New play addresses demonization of Israel among intellectual elite

NEW HAVEN — Professor Doron Ben-Atar’s play, “Peace Warriors,” which he co-wrote with Debbie Pollak, will be performed at the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C. in July and at the New York International Fringe Festival in August. The play was a semi-finalist in this year’s O’Neill theater competition.

A resident of New Haven, where he is active in the Jewish community, Ben-Atar is the chair of the history department at Fordham University, as well as a member of the university’s Middle East studies and women’s studies programs. He is also a fellow of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism at Yale University and was a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

Ben-Atar’s first play, “Behave Yourself Quietly,” is based on his mother’s experience at Auschwitz. He and his mother, Roma Nutkiewicz Ben-Atar, had previously collaborated on a book, “What Time and Sadness Spared: Mother and Son Confront the Holocaust” (University of Virginia Press, 2006).

Ben-Atar is the author of numerous books and articles on American history, the modern Middle East and psychohistory’ including “Trade Secrets: Intellectual Piracy and the Origins of American Industrial Power.” A frequent commentator on the modern Middle East on many radio and television programs, he has written about current international affairs in “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” the “Jerusalem Report” and “The Globalist.” 

Raised in Israel, where he played basketball for Maccabi Tel Aviv, Ben-Atar came to the U.S. to study and play basketball at Brandeis University. He has coached soccer and basketball at Ezra Academy in Woodbridge, and chaired Talmud Torah Meyuchad of the New Haven Department of Jewish Education. He serves on the Anti-DefamationLeague’s civil rights committee and is a founding member of the board of the new Jewish High School of Connecticut.

The Ledger spoke with Ben-Atar as he was preparing to leave for the nation’s capital for the premiere of “Peace Warriors.”

Q: What is “Peace Warriors” about?

A: “Peace Warriors” is a dramatic exploration of the fashion of taking anti-Israel positions among the American intellectual elite. A visit from an old family friend sparks rivalries and hidden affairs, as four academics and one teenage girl flaunt their peace activism. Family conflicts spin out of control, while the characters argue war and peace in the Middle East, and in the bedroom.

Q: You are an Israeli American and a professor of American history. What inspired you to write this play? 

A: I wrote “Peace Warriors” because we are living through a worrisome dramatic rise in global antisemitism. Leading the charge is the intellectual elite who are demonizing Israel and de-legitimizing its existence. College classes on the history and politics of the Middle East teach students that Israel is the new Nazi state, and that terrorism against Jewish targets in Israel and around the globe is a justifiable anti-colonial act of resistance. Jewish students and professors who dare to question these positions face an intimidating and corrosive hostile atmosphere. Israeli academics are subject to boycotts and harassment. And the movement to divest university endowments from companies that do business with Israel is rapidly gaining strength.

The actual event which inspired the play sounds made up, but it is sadly true. My family and I live in New Haven and are active members of the Jewish community. We got a call a few years ago from our friend, the Yale Hillel director, telling us that a troupe of co-existence actresses were coming to perform at Yale; he asked us if they could stay at our place. The group was supposed to consist of an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian – co-existence activists – a driver, and a tech person. We found out that the Palestinian wasn’t really a Palestinian but an Israeli Arab who lived inside of Israel, and the Arab refused to stay at our house because she hated the Israeli activist and could not bear to be in the same house with her!

Various organizations and individuals invest a great deal of money and energy in co-existence. But all too often taking part in these projects involve Jewish self-abnegation. My camp, the peace camp in Israel, has been devastated electorally in recent contests because its activities are characterized by denial of Israel’s claim — we lost our credibility with our own public because we seem to see only the other side. I haven’t altered my convictions. I hate the occupation and believe it has had a brutalizing effect on Arabs and Jews. I never supported the settlement policy, but the conversation about this subject is reduced to a vile shrill. Settlers are the most demonized group in the world. Not to acknowledge their humanity and the life they live — that they live under constant threat — is not fair. Many in the peace camp don’t actually know a single settler. They know more Palestinians. But they imagine settlers as beastly violent fascist fanatics.

Q: Why do you write plays?

A: I am a historian by trade. Playwriting allows me to take part in age-oldJewish conversations. In drama I explore the three major Jewish questions of our time: the memory and persecution of the Holocaust, the place of Israel in contemporary Jewish life, and Jewish continuity. My first play, “Behave Yourself Quietly” considers the meaning of the memory of the Holocaust. “Peace Warriors” explores how Zionism and Israel have become such demonized entities. My next play is set at an old age home and looks at the question of “who are the real children?”

Q: The press materials for the play report, “All the inflammatory statements about Israel that are uttered in the play are actual quotes of statements uttered by the leading anti-Israel crusaders of our time. However, some anti-Israel statements by prominent intellectuals were so harsh that readers said they would not be believable on stage.” Can you explain? 

A: It is true. Some of the real quotes that have been said were deemed so offensive by earlier readers of the script that they urged me to tone them down because they would not be believable on stage! My play examines the celebrated anti-Zionist Jew – those who claim to be better than the rest of us because they make a career out of uttering hateful, demonizing remarks against Israel. I’ll give you an example. In the original script, I copied a real petition and wrote, “The students… oppose the existence of the apartheid colonial settler state of Israel, as it is based on the racist ideology of Zionism and is an expression of colonialism and imperialism. We unconditionally support Palestinians’ human right to resist occupation and oppression by any means necessary in all the territory of historic Palestine.” The revised text now reads, “We… oppose the apartheid policies of the rogue state of Israel and reject the racist ideology of Zionism that led to the dispossession of millions. We sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians. . .”

Q: How did you go about getting your play produced?

A: The process of getting a play to the stage is as follows. You send it around to different places that you find in the Dramatists’ Sourcebook. Most places get hundreds of scripts and they really don’t have the time or resources to give the scripts a fair look. It is very rare for a theater company to take a risk and produce a new play by someone who is not well-established. I was fortunate. I sent “Peace Warriors” to Blue Line Arts, Inc., a group run by three brilliant men, that does festivals, like the well-known Edinburgh Festival, and they liked it and decided to stage it in American festivals this summer.

Q: Your first play incorporated laughter into a story about genocide. Does “Peace Warriors” involve similar in-your-face humor?

A: Absolutely. I am an iconoclast and the play is a comedy. I think laughter allows us to deal with complex issues in greater depth. That is what I tried to do in “Behave Yourself Quietly,” and this is what I hope to achieve with “Peace Warriors.”

Howard Blas is a freelance writer from New Haven.

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NEW HAVEN — Dr. Ruth Westheimer shared her experience as part of the Holocaust’s Kindertransport at “Orphans of the Holocaust,” the opening event of the Yom Hashoah-HolocaustRemembrance Day commemoration at Yale University’s Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life. Westheimer is co-teaching a course on “The Family and the Jewish Tradition” at Yale this semester with the university’s Jewish chaplain, Rabbi James Ponet.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer was born in 1928 in Frankfurt, an only child in a lower middle class Orthodox family. When her father was taken by the Nazis, her mother and grandmother thought it would be safest for her to be evacuated from Germany.

“They closed the Samson Raphael Hirsch Orthodox school, and I was told I had to join a group of children going to Switzerland or my father couldn’t return.” Wertheimer boarded the kindertransport to Heiden, Switzerland on Jan. 5, 1939. She waved to her mother for what would be the last time.

In Switzerland, Westheimer, then only ten years old, lived in a children’s home overlooking Lake Constance. “We could see Germany,” she recalls. She was enrolled in vocational training, where she learned to care for Swiss children (bathing them, doing their laundry and cleaning their toilets). Westheimer wasn’t permitted to attend school, though she had dreamed of studying medicine. She communicated with her parents and hoped she would see them again. The letters stopped suddenly in September of 1941; she later learned that her parents had been taken to the Lodz Ghetto, where her father was a cemetery gardener, and most likely killed in Auschwitz.

At the conclusion of the war, Westheimer was 17 years old. She decided to go to Palestine, where she lived on a kibbutz picking olives and tomatoes. She also served in the Haganah, a precursor to the Israel Defense Forces, where she became a sharpshooter. She was badly injured on her twentieth birthday, while doing guard duty; an Arab shell exploded at her feet. Luckily, she recovered and was able to walk.

Westheimer moved to France in 1950. Eventually, she resettled in New York, and received a doctorate in education from Teachers College of Columbia University. Affectionately known as “Dr. Ruth,” Westheimer is best known for her radio program, “Sexually Speaking,” which began in Sept. 1980. Westheimer spoke movingly of her parents and grandparents and of the importance of early childhood socialization. She spoke of how the orphans “created a community to have a family again,” and of how “many boys and girls went in to the helping professions.”

Sharing the stage with Westheimer at the Holocaust commemoration was a local Kindertransport survivor, Irm (Irmgard) Wessel. A social worker, Wessel is a long-time resident of New Haven and a member of Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodbridge. During the war, she was sent to England from her home in Kassel, Germany. Unlike Westheimer, Wessel was eventually reunited with her parents in America.

Describing her family as “German first and Jewish second,” Wessel said her businessman father, the vice president of a steel factory, held positions of importance in the synagogue and in the Jewish community. His position of importance, and his role as a mediator between the Jews and the Nazis would prove useful in getting Irm on the Kindertransport to England.

The audience listened intently as Wessel shared the details of her story, including the actual date of Krystallnacht. While most histories report Krystallnacht to have taken place in Germany on Nov. 9 and 10, Wessel notes, “The Nazis practiced in Kassel on Nov. 7, 1938.”

Kessel also spoke about being forced to add the name “Sarah” to her name (all girls were forced to add “Sarah” and males, “Israel”), seeing her father cry for the first time, the train ride to England, and life in her English foster home.

Upon arriving in New York at age 14, Kessel was forced to throw her stamp collection overboard as she was told she could not enter the U.S. with “anything of value.” Following her reunification with her parents and resettling in Iowa and later Illinois (partially assisted by the American Friends/Quakers), Wessel eventually settled in Connecticut where she is a member of the therapeutic community, and an activist.

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Israeli students are more preoccupied than American students, says visiting Wesleyan prof.

MIDDLETOWN — Ori Sivan is the head writer and co-creator of “BeTipul” – “In Treatment” – an award winning, five-night a week Israeli television program about therapist Reuven Dagan, his patients, and his own therapy. “In Treatment” has been adapted by HBO, which has won several Emmy Awards for the series. Sivan is a long-time friend of Ari Folman, creator of “Waltz With Bashir,” an animated film about memories of the war in Lebanon which was nominated for an Academy Award. In the film, Sivan is the voice of himself, an Israeli filmmaker. Sivan and Folman collaborated on the Israeli films “Sha’anan Si” and “Saint Clara.”

Sivan is currently a visiting professor in the Jewish and Israeli studies program at Wesleyan University, where he teaches the course “Israel In Therapy: Society Under the Influence of TV.”

Wesleyan University will feature Sivan as part of its “Israel in Shorts” series. On Thursday, April 23, Wesleyan screened episodes from the first season of “BeTipul.” On Thursday, April 30 at 8pm, the university will screen episodes from the second season of “BeTipul.” Each screening is followed by a discussion with Sivan.

The Ledger spoke with Ori Sivan recently about Israeli television and his experience at Wesleyan.

Q: Tell us about your work at Wesleyan this semester.

A: Wesleyan is so quiet and peaceful. It is like a retreat. I am able to concentrate better here. I don’t have a car or a cell phone. I am able to read, write, think, walk and look around. And people have been so nice. This semester, I am teaching a course, “Israel In Therapy: Society Under the Influence of TV.” We look deep into the characters of “BeTipul” – “In Treatment” – and we research a different character each week. During the Monday class, we “meet the character” and explore what the patient feels and what therapist, Reuven Dagan (played by Assi Dayan), feels about him or her. In Wednesday’s class, we look into the drama and the psychology and try to figure out “what’s Israeli” about each character. The students also read screenplays and articles, including academic writing by Israeli psychology professors about the series.

Forty students from all departments take the class – we have creative writing students, as well as psychology, religion, film, and history majors.

Q: You arrived just prior to Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. There has been much reported about anti-Israel feelings on campuses both in the United States and Europe. It has been particularly difficult for Israeli professors. What has your experience been?

A: I have not experienced any bad or negative reactions at all. I have only experienced good feelings toward my being here. Everyone I meet at Wesleyan is friendly. Dalit Katz, a colleague in the religion department and my host, has been kind and friendly. Professor Jeremy Zwelling, the department chairman, has been helpful in every way. And I have enjoyed spending time at Hillel on Friday nights. They have invited my family and me to join them for seder.

Q: Tell us about your various jobs and projects in Israel.

A: I am an octopus! I am more distracted in Israel. And everything moves fast. I teach, write and direct – and I have a wife and five children. I teach film and screenwriting at Sapir College in Sderot. I am the head writer and co-creator of “BeTipul.” I am currently working on a six-episode epic about kibbutzim. I recently co-wrote a TV series about Beit Chabad in Katmandu, Nepal, which was on Israel’s Channel 2. It is a fictional series that follows the life of Chabad emissaries in Nepal.

Q: How are American students similar to and different from your Israeli students?

A: For Israeli students, there is so much interference; there is so much on their minds and they are tense. At Sapir, we often have to leave the classroom once or twice a class and go to shelters due to bombings from Gaza. Even in peace times, Israeli students have a lot on their minds. For that reason, I let them keep their cell phones on in class and even take calls. My only rule is that, if they are on the phone, I direct the other students to listen to the conversation, since it is a screenwriting class and students have to become attuned to dialogue.

The students here are more concentrated on what’s happening in the class than are my Israeli students. The students are very respectful; when they call for “Professor Sivan,” I think they are calling my father, who is a professor at the Technion. On the other hand, they can be quite informal. I tell them to call me “Ori.” They often come to speak with me during office hours. They are much quieter in class than are my Israeli students.

Q: Tell us about “BeTipul.” Aren’t Israelis generally reluctant to discuss issues of therapy / treatment? What has been the reaction to the show in the general and therapeutic communities in Israel? 

A: BeTipul is a five night a week show in Israel. Four episodes focus on the therapy sessions of ten of therapist Reuven Dagan’s patients. The fifth episode focuses on Dagan’s therapy sessions with his own therapist. Season one won many Israeli Academy Awards for a drama series. The show was adapted by HBO, which has thus far produced 78 episodes. A new season started on April 5. This is so interesting, given the slow start for other therapy shows.

In 1996 or ‘97, there was a series in Israel called “Florentine.” The star, Ayelet Zurer (one of the patients on BeTipul), had ten minutes of therapy in each session of this wonderful series, but Israelis were not ready to see people exposing themselves in this way. Therapy was always a taboo and people would never talk openly about going to therapy. Now, in the last seven or eight years, Israelis are more open and willing to share. I’m not sure why this has changed, but the curtain has opened.

Hagai Levy, the creator of BeTipul, studied film with me and Ari Folman. My parents read the play and said it will never work; it will never be good enough or accurate enough. My father said, “The therapist is anemic and a coward.” He told us, “A good therapist isn’t afraid to express what he hears and understands.” We wrote his words in big letters and posted it in our office for inspiration. My father was right, and his comments lead us to rework the scripts.

The response to “BeTipul” in Israel has been fantastic. BeTipul became the first Israeli show exported to the U.S. Someone from HBO told us, “It is so American – we should have thought of it first.” It was a very good fit for American TV and American audiences. The show has been adapted by HBO and is now in its second season.

Q: Do you have special training in psychology or therapy?

A: I am not a therapist and do not have formal training in psychology. My mother is a clinical psychologist and her clinic was next to our house. I have memories of my sister and me looking out the window and watching the ‘crazies’ go into her office. As we got older, we realized they were just normal people who needed care. My father is a professor of electrical engineering. He decided to get a second degree in psychology, and he practiced psychology for ten years. All of my parents’ friends growing up were therapists and our house was always filled with therapists. It is not easy to grow up with parents who are psychologists. You feel they know too much and I felt transparent. There was always a psychological tone in our house. I think that being a screenwriter is not so different from being a psychologist.

Q: You were the voice of yourself in “Waltz With Bashir,” recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film Tell us about your relationship with its creator and director Ari Folman?

A: Ari Folman and I are both from Haifa. There was only one place to go to see quality movies in Haifa when we were kids and that was the Cinemateque. As teens, we were always hanging out on the high stairs of the Cinemateque, and we became friends. We then each served separately in the army and traveled to different places after the army. We met in film school in Tel Aviv and did two films together. We have been best friends for 25 years.

We are very different people but we are a very good match. We have more or less the same understanding of cinema. We usually have the same vision of how to tell a story, but we argue a lot. It is okay to argue. How do we decide who is “right?” Whoever is more insistent usually gets his way!

The screening of the “BeTipul” will be held in the Goldsmith Family Cinema on the Wesleyan campus in Middletown. Admission is free. For more information, call 860-685-2288.

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NEW HAVEN — Dr. Baruch J. Schwartz, native of Philadelphia and long-timeresident of Efrat, Israel, is spending the academic year at Yale University as the Jacob Perlow Visiting Associate Professor in Judaic Studies. In the fall semester, Schwartz taught a seminar entitled “Worship in Ancient Israel;” in the spring semester, he taught a course on the Biblical book of Ezekiel.

Schwartz is the A.M. Shlansky Senior Lecturer in Biblical History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has lectured extensively throughout the world, serving as visiting professor at such institutions as Tel Aviv University, the Schechter Institute, Ben Gurion University, the University of Sydney, Australia, St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, the University of California at Davis, and Harvard Divinity School.

Recently, the Ledger spoke with Schwartz about his work as a Biblical scholar and at Yale.

Q: What is the “job” of a Biblical scholar? How does a Biblical scholar approach the Bible?

A: Biblical scholarship is the academic study of Biblical literature in its original meaning, context and form. Scholars study the ancient world, including language, literature, concepts and religion. This method of studying the Bible can be seen as an outgrowth of the method used by such great medieval commentators as Samuel ben Meir (Rashi’s grandson) and other members of the “peshat-school” in the twelfth century. What is different is that we have more and better tools than they had. For example, we have real knowledge of the history of the period and of the ancient Semitic languages, and we have a more developed sense of how the solution to some of the tough problems of interpretation may actually be in the history of the text: its transmission, its composition, or both. The medieval commentators seldom dreamed of these possibilities.

Q: Is this approach to the Bible ever at odds with your belief and practice as an Orthodox Jew?

A: Personally, I have arrived at the conclusion that there is no contradiction whatsoever between fidelity to the critical method of studying the Bible and commitment to Jewish belief and practice. But to go into this in detail here would be impossible. I have actually taught a whole course on this issue; it is complex and fascinating. One thing to keep in mind is that the critical method was actually discovered and developed, for the most part, by pious, believing people, who simply wanted to study the Biblical text on its own terms and in its own context. They didn’t at all come from an antagonistic motivation, but rather from a pious one.

Q: What are your main areas of academic interest?

A: I am interested in the Biblical book of Leviticus, especially in the literary, ritual and legal aspects of the book – and in the rest of what scholars refer to as the “Priestly” writings. I am also interested in the composition of the Torah, namely, the question of how it was put together from its component parts. Two of my sidelines are the book of Ezekiel, which I am teaching this semester at Yale, and certain aspects of medieval commentaries.

Q: In what ways are students at American universities similar to and different from your students in Israel?

A: Students in Israel are always older, busier, and more pressured. They have to do army reserve duty; they often have to work; and they experience financial pressures. American students tend to have more time, more funding and better study habits, but in Jewish Studies, Israelis have it over the Americans because they have the language skills and the text ‘talks’ to them. They have more fluency with the material as they have been studying it their whole lives. Both students can be incisive and critical, which is a good thing.

Q: How have you spent your year in New Haven?

A: I taught two courses at Yale and delivered several lectures there. I regularly attend the Westville Synagogue, and I delivered a lecture there as part of the Westville University adult education series. I have also served as scholar in residence at several synagogues and Jewish institutions around the country. But most of my time has been devoted to teaching, lecturing and research.

Q: Is your family here with you? What do they do in Israel?

A: They are not. Fortunately, however, I was home in Israel for two weeks in December during intercession, and they are joining me here for Pesach. My younger son, Shlomo, is in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), serving in the Givati Brigade special forces; he was involved in the fighting in Gaza during my visit home this winter. My wife Sema works in the office of a tax accountant; my older son, Moki, is a tour guide and student at the Hebrew University; his wife Rachel Dweck teaches in a school near Jerusalem, and my daughter, (also) Rachel, is an aspiring documentary film editor in Jerusalem.

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