The abrupt dismissal of Ari Roth, Artistic Director of Theater J on December 18th by Carole R. Zawatsky, chief executive of the DC Jewish Community Center (first reported by Peter Marks of The Washington Post) has been followed by reactions of outrage from around the country, including this from playwright Tony Kushner. Nearly a week later, reverberations continue to be felt. The staff of Theater J has been assuring theatregoers that the season planned by Ari Roth will continue uninterrupted, although Marks reports that Jennifer L. Nelson, who was to have directed Tonya Barfield’s The Call in May will remove herself out of protest. Roth, himself, has already announced his new company, Mosaic Theater of DC, to be in residence at Atlas Performing Arts Center, Fall, 2015.As the following letter demonstrates, there is a larger issue at stake: the rights of artists to create and produce challenging works free of political censorship, and specifically the dangerous trend within the Jewish community to suppress works about Palestine. We reprint with permission the article just received from Jewish Voice for Peace.
As members of the Jewish Voice for Peace Artist and Cultural Workers Council, we were outraged to learn that the DC Jewish Community Center decided to fire Ari Roth, Artistic Director of Theater J, for one reason: his commitment to explore the ongoing crisis in Palestine and Israel through theater.
This follows a deeply disturbing, and increasingly common, trend toward censorship in the American Jewish community. When arts organizations cave to political pressure from funders, it is bad for the Jewish community, bad for the arts, and bad for everyone.
Earlier this year, the DC JCC cancelled a performance of The Shondes, citing the band’s support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement as the reason for the revocation. A few years ago, the Oakland Children’s Museum of Art decided to cancel an exhibit of Palestinian children’s art. This October, a small but vocal group tried (unsuccessfully) to force the Metropolitan Opera to cancel the performance The Death of Klinghoffer.
In light of this troubling trend, and in the spirit of socially conscious Jewish artists throughout the world and throughout history, we call on arts institutions to recommit to plurality. We implore Jewish Americans to resist the muzzling of cultural and artistic expression.
The Board of the DC Jewish Community Center described Roth as “insubordinate” for his commitment to his curatorial choices and his refusal to stay quiet about the censorship of a play [The Admission]that deals with the Palestinian Nakba. Should our theater, our rock music, our visual art, and our opera strip itself of defiance, of vision, of provocation? Should our art obey orders? Whose orders?
The American Jewish community’s narrative on Israel and Palestine is an evolving tapestry, hewn through struggle & dissent – a constant, dynamic questioning of the ways that we express our core values. Funders who shut down open artistic expression are terrified of the truth that might break through, the resistance that might break out, should we be allowed to witness art made by Palestinian children, to hear histories that counter the Israeli nationalist version, and to engage with cultural work that challenges our understandings.
Artists must not be censored. The arts have a critical role to play in helping us grapple with the crucial moral and political issues facing our communities. We call on the American Jewish community to recognize and celebrate artistic expressions of the multiplicity of Jewish opinion and experiences. Let us lift up the insubordinate among us: it’s these voices we desperately need.