Israel, Unsettled: A fringe play is set in a future with no Jewish state

January 21, 2014
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Since the Arab Spring, an unsettledness has appeared on the global stage. And on a stage in Tel Aviv, Yael Tal’s play, A Donkey Eating an Orange, observes the particular idiosyncrasies of contemporary Israeli unsettledness. An original fringe play, the story offers the complicated reminiscences of an elderly Israeli woman. Her recollections are being told from some time in the future in which the State of Israel no longer exists.

Tal wittily examines Israel’s apocalyptic national narrative, which embeds the present between two catastrophes — the Holocaust and the imagined nightmare of Israel’s extinction. The play rests on a difficult moment in Israel: the rise of right-wing political parties, such as Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel, Our Home) and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit haYehudi (the Jewish Home), growing unemployment, bankruptcy, and a widening gap between the wealthy and the poor; all this in addition to the plight of Palestinians and African refugees.

A familiar scene frames the story: the old woman shares her memories with her granddaughter. The memories follow a well-known trajectory: Life is fine, then it deteriorates, and then a newly elected authority comes to power. The scenes that follow depict the way Israeli national identity is constructed through the use of both a deeply held collective memory of Jewish trauma and the ceremonial and militant responses to it. The Holocaust is constantly evoked, under the (un)spoken assumption that Israel’s military is the only thing standing between this historical catastrophe and its future reoccurrence.

The play does not exaggerate. Rather, it graphically reminds the audience of the lessons we all learned in school, where soldiers killed in action are remembered and glorified, and the prospect of becoming a soldier is idealized.  For instance, in one scene, a boy sings a song commemorating the 1967 War: “Perhaps we were lions/But whoever wanted still to live/Should not have been/On Ammunition Hill.”

The obsessive conscious preoccupation with the Holocaust among Israelis often creates an unconscious preoccupation with the possibility of an impending Holocaust in the future. Israeli schools bring their eleventh-grade classes to Poland to visit concentration and extermination camps. To what end?

As the old woman concludes her own story in the play, she returns to the pattern and language of a Holocaust testimony. “I am not sure if they started to burn people,” she reflects, now sitting behind a tank that dominates the stage, “or if individuals started to set themselves on fire voluntarily.” While the beginning of the sentence evokes the first catastrophe, its ending points to the contemporary Israeli context in which numerous people recently burned themselves to death out of financial misery and desperation. “I am also not sure whether large numbers of people embarked upon ships and escaped,” she says at the end, “or did people just leave one by one to take ballet lessons in Berlin?” Again, while the beginning of the sentence seems to describe the 1930s, its ending refers to the recent phenomenon of Israelis immigrating to Berlin. The play emphasizes both the structural similarities between that past and the present (the rise of racism and right-wing extremism), and the ironic inversion of the past (Jews now escaping not from, but to Berlin).

The contemporary emigration to Berlin is an ironic and disheartening expression of Israeli unsettledness. Tal’s play raises a crucial question: What price does Israeli society pay for its unsettled, apocalyptic state of mind?

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