoff

The Wall, a highly controversial play about the Israel-Palestine conflict by Douglas Watkinson, is on at the New End Theatre in Hampstead (http://www.offwestendtheatres.co.uk/index.php?where=new_end) until 6 June. I went to see it on the day that two infamous figures, the Israeli-born jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and the journalist and pro-Palestinian activist Lauren Booth, were given a platform after the performance to present their thoughts on the play. It was supposed to be a discussion, but by the time Atzmon, whose antisemitic views are openly expressed on his website, had finished there was no time left for questions or comments.

In the play, 64-year-old David Weatherstone visits the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Ramleh in search of his father’s grave. In his grief he encounters his father, Ralph, aged 25, who explains his untimely death in an attack on the 10:42 train to Haifa by the Stern Gang (‘the Jews’), only two days before he was due to return home to his wife and his then 18-month-old son.

The dialogue that ensues is a convincing and often humorous exchange between absent father and son. At the end of the first half of the play, Ralph entrusts to his son the task of getting to know Mahmood, the Palestinian who has tended the cemetery with devotion for over 50 years and writing a letter to Benjamin Netanyahu to bring down the Separation Wall. His motives are not political but personal. Mahmood now faces a two-hour detour to get from his home to the cemetery and the insolence of young IDF soldiers at the checkpoint every morning and, understandably, may one day not return.

David returns after the interval with an account of his stay in Mahmood’s family home (hospitality and house demolitions) and his own experience of confrontation with the ‘freshly brutalised teenagers’ at the checkpoint. David is outraged. ‘My father was murdered by your people’, he says to the young and heavily armed soldier. He becomes more determined than his father to bring down the eponymous Wall but may have lost sight of his father’s wishes and the closure he came to Ramleh in search of.

The play is intriguing and apparently based on the author’s real experiences. All the more moving as Doug Watkinson’s real son plays Doug’s father in the play.

The play tentatively suggests that there is some continuity between the Jews who killed Ralph and those now persecuting Mahmood. But the political issues that are raised are wisely left unresolved. In the play there is even some debate as to whether ‘the Jews’ is an appropriate label for the persons responsible.

Nevertheless, it was this continuity that Atzmon focused on. The lack of time for discussion was very unfortunate as this robbed any free-thinking member of the audience of the opportunity to respond to Gilad’s comments.

Ostensibly, of course, the play itself is not about Judaism or Zionism or Israel. It explores the absent father-son relationship against the backdrop of the Wall and what the author describes as the ‘ghettoistation’ of the Palestinian people, as represented by Mahmood. The suggestion is made that Israelis and Jews are all direct descendants of the Irgun and the Stern gang (which is perhaps understandable in the context of the play) but it begs to be countered, or at the very least explored.

Gilad Atzmon failed to do this, thereby dismissing the play’s potential for provoking discussion about Jewish identity, antisemitism and Israel. The author claims to be distinguishing between Jews and Zionists in the play, but there is a certain blurring of boundaries. By avoiding the complexity of this issue and simply lauding this play for exposing the (to him) unquestionable ‘continuum’—Irgun, Stern Gang, Israeli, Jew—Atzmon is once again guilty of condoning the disambiguation of Judaism and hardline Zionism and, worse still, implies that attacks against the former could somehow be effective on the latter.

Afterwards, I had what I feel was a profitable conversation with the author and producer in the pub.

My main feeling is that this was a tragically wasted opportunity. Both producer and author were blissfully unaware of the minefield they had entered in terms of the politically and emotionally charged issues touched on in the play.

While I personally do not consider the play to be antisemitic, this notion is evidently a floating threshold. The beauty and value of the arts is, after all, their ability to present, explore and tackle thorny issues such as these while leaving them open to interpretation. The fact is that the play does contain material which could be interpreted as antisemitic. Granted, it is not the artist’s duty to offer a balanced view. However, any discussion that follows such a play surely must. In offering a reaction that fails to counter potential claims of implied antisemitism and simply saying ‘Hurrah, this is brilliant’, Gilad Atzmon treads a dangerously fine line between anti-Israeli sentiment and incitement to racial hatred—a line that it is in all our interests to define as clearly as possible.

I explained to the author and producer that in drawing a parallel between Jewish terrorists under the British mandate for Palestine and present-day IDF soldiers, The Wall is highly provocative and, as such, bears huge potential for the exploration of the issues that so divide and afflict British Jewry. It is therefore highly regrettable that the play is now associated with Gilad Atzmon and will, like him, be labelled antisemitic. However inaccurate or unhelpful the term is it will deter precisely those people who would benefit most from attending the performance and participating in a discussion afterwards.

But the author and producer promptly informed me that their priorities do not include promoting the harmony and introspection of the Jewish community. They have their own difficulties to contend with, such as the as yet inexplicably low attendance, up until the (in)famous jazz musician was added to the bill, and the losses incurred as a result.

The damage caused by giving a platform to the likes of Gilad Atzmon and Lauren Booth is obviously very difficult to undo, if not impossible. I took the liberty of suggesting that it may be possible to salvage something in that perhaps they could offer a ‘counter-platform’ to someone (from IJV or elsewhere) better equipped to handle the explosive issues raised with the balance and sensitivity they deserve.

Finally, I would again highlight that there is (was) immense potential here. I feel very strongly that we cannot ignore incidents like these in any area of the arts. The conflation of Zionism and Judaism and the exclusion of moderate voices do a distinct disservice to the cause of justice for the Palestinian people and dignity for all—surely reacting to this falls within the remit of IJV? I don’t think we can sit by and allow Gilad Atzmon and his ilk to turn what was a thought-provoking play into a bold and unrepentant expression of antisemitism. We need to take a stand against real Jew-haters and put ourselves on the map so that in future producers will not feel obliged to turn to support from extremists.

For those interested in the ‘discussion’ a video of it has been posted on youtube but you really need quite powerful speakers to hear what was said: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPnNw6DnQOk

Also of interest is Atzmon’s review of the play, where he plainly states that the distinction between Jews, Israel and Zionism is ‘imaginary’:
http://www.a-w-i-p.com/index.php/2011/05/30/the-wall-a-play-by-douglas-watkinson-rev

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