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Why I wrote a play charting Israel’s violent birth

Playwright Brian Rotman reflects on the background to his new play tracing the origins of the state of Israel

July 17, 2015
7 min read

The cast of A Land Without People. Photo: Andrew Bailey

In August 2014, I returned to London after living in the United States for many years. I arrived at the height of Israel’s 50-day bombardment of Gaza. Conflicting public reactions by Jews and non-Jews alike dominated the news. Appalled denunciations of Israel’s murderously excessive force were met by no less passionate arguments for Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas rockets, coupled to accusations that such criticisms of Israel were essentially anti-semitic. Since my response was that of the critics, I resented the accusation as a smear designed to muzzle anybody who dared oppose Israel’s policies.

On top of this, the Tricycle, a much-loved north London theatre, was under attack. On the point of hosting the Jewish Film Festival for the ninth year, the management had understandable qualms when it transpired that the Israeli embassy had contributed funds. Attempting to resolve the matter, the theatre offered to replace the embassy contribution. Immediately, the Board of Deputies of British Jews accused the Tricycle of anti-semitism, encouraged the theatre’s funders to withdraw support and co-opted the compliant Tory culture secretary to join the attack, ultimately forcing the theatre to publicly back down.

Though deeply disturbed by the onslaught on Gaza I saw little point in adding my two bits to the plethora of denunciations of Israel’s actions. I instead decided to write a play, not about its contemporary actions but about the origin of the Israeli state itself. The result, A Land Without People, was staged in London in July.

The origins of Israel

Researching the history, I soon learned how much of Israel’s emergence was a British story. Having taken possession of the land of Palestine from Ottoman Turkey in the first world war, Britain’s occupation was ratified by the League of Nations, which gave it a mandate to govern the country so as to bring its (mainly Arab) inhabitants to a state of self-governance and also to fulfill its promise – the Balfour declaration – to provide a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine.

The double task proved impossible. In 1947, depleted by war, its empire crumbling, attempting to hold the country against murderous Zionist gangs determined to kick it out of the land promised the Jews by God, and subject to US pressure to let hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees into the country, Britain washed its hands of the whole business and handed the mandate over to the United Nations.

The British were simply no match for Zionism’s relentless, ferociously single-minded determination to claim the holy land as its own. In the US, Zionism operated on two fronts. Behind the scenes a powerfully persistent lobbying of the state department had its desired effect in getting President Truman to support the cause of a Jewish state. Matching this was a very public campaign by American Jews, most notably by Ben Hecht, the ‘Shakespeare of Hollywood’, who wrote a Broadway play openly raising money for the Zionist ‘fighters for Jewish freedom’ to kill British soldiers, break the British blockade of immigrant ships and reclaim for the Jews their ancient land.

At the same time, the United Nations Commission was intensively lobbied and recommended Palestine be partitioned into Jewish and Arab regions. The Arabs, whose population was twice that of the Jews but were offered less than half the land, refused. The Jews leapt on the deal and began clearing the Arabs from the territory assigned to them. The British, still under attack by Zionist gangs and concerned to safely evacuate their forces by their departure date, did not interfere.

The Arab powers surrounding Palestine responded by planning an invasion of the newly declared Jewish state the day the British departed. However, King Abdullah of Jordan, the closest and militarily the most powerful of the Arab neighbours, had a few months earlier entered a secret mutual non-aggression pact with the Zionists, and this seemed now in danger. A desperate last-minute expedition was called for. Golda Meir, swathed in the traditional garb of an Arab woman and accompanied by spymaster and Arab intelligence chief Ezra Danin, travelled through Trans-Jordan to Amman to seek assurance from Abdullah that the pact still stood.

An arena for the dead

A Land Without People stages events that took place over the period 1939-48 involving over 20 characters, 17 of whom are named historical figures. The principal ones are Chaim Weizmann, tireless international advocate for a Jewish state in Palestine; David Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish Agency, who created the state on the ground; and Ernest Bevin, British foreign secretary responsible for Palestine after the war. Other figures include Malcolm Macdonald, Britain’s pre-war secretary of state for the colonies, and Khalil al-Sakakani, an Arab-speaking Christian intellectual who supported the cause of Arab awakening and independence.

Where possible, the speeches are verbatim, taken from newspaper articles, interviews and other sources. One scene, for example, is a condensed two-day parliamentary debate in which Churchill argues powerfully for the Zionist cause.

The play is episodic, a montage of historical moments creating a puzzle that we need to work through as spectators. The director, Lesley Ferris, has chosen to stage the production in the round, with audience members on all sides and actors visible at all times. This creates a sense of intimacy and forces the audience to bear close and inescapable witness to these historical events, thus becoming part of the story. 

During the writing of the play I suppressed the feeling that charting these long-past events surely had little relevance to the Israeli attack on Gaza that prompted it. Whether that’s so remains to be seen – after all, theatre can be a powerful arena for the dead – but one thing is clear: the violence and racism behind the Zionist expulsion of some 700,000 Palestinians from their land 67 years ago is still there, undeniably present and active within contemporary Israel society.

A Land Without People is at London’s Courtyard Theatre until 1 August.

Making history present

Palindrome Productions, the company producing A Land Without People, sets out to re-examine and engage with historical moments through theatre. Their summer season (7 July-1 August) premieres four other overtly political and timely works. As with as A Land Without People, 24 Hours of #Ferguson traces actual events to highlight pressing issues of racial prejudice, while Dancers explores questions of ageing and memory. Hector tells the story of the 1976 Soweto uprising and the staged reading Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles? retrieves a slice of 1960s British history.

Each play reflects the Palindrome mission: ‘We are interested in the double nature of theatre: the ability of the contemporary stage to make present histories that have been mislaid, erased or lost over time. Our aim is to solicit and produce works that project the past into the future.’

The company was born in summer 2014. Mother-daughter team Lesley Ferris (artistic director) and Phoebe Ferris-Rotman (producer) had long ruminated on starting a theatre company together, drawing on their extensive experience of the London theatre scene. Their debut production, The First Actress by Christopher St. John (Christabel Marshall), served as a touchstone for their theatrical vision. 

First produced in 1911 as part of the Pioneer Players’ inaugural London season, The First Actress realised women’s links to their past through the resurrection of female figures, namely actresses from British theatre history. The forward-looking work compounded the argument for women’s suffrage with the history of women on the stage. This revival of a century-old feminist play epitomised Palindrome’s vision for producing artistic, historical and politically meaningful work – an endeavour borne out in their upcoming roster of challenging, important work.

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