Ari Roth’s Firing From Theater J Is Part of a Larger Conflict About Jewish Criticism of Israel

Roth was officially fired for talking to the media, but it's really about the future of the American Jewish community.
Ari Roth’s Firing From Theater J Is Part of a Larger Conflict About Jewish Criticism of Israel
Photograph by Flickr user Adam Fagen.

“You got me fired, baby,” Ari Roth tells me when I call him Friday morning about his dismissal as the artistic director of Theater J.

Roth, who was fired Thursday by the DC Jewish Community Center, which houses the theater company, told the Washington Post‘s Peter Marks his ouster was triggered by interviews he gave last month about the DCJCC’s reported decision to cancel future installments of Roth’s Voices of a Changing Middle East Festival, a series of plays from the region that are often critical of Israel. A bit more than three weeks after Roth’s November 26 interview with Washingtonian, he’s clearing out his office at the community center at 16th and Q streets, Northwest. At least I’m not the only one at fault, it turns out.

“I’m blaming John Judis for everything,” Roth says, referring to the former New Republic senior editor and another Jew who’s caught flak for criticisms of the Israeli government and the Zionist movement.

These lines turn out to be jokes; Roth isn’t actually pinning his firing on journalists. But it does connect to the real reason Roth believes his relationship with the DCJCC deteriorated—that the American Jewish community has become increasingly intolerant of less-than-rosy depictions of Israel from Jewish thinkers.

“There’s been a natural alignment for many years between a community center that does so many things…including a theater that does all the provocative, enlightening things theater does,” says Roth, who steered Theater J for 18 years. “There was full alignment, but there was also tension from the very first production. As Israel democratically elected governments that moved more and more to the right in response to threats interally and externally, the American Jewish community, which is devoted to the survival of Israel moved in step with the government of Israel.”

Roth incited outrage early this year over The Admission, a play about a purported massacre of Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers in 1948 by the Israeli playwright Motti Lerner. The announcement that Theater J was mounting the show prompted a group of DCJCC benefactors calling themselves Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) to threaten to withold hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations over what they called a “blood libel” production. Theater J eventually agreed to cut the show’s run by more than half and scaled it back to a “workshop” production with minimal set dressing. COPMA was still pissed anyway.

Roth says reactions like COPMA’s have become more routine since 2009, when Israel elected a right-wing government that has waged several wars in Gaza in the years since.

“After the [Benjamin] Netanyahu government and the [Avigdor] Lieberman foreign ministry, there was more and more effort to squelch the voices of American and Israeli artists,” Roth says. “It was that part of our program that reflected the impact of dissenting voices.”

Before the flap over The Admission, Roth stirred a similar controversy when Theater J teamed up with Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre to produce Return to Haifa, based on a Palestinian novel about a couple exiled by the 1948 founding of Israel that finds a family of Holocaust survivors living in their former home. Both Return to Haifa and The Admission were staged as part of the Voices festival.

Roth insists his departure is not about the DCJCC’s finances, but about a growing air of censorship.

“There was very little donor pressure,” he says.

Ari Roth. Photograph courtesy of Theater J.

Carole Zawatsky, the DCJCC’s chief executive officer, did not respond to Washingtonian’s request for an interview about Roth’s firing. Robert Samet, a personal injury lawyer from Potomac who heads COPMA, did not return phone calls either.

But the aggressive pushback that Israel’s critics like Roth and Judis from their fellow Jews isn’t a recent phenomeon, says Alan Elsner, the vice president of communications for J Street, a left-wing Middle East policy organization that calls itself pro-Israel and pro-peace. The group was founded in 2008 because the subject of Israel “had become so toxic that institutions, people, synagogues felt they couldn’t discuss it intelligently anymore,” he says.

Elsner believes the loud, hawkish voices that attack people like Roth are a slim portion of the the American Jewish community, but they do include some wealthy donors flexing their political clout. But those reactions, Elsner says, come at the expense of the Jewish population’s future.

“It’s a formula for driving away young people, driving away people who love Israel, but are not supportive of the settlements, and see the current government destroying the country,” he says. “The right has been in power in Israel with short breaks since 1977, and they’ve pursued building settlements and had three or four wars. The problem is, how do American Jews who support Israel and love Israel engage in a meaningful dialogue with Israel without being cast out of the tent?”

J Street itself has had trouble remaining in the tent. It applied for membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, an umbrella coalition of Jewish groups, but was rejected in May even after winning the support of the Reform and Conservative movements and the Anti-Defamation League. Even to some of Israel’s stodgiest public defenders, J Street’s defeat was a bad result.

“It was not surprising that J Street’s most energetic opponents at the President’s Conference came from the Orthodox, many (but not all) of whom are so busy congratulating themselves on their righteousness and their fertility rate that they are blind to their irrelevance to the fate of Jews who are not like themselves, which is to say, to the fate of the overwhelming majority of American Jewry,” wrote Leon Wieseltier, then the New Republic’s literary editor.

Judis and Roth have never actually met in person, though Judis does call himself a fan of Roth’s work. The two overlapped when a COPMA newsletter organizing the group’s protest against The Admission included an article in the right-wing Jewish magazine Commentary accusing Judis and other left-wing Jewish writers (and former Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters) of “hijacking” the Jewish community.”

Reached by e-mail, Judis tells Washingtonian the conflict between the most hawkish American Jews and those who are more willing to be skeptical of Israel’s decisions is as visible as ever, and that the casualties are often artistic types like Roth.

“There is a looming split in that part of the Jewish community between an older generation that sees Israel entirely as a victim and any criticism of it as verging on anti-Semitism, and a new generation that goes from J Street to Jewish Voice for Peace to Open Hillel that believes that a committment to Palestinian as well as Jewish rights is intrinsic to a Jewish ethical outlook,” Judis writes. “What’s at stake here is not simply artistic censorship, but the attempt to snuff out works of art that recognize that Jews and Palestinians share a common humanity.”

Roth plans to establish a new theater company—based out of the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street, Northeast—that will include future iterations of his Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival.

“My understanding is that Ari wanted to bring to Theater J plays that reflected the total gamut of American Jewish concerns and life, and that includes plays about Israel,” says Elsner. Roth says his aim was to bring a “credible, perhaps alternative narrative” to cultural discussions about Israel.

The Post reports that the DCJCC will search for a new artistic director to take over Theater J, but the prospect of a politically neutered company could be unappetizing to its fans.

“I’m a big fan of Fiddler on the Roof,” Elsner says, “but good theater has to be more than schmaltz.”

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

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Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.