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Changing the world, one play at a time: Israeli/Palestinian Play Festival at Philadelphia’s Interact Theatre
 
Although Philadelphia is separated from Jerusalem by 9313 kilometers (or 5787 miles), in the city of Brotherly Love feelings still run high among Jewish-Americans on Israeli-Palestinian issues.  The Interact Theatre, under Artistic Director Seth Rozin, which aims to “change the world, one play at a time,”  presented free staged readings of four plays (see below) and a panel discussion as part of the Israeli-Palestinian Theatre Festival, all centered around the world premiere of Larry Loebell’s House, Divided. 
 
While House, Divided received outstanding reviews and large audiences, many in the Philadelphia Jewish Community seem skeptical vis--vis Palestinian-Israeli dialogues. However, no event brought in more people than the reading of My Name is Rachel Corrie, delivered with a wide-range of feelings and a powerful sense of humanity by Philadelphia actress Julianna Zinkel.  Corrie, who acknowledged the suffering of Jewish people, also wrote, “The scariest thing for non-Jewish Americans in talking about Palestinian self-determination is the fear of being or sounding anti-Semitic. [. . . .] but I think it’s important to draw a firm distinction between the policies of Israel as a state and Jewish people.” 
 
Corrie’s story found resonance during the panel discussion, which featured Rosie Greenberg, a young Jewish woman and daughter of a rabbi who went to Israel with Birthright, stayed with an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem for one month, and then lived with a Palestinian family for two months.  As a result of these experiences, she said she felt strengthened in her Jewish heritage; however, like Corrie, she identified with Palestinians and clearly distinguished between Israeli state policies and Jewish people who reach out and search for peaceful solutions. 
 
The reading and the panel prompted a great deal of discussion among panel members and from the audience.  Several older people present told me that they were very skeptical and had heard negative things about the diary of Rachel Corrie.  However, they admitted that they were deeply moved and even cried, but most of all, recognized that there needs to be more dialogue. 
 
Panelist Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer said that Jewish people have been oppressed for over 2000 years and were always the victims, people without any power.  However, since 1948, things have changed dramatically, and Israelis now struggle with a human use of power and force.  She added that these conflicts have fractured Jewish communities, and that even within Jewish families, the rifts can run very deep, well illustrated by Interact’s production of Loebell’s play. 
 
Responding to her comments, one person present compared the treatment of Palestinians to that of Native Americans, who were deprived of their land and their rights.  Another audience member offered a litmus test for learning and understanding, explaining that putting oneself into the position of the other can create a shift in perspective, where dialogue and more creative solutions can evolve.  The Rabbi concluded the panel by encouraging everyone to read Israeli books and newspapers, including Haaretz, and pointed out that while Jewish-Americans often tend to see things in black-and-white terms, many Israelis are significantly more informed and far more flexible.
 
Afterwards, a Jewish attendee wrote to say, “Many of us here spend much time trying to make sense of it all. Tough, heartfelt, eye-opening conversations occur between folks who are willing to not just listen, but really hear. Sometimes it's not very easy -- especially letting go of long held beliefs that can trigger anger, fear, disappointment . . . [But] Much good work around this is being done by the Jewish Dialogue Group and those that support them.”  Clearly, the Interact’s Israeli/Palestinian festival had not only stirred up feelings, but initiated future dialogues by using these plays and issues to generate a process of thought and reflection.  
 

Addendum: 

The following excerpt comes from a letter written by Jane Haskell after she had seen the reading of My Name is Rachel Corrie with Julianna Zinkel at the Interact Theatre on June 7, 2008.  

“I loved the Rachel Corrie reading and wept openly when it was over.  I had heard her story on ‘Democracy Now!’, so knew something about her, and I was so moved, and so touched by the young woman who did the reading.  She was probably just like Rachel, who knows for sure?  I hope that Rachel’s parents have an opportunity to see this reading sometime in the future.

I was moved very personally by the show, and also by the political situation.  While I have great affection for Israel, I do not at all condone the violence that Israel is currently inflicting on the Palestinians.  Jews were persecuted for so long, it seems to me they could understand what it means to others to be persecuted.  But no, the war-mongering goes on and on and it all seems so senseless. 
 
Jean Haskell” 

Below, the full schedule of Interact Theatre Company’s Israeli/Palestinian Play Festival:
June 7-8, 2008
 
Saturday, June 7, 2008
11:00 a.m.: Concert Reading
Dirty Story
written by John Patrick Shanley, directed by Sean Christopher Lewis
From the acclaimed author of Doubt and Moonstruck comes this metaphorical and satirical take on the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian people, as an itinerant young writer moves in with her surly middle-aged mentor only to embark on a truly dysfunctional relationship, abetted by an equally dysfunctional British and American duo.
 
2:00 p.m.: Concert Reading
My Name is Rachel Corrie, Adapted from Rachel Corrie’s personal diary by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner, directed by John Bellomo, featuring Julianna Zinkel
The controversial one-woman play chronicles a young American woman’s observations and insights as she travels to the West Bank to fight for the Palestinian cause and, ultimately, dies at the hands of an Israeli bulldozer while standing in front of a Palestinian home.
 
4:00 p.m.: Symposium
A panel discussion examining different perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Featuring Rosie Greenberg, Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer & Marlena Santoyo of the Jewish Voice for Peace
 
8:00 p.m.: Mainstage Performance
House, Divided, written by Larry Loebell, directed by Seth Rozin
 
Sunday, June 8, 2008
11:00 a.m.: Concert Reading
Reading Hebron, written by Jason Sherman, directed by Seth Reichgott
A Canadian Jew, while struggling with his own religious and cultural identity, becomes obsessed with the Palestinian cause in the wake of the massacre at the mosque in Hebron.
 
2:00 p.m.: Mainstage Performance
House, Divided, written by Larry Loebell, directed by Seth Rozin
 
7:00 p.m.: Concert Reading
Goliath, written by Karen Hartmann, directed by Lisa Jo Epstein
A family of settlers are forced to evacuate their house by a conflicted Israeli army officer, revealing divisions within the Jewish community.