Healing Arab-Israeli Divide: Is Stark New Play the Thing?

Three young Israeli soldiers beat a young Palestinian as a naked light bulb swings overhead like a disturbed pendulum. The lights have come up on "Murder," a new play by Israeli writer Hanoch Levin that takes on the Arab-Jewish conflict in a more explosive and piercing fashion than has ever been presented on an Israeli stage.

Just as the soldiers are about to leave, the Palestinian's father comes home to find his murdered and mutilated son. His response is not political, but universal and human, reminiscent of Shylock in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."

"How can a hand gouge out an eye? Everyone knows what an eye is," the father asks. "Even the curl in his hair is like your curl," he chastises one of the soldiers.

They are interrupted by an Orwellian television that is lowered from the sky to tell them that peace has come and "the time for murder has finished," an allusion to the 1993 Oslo accords that took most Palestinians and Israelis by surprise.

The troops welcome this news with glee and dance, suddenly oblivious to the dead boy at their feet. "When there's peace someday we'll be neighbors," one of the soldiers tells the father glibly. "We'll go to memorial services together."

A spiral of violence

But for the father, played by Israeli-Arab actor Makram Khouri, peace is useless when it comes an hour too late. His anger will burn until, a few years later, he hunts down a young bridegroom he thinks is one of the three soldiers, killing him and his bride during their wedding.

Never mind that he's got the wrong man and has just wrought a new round of tragedy on the Israeli side. Or that, after a subsequent bombing in Tel Aviv, a frenzied mob seizes an Arab man they think is the wedding-night murderer and slaughters him in return.

This spiral of violence needs no specifics as far as Mr. Levin is concerned: There is no mention of land, occupation, or particular wars, no talk of Israelis and Palestinians and their peace talks. Even the characters have no names.

Director Omri Nitzan says that is because Levin wanted to strip away the excuses for fighting. "The playwright's intention was to take aside all the piles of words, explanations, justifications, theological quotations, and political speeches from both sides and to look at the bare phenomenon and to call it by the unmerciful name, murder," Mr. Nitzan says. "Not war of freedom, or justice, or self-defense, or jihad. What you see on stage are two ancient tribes fighting against each other, and they have forgotten why." Victims ask why three times during the play, but get no answers.

Local nuances

While avoiding many specifics, the tone of the play is set by the time in which in was written - September 1996, when the peace accords met with their most thorough unraveling yet. Then, Israeli soldiers and newly armed Palestinian police turned their guns on each other, killing 80 people in three days.

But neither is the goal to make the play generic. Though its producers say that it could be a play about any conflict anywhere, it has local nuances enhanced by the fact that all the Israeli parts are played by Jews, and the Palestinians are played by Arabs with Israeli citizenship.

Artistic cooperation with Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, however, is much less common. The Cameri Theatre says it is hoping to translate the play into Arabic and have it performed in the West Bank town of Ramallah, but Palestinian officials there are eschewing closer cultural ties until there is more progress in the peace process.

Elsewhere, the reception to the play has been positive. Though war and violence have long had an impact on the Israeli art scene, audiences were not always ready to accept such brutal images of themselves on the stage.

When Levin tried to stage a similarly provocative production 25 years ago, protests and rock-throwing in the theater led to the play's cancellation after a few performances. During the opening night of "Murder," security guards sat in the front rows. Their services proved unnecessary.

Some critics attributed that to changing realities that make many people see Israeli-Palestinian violence as slowly becoming part of history. As bad as things seem now, they are an improvement from the everyday tensions during the seven-year uprising that ended in 1993.

And in the aftermath of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, says Amnon Danker, a prominent Israeli social critic, Israelis have an increasingly less heroic self-image. Showing the beating of a Palestinian "is not controversial anymore," he says. "We live in a totally different era. We are a little bit beyond shock."

Into the hinterlands

The play may go abroad in the near future to participate in international theater festivals, but the producers say that is not their most important audience.

They are taking it into places where the producers say its impact is needed: to army bases, to Arab towns, and to poorer, outlying areas where people don't have a chance to see Tel Aviv theater.

For a play that is supposed to issue a clarion call against murder, some wonder at the danse macabre near the end of the play that one viewer criticized as eroticizing the violence. Does the presence of loud rock music and hyped actors who look as if they're enjoying their rage make it all look just a little too chic?

Not necessarily. One of the soldiers from the first scene, now a disabled veteran, is tormented by guilt over his deeds.

And even after the Big Brother screen reappears to inform that "the time for reconciliation has flown away" the play ends on a few flickers of hope. With the ruins of the next war as a backdrop, schoolchildren dressed in bright clothing plant and nurture their saplings.

The bombed-out wasteland behind them is mitigated by the light on their faces. Their trees will grow. A new generation will tend them.

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