This month Washington DC’s Theater J will open the second half of its 2014-2015 season with Aaron Posner’s new play, “Life Sucks.” For the first time in 18 years the company, one of the nation’s leading Jewish theaters, will be without its longtime artistic director, Ari Roth. Roth’s firing last month caused a firestorm of controversy in the American nonprofit theater community. Acting artistic director Shirley Serotsky will guide Theater J into a period of new leadership under a cloud of condemnation over Roth’s contentious and very public termination. The reaction to that termination betrayed a troubling double standard over theater’s responsibility to tell stories from diverse perspectives. The result was a bizarre and unique demand that Jewish theater producers program plays critical of Israel.
On December 22, artistic directors from many of the nation’s leading theater companies penned an angry letter to the board of the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, which oversees Theater J. Although the Center stated that Roth was fired for insubordination after going public with internal disputes, the signers of the open letter called the firing blatantly political. They say Roth was fired because his proposed work ran counter to DCJCC’s positions on Israel.
As the artistic director at Theater J, Roth had a history of producing controversial work, including “Return to Haifa,” an Israeli play based on a novella by the former spokesman of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a recognized terrorist organization. There were protests regarding the work, and eventually the formation of Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, who directed much of their energy against Roth. But the show went on, and as he had for over a decade Roth walked the fine line of producing pro-Palestinian plays for which the Jewish community center paid.
This summer, that changed. The details are not entirely clear, but according to an interview with Roth the dispute with his employer started with a 2011 decision by the DCJCC to no longer present material that promoted or condoned boycotts, divestments, or sanctions against Israel. Roth was able to exist under those restrictions, which he says were flexible, for several years. But when DCJCC cancelled his scheduled 2015 multi-platform festival of plays dealing with the Middle East, Roth went to the press about it, in violation of the DCJCC’s communication protocols. He was then fired.
Should the People Have a Say Over What Their Theater Plays?
The controversy over Roth’s firing opens a window into the perverse practices and politics of the American nonprofit theater world. The undersigned companies, including The Public Theater, Lincoln Center, The Guthrie Theatre, Berkeley Rep, and others, claim that the firing was a violation of artistic freedom. They could not be more wrong. Tony Kushner, whose latest play, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism, Socialism, with a Key to the Scriptures.” ran at Theater J this past season lays out the case for this alleged violation of free speech:
Ari was fired because he believes that a theater company with a mission to explore Jewish themes and issues cannot acquiesce to a demand for uncritical acceptance of the positions of the Israeli government regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or to insistence on silence. Ari was fired because he refused to surrender to censorship. He was fired because he believes that freedom of speech and freedom of expression are both American values and Jewish values.
Let’s unpack this a bit. Roth wasn’t fired because of his beliefs about what a Jewish theater company’s mission should or should not be. He was fired because he went public with his disagreement against his employer’s wishes, and because he refused to accept their decision to cancel his multi-platform festival. This represents neither censorship nor a violation of speech rights.
After all, it is the producing organization, in this case DCJCC, that creates the mission and employs people to fulfill it. If Kushner and Roth want to form a new theater company with a mission more to their taste they are certainly free to do so. But if, as appears to be the case, Roth’s multi-platform festival intended to present works or speakers that promote boycotts, divestment, or sanctions, DCJCC has every right to refuse to pay for it, and to fire an artistic director who won’t accept that judgment.
Claims of Censorship Are Absurd
Who knows, maybe the DCJCC had good reasons to refuse to present content that promotes boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. Perhaps it was related to the widespread uptick in global anti-Semitism, possibly it was a reaction to boycott threats from major universities and minor Brooklyn food co-ops. Maybe the community center’s members and Theater J subscribers were getting tired of seeing Israel cast as the bad guy over and over on their stage. Whatever the reason, it is the DCJCC’s right and responsibility to balance it and its members’ interests against Roth’s artistic integrity.
A simple hypothetical shows how absurd any claim of censorship is here. Let’s imagine that a theater company’s board of directors mandates that half the season be programmed with works by women playwrights to promote gender parity. This is in fact a policy that some theater companies, including my own, have put into practice. If an artistic director refused to comply, arguing perhaps that she had an artistic responsibility to choose plays only on merit, or that certain works by men were more politically important this season, she would be fired. And there would be no controversy over the firing.
There is no principle of artistic freedom at stake here. The only principle at stake is that Israel’s alleged crimes and brutality must be exposed. Oscar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, said of Roth’s firing, “The Non Profit theater world can’t exist and can’t fulfill its function, unless there is some degree of protection not only for freedom of expression, but for the freedom to encourage dissent and debate-thats why we’re not the commercial theater.” But for some reason this demand for dissent and debate is only being made of Jews.
In 2004, in the midst of a heated presidential election, Eustis’ Public Theater ran Tim Robbins’ virulently anti-George W Bush play, “Embedded.” Shockingly, despite Eustis’ words about the value of dissent and debate, no pro-Bush or anti-Kerry works were programmed that season. Likewise, no feminist theater companies are being scolded for not producing pro-life plays, and no LGTBQ theater companies are being admonished for not doing work that questions gay marriage. But Jews? Well, they have a responsibility to tell all sides of the story, and if they don’t, it’s censorship.
No One Should Be Forced to Smite Himself
Here you have most of the American nonprofit theater community telling a Jewish community center that it does not have the right to fire its own theater’s artistic director. Why? Because, regardless of what the DCJCC’s policies or interests are, as an artistic institution, specifically a Jewish artistic institution, they are supposedly obliged to produce Progressive propaganda as part of an “open conversation.” This is ridiculous. The DCJCC has every right to decide what they will or will not produce. There is nothing wrong with them deciding not to produce work they find unfairly critical of Israel. There is also nothing wrong with any of the undersigned theater companies deciding to produce those works.
This letter is a not-so-subtle attempt to tell Jews to kick up the self-loathing and just accept that they have become the bad guys again. Just as Shylock’s greed blinded him to the suffering he caused in “The Merchant of Venice,” the work championed by Roth often presented Israel and its supporters as blind to its own alleged crimes. For the nation’s theaters to demand that Jews produce anti-Israel work in their own theater is insulting. Theater J has bent over backwards for decades to program politically diverse work. Its efforts in promoting diverse perspectives put to shame each and every one of the theater companies arrogantly criticizing it.
In creating this special rule for Jewish theater, the nonprofit theater community is betraying not only its hypocrisy, but a troubling disrespect for Jews and their concerns. It’s plain as day that the social justice warriors programming seasons for the nation’s biggest theaters are not holding themselves to the standard of “showing all sides.” They don’t even pretend to.
The 90 companies that signed this awful letter to the DCJCC collect millions upon millions of dollars from taxpayers, both in direct grants and tax-deductible donations. Is this really how we want federal arts funding to be spent? To bully Jewish community centers into producing work they feel undermines Israel? The next Congress needs to take a hard look at what its arts spending is really promoting. In the meantime, Jewish theater producers beware: the nonprofit American theater community is watching you.