War of words takes Jewish theater world by storm

War of words takes Jewish theater world by storm

Support for Ari Roth (above) has been widespread, with many in the art community coming to his defense. (Photo provided)
Support for Ari Roth (above) has been widespread, with many in the art community coming to his defense. (Photo provided)

WASHINGTON — A growing chorus of arts professionals are speaking out on behalf of Ari Roth, the celebrated artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Theater J who was fired last month by his employer, the D.C. Jewish Community Center, for insubordination. His supporters are blaming his dismissal on a clash of artistic vision and censorship.

Thirty-four artists — including actor Theodore Bikel and playwright Eve Ensler — signed an open letter to the JCC “strongly” protesting Roth’s firing.

Roth’s programming choices proved controversial. Last year, a scheduled play about a fictional massacre of Palestinians by Israelis, Motti Lerner’s “The Admission,” sparked protests and put pressure on the DCJCC, which runs Theater J. More recently, the JCC canceled the theater’s annual Voices From a Changing Middle East series, which often challenged long-held views of Israel.

“We are outraged by the continuing censorship being imposed by the current DCJCC leadership on Theater J, internationally known as one of the most important American Jewish cultural institutions of our time,” the artists said in their letter.

In a separate letter, 61 artistic directors representing theater companies throughout the United States also denounced Roth’s firing, blaming the decision on artistic censorship.

In the wake of these protests, Roth’s former boss came out with a more detailed statement on why Roth was fired.

“Ari Roth’s dismissal related to a pattern of insubordination, unprofessionalism and actions that no employer would ever sanction,” said Carole Zawatsky, CEO of the DCJCC, which provides funding for Theater J.

“Ari Roth was not fired because of his politics or because of outside pressure,” Zawatsky wrote in a statement addressed to members of the Israeli arts community. “Despite clear and written warnings about this insubordinate behavior, Ari continued to disregard direction from the JCC management.”

Zawatsky’s statements were corroborated by two former board members of the DCJCC.

“I feel terrible for Carole, who was patient way longer than anyone else would have been — and yet Roth skewered her in the media as if she is against artistic freedom. She is for freedom,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbilityUSA.

It’s important to remember that Theater J is “the stage of the community, not just one individual’s set of political views,” Mizrahi said.

Earlier in December, Roth spoke about the cancellation of the Changing Middle East series to a group of colleagues at the conference of the International Association for Jewish Theatre in a performance space at Georgetown University.

In a panel discussion titled “Difficult Themed Theatre,” Roth said he wanted to produce a play about Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Gaza doctor who worked in Israel and whose three children died during the 2009 war with Hamas.

He said the title of a play, “I Shall Not Hate,” which was produced in Israel, “became a red flag” to the JCC’s brass.

Roth said Zawatsky told him the play “would not be a conversation starter. The title tipped the decision-making process.”

Zawatsky then canceled the series, he said.

“This fabulous JCC is in a profound identity crisis,” he told his fellow Jewish theater directors at the conference. “I held up a mirror to this crisis and tried to work toward some kind of catharsis.”

Joshua Bernstein, who was involved with Theater J while he served on the board of the DCJCC for eight years and is currently a member of the executive committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, called it disheartening to hear how Zawatsky and the DCJCC are being painted in the media.

“The narrative that is out there does not match [reality],” he said. “Carole went to great lengths to support Ari,” he said, adding that Zawatsky stood up for both Roth and the arts during many clashes with the board and the community.

“[Roth] is a great artist, but that doesn’t make him a great employee,” Bernstein said. “He was not interested in the goals of the organization. He was interested in his own goals, and that was evident for 15 years.”

There was always tension between Roth and the JCC, he said.

Bernstein stressed that Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA), a small group of D.C.-area residents who have petitioned, picketed and taken out advertising decrying the JCC’s financial support of what they considered anti-Israel plays, did not play a role in Roth’s firing.

If anything, he said, COPMA “probably gave him job security” as the JCC didn’t want to be seen as caving in to outside pressure.

According to Zawatsky, the JCC offered Roth an amicable separation agreement with six months’ severance pay as well as a press statement praising his work.

The earlier clash over “The Admission,” about the legacy of a fictional massacre of Palestinians, was carried out in public by a group that thought the play was harmful to Israel. COPMA pressured the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which contributes funding to the DCJCC, to end its support for Theater J.

The campaign failed, but the pressure was enough to force Theater J to scale back the production and reduce the number of performances in its March run.

In September, Roth wrote to Theater J’s executive committee: “Increasingly, Theater J is being kept from programming as freely, as fiercely and expressing itself as fully as it needs. We find the culture of open discourse and dissent within our Jewish Community Center to be evaporating.”

A search for a new artistic director is underway.

In a Dec. 25 letter, the Institute of Israeli Drama expressed its “fervent hope” that Roth’s successor will continue to promote Israeli drama by including works from both established and new Israeli artists.

“Israeli theater encourages freedom of expression, enables pluralism and open dialogue, which frequently includes plunging our fingers into open wounds in the knowledge that this [is] one of the strengths of a democratic society,” wrote Shimrit Rot, the institute’s director.

Suzanne Pollak is a senior writer for Washington Jewish Week. Geoffrey W. Melada and David Holzel contributed to this article.