In New York City today a strange spectacle is being staged: Theater artists are taking a stand against theater.
When the Lincoln Center Festival announced it was staging a four-night production this month that is subsidized by the state of Israel, dozens of big-name professionals from New York’s theater world, including highly regarded actors, writers, and directors, demanded the play be scrapped.
An open letter published by the activist group “Adalah-NY, the New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel” was signed by, among others, the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwrights Tracy Letts, Lynn Nottage, and Annie Baker; the acclaimed director Sam Gold; actress Greta Gerwig; rock star Roger Waters; and the playwright-actor Wallace Shawn and his My Dinner with Andre costar Andre Gregory. They claim that the scheduled performances of David Grossman’s play To the End of the Land will help “the Israeli Government to implement its systematic ‘Brand Israel’ strategy of employing arts and culture to divert attention from the state’s decades of violent colonization, brutal military occupation and denial of basic rights to the Palestinian people.”
In other words: How dare Israel back a play that isn’t about how horrible Israel is to the Palestinians. And Lincoln Center must steer clear of this moral atrocity by canceling the play. Baker, who is herself Jewish, added, nonsensically, “I think the phrase ‘cultural boycott’ scares people, and it’s important to remember that a) it’s not a boycott against individual artists or nationalities, and b) it has historical precedent as an extremely effective way to call attention to apartheid (yes, Israel is an apartheid state) and influence policy.”
This is straight-up balderdash from the BDS playbook. Boycott? The letter says, “We call on Lincoln Center to avoid complicity with Brand Israel by cancelling these performances.” These artists are free to avoid any play sponsored by any entity they don’t like, but now they are trying to prevent everyone else in New York from seeing this play. This is very much more sinister than a mere boycott.
The point these artists are making is ludicrous on two levels. First, though the play is sponsored by Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs, it’s an anti-war piece, not simple-minded cheerleading for the state of Israel. David Grossman, the author of the novel from which the play is adapted, lost his son Uri to fighting on the last day of Israel’s offensive in Lebanon in 2006. Since then, writes Judith Miller in Tablet magazine in her review of the play, “Grossman has become among the most outspoken Jewish Israeli voices against war and occupation. He has frequently protested the demolitions of houses in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.” Miller calls the piece “deeply pessimistic,” citing a disquieting image of a mother who stays constantly in motion because she fears that her son will be killed at war and she reasons that if military notifiers can’t find her to tell her of his passing, he can’t be dead. In one scene, Miller adds, the play makes it clear that it’s an act of “supreme insensitivity” toward a Palestinian taxi driver to tell him to drive an Israeli to a military registration, causing the driver to erupt in an “impassioned outburst” about his people’s plight.
Though the play is sponsored by Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs, it’s an anti-war piece, not simple-minded cheerleading for the state of Israel.
Even assuming you agree that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is unconscionable (and I don’t), why should Israel’s theater community be punished for this by denial of state subsidies? Alternatively, is alleged cruelty to Palestinians the only subject allowed in state-sponsored Israeli theater? These artists wouldn’t hold their own country to that standard: They certainly wouldn’t demand that any National Endowment for the Arts–subsidized play recount the horrors of slavery or the administration of Donald Trump, though you can be sure that they abhor these two institutions in equal measure. Adalah scolds the two Israeli theater companies that produced the play for performing in West Bank settlements, but would they apply that guilt-by-association logic to any other artistic group on earth? The Rolling Stones once performed in Cuba. Would these artists demand that Madison Square Garden ban them from the building because the Stones are guilty of having normalized a repressive authoritarian regime?
You would think that progressive-minded artists who toil in an industry that is heavily dependent on public subsidies would be the last ones to suggest that a political test be imposed on any government-backed theater. How well is that policy likely to work out for them in eras when Republicans control Congress? The term of the current chairman of the NEA, Jane Chu, expires in less than a year. It would be condign punishment for America’s artistic community — no, it would be hilarious punishment, the equivalent of God reaching down and personally administering to Wallace Shawn a cosmic wedgie — if Chu were to be succeeded by Dinesh D’Souza.
To her credit, the president of Lincoln Center, Deborah Spar, politely told Adalah-NY to stuff it, and the play will go on. But the episode is a reminder that the ugly behavior by a pair of Trump supporters who tried and failed to shut down a performance of Julius Caesar in Central Park this summer was an outlier. To the extent art is threatened by the censorious impulse, that threat usually bears the stamp of the Left.