A play no theater will play
`WITHOUT any undue humility, I'm saying this [play] is the most lethal attack on Zionism ever written, because it touches at the heart of the greatest abiding myth of modern history, the Holocaust, the [fact] being ... that privileged Jewish leaders collaborated in the extermination of their own kind in order to help bring about a Zionist state, Israel, a state which is itself racist.'' So speaks British playwright Jim Allen.
``It is a complete travesty of the facts,'' says Oxford historian Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill's official biographer and widely recognized specialist on the Holocaust.
At issue is Mr. Allen's latest work, ``Perdition,'' which this month was poised for its premi`ere at London's most illustrious fringe theater, the Royal Court. Just 24 hours before opening to a sold-out house, ``Perdition'' was canceled. This is the first time, in the history of what is considered the city's most daring playhouse, that a production has ever been so summarily pulled. The move has made ``Perdition'' the most talked-about yet-to-be-staged play in the history of modern British theater.
The play first came to public attention in an article in Britain's Guardian newspaper a week prior to the show's opening. According to the Guardian, the script explicitly stated that Hungarian Zionists in 1944 helped the Nazis to ship 800,000 fellow Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz. The play alleges that an arrangement was entered into by a group of Zionists in the hope that they, in return, would be allowed to flee to safety in nearby neutral Switzerland; the implication is that these Zionist leaders felt that saving those who would help form a Jewish state in Palestine was far more important than saving the lives of their non-Zionist brethern.
But ``Perdition'' goes even further.
It alleges that Zionist leaders believed ``the spilling of Jewish blood'' at the hands of the Nazis was necessary. The reasoning behind this was to provide moral grounds on which to later convince the world that a Jewish state in Palestine was justified. As one line in the play puts it: ``Israel was founded on the pillars of Western guilt and American dollars.'' Or, more graphically still: ``Israel was coined in the blood of Hungarian Jewry.''
``Perdition'' takes the form of a fictional trial set in England immediately after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. While much is changed, the play is based on an controversial libel case that was heard in Jerusalem in 1955 - the so-called ``Kastner case,'' which led to the breakup of a coalition government that year. A prominent Israeli Labor politician, Rudolf Kastner, was suing an extreme right-winger, Malkiel Greenwald, for statements he had published claiming that Dr. Kastner, the head of the Jewish Rescue Committee in Budapest in 1944, had struck a deal with Adolf Eichmann, the notorious mastermind of Nazi Germany's attempt to exterminate the Jews. Rather than raising an alert, Mr. Greenwald alleged, Kastner kept quiet about the impending fate of hundreds of thousands of his fellow Hungarian Jews, thus ensuring that a group of some 1,600 Zionists, whom Allen refers to in his play, could escape via the Bergen-Belstsen concentration camp to Switzerland.
The trial - in which the president of the Jerusalem District Court ruled that Kastner ``had dealt with the devil'' - ended with Greenwald being acquitted on 2 out of 3 of the libel charges. For the third charge he was fined a trifling sum, further humiliating Kastner and seeming to lend more credence to the allegations.
Allen says the outcome of the trial and other evidence convinced him that the role of the Zionist leaders during the Holocaust must be reappraised. A Marxist, he claims that ``the lower you went down on the social scale, the more you found resistance; but the higher you went up the social scale, the more you found cooperation and collaboration [with Nazis].''
Allen - who was a miner, dock worker, and general laborer before becoming a playwright - left school at 14 to work in a factory. A self-taught scholar, he is quick to insist neither he nor ``Perdition'' can be branded anti-Semitic. His interpretation of history, he says, is based on ``no less than 26 books.''
He argues that he can hardly be considered to be ``anti-Semitic'' when he is in fact an ardent anti-Fascist. ``My record as anti-Fascist goes beyond writing letters to the Guardian. When I was a docker and a miner we just stopped them ... when the scum turned out and where (sic) I was on the anti-Fascist committee, the streets ran with blood and skin.''
So why was ``Perdition'' canceled?
Allen is convinced it was due to what he terms ``the Zionist machine.'' No theater in London, he believes, (nor in Dublin where he has subsequently tried to mount it) will touch the play. ``The moment any theater expresses an interest, the Zionists move in. There are phone calls; there are threats; there is intimidation.''
Strong words. But there's another side to the story.
``Perdition'' was originally submitted to a theater in Manchester, England more than 18 months ago. The artistic director there initially expressed keen interest, but also reservations. He asked historian Martin Gilbert to assess the play's validity. His response was unequivocal.
``I was appalled by what I read,'' he says. ``The only thing I knew it bore any close relationship to was a very recent Soviet presentation of this period. In fact, at the time I was first reading the play, the Soviet representative to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Igor Yakovlev, was presenting the identical case as an indictment of the state of Israel.
``It is valuable to realize what this is all about. This is not simply some little dispute between two academics. This is something far more disturbing.''
The theater in Manchester took heed of Mr. Gilbert's views and dropped the play.
Some months later, another historian, David Cesarani of London's Queen Mary's College, came to the same conclusions on the behalf of the Royal Court Theatre.
In separate interviews, Gilbert and Dr. Cesarani offer many examples to illustrate their stance. Among the key ones:
The Israeli Supreme Court in 1958 exonerated the late Kastner of collaboration with the Nazis. The earlier trial had been a political one, aimed at disgracing the Labor Party, which was then in power. The judge, like Greenwald and his attorney, had been a strong right-winger. Kastner was later declared an honorable defender of the Jewish people who had put his life in danger to save Jewish lives.
The deal Kastner made with Eichmann was a hoax. Kastner was led to believe he was bargaining for the lives of all Hungarian Jews, not just a select few (who were neither solely Zionist nor chosen by Zionist leaders).
A passage in``Perdition'' reads, ``The Jewish Council in the Skalat ghetto, who, after driving the Jews out of their hiding places, threw a party for the SS. Over 2,000 men, women, and children lay all night in a field next to the railway track listening to the sound of laughter, singing, and music as they waited for the train that would take them to Treblinka.''
This is, in Gilbert's words, a ``cruel parody'' of the facts. According to Gilbert, the SS ordered Skalat's Jewish Council, made up of the town's leading Jewish citizens, to help round up Jews. The council members refused - and all were shot. The SS then declared a second group of Jews to be the council, and ordered them to do a round-up. They too refused; again, all were shot. The SS then picked a third group of Jews and ordered them, on threat of the execution of their families, to help find Jews for deportation. The round-up itself was carried out by the SS and the local Ukrainian militia. Then, the SS - not the Jews - threw a party and forced the ``council'' to attend.
Allen's play cites a quotation from former Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion (prime minister 1948-53 and 1955-63) to further support his thesis. ``If I knew that it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to England,'' said Ben-Gurion in 1938, ``and only half of them by transporting them to Israel, then I would opt for the second alternative. For we must weigh not only the life of these children, but also the history of the people of Israel.''
This, read in its original context, was actually Ben-Gurion's response to the fact that all outside efforts seemed only to be concerned with temporary solutions. He saw no point, he argued, in transporting Jews to a country where they were not wanted, where anti-Semitism would probably arise again, and where they would have to move on once more. But, most important, this was said before the Nazis' ``final solution'' was implemented - when it was still official Nazi policy to force Jews to emigrate, not to kill them. Yet in ``Perdition,'' the place in which the quote appears - shortly after a line that reads ``Jewish people were dying horribly, and Zionist leaders preferred it so, rather than accept resettlement elsewhere'' - gives the impression that the mass murders were already taking place.
And what about the 26 books Allen mentions as his sources?
Cesarani responds with mild amusement. ``My students read more than that in a week. [Allen's sources] are so biased as to have no credibility. People like Lenni Brenner, Hannah Arendt, Noam Chomsky, and Maxine Rodinson are all, in fact, very left-wing and strongly anti-Zionist. Moreover, they are not recognized specialists in this particular field. So to quote these people as sources on such a sensitive subject is just shabby, hack work.''
The play's cancellation is being hotly debated here. Many support the Royal Court's decision; others are up in arms over the ``infringement of artistic freedom'' and chastise the theater for what they see as yielding to ``Zionist pressure.''
Royal Court's artistic director Max Stafford-Clark adamantly insists such pressure did not exist. He says that while there were strong views from some Jewish quarters, there were neither threats nor pressure, either direct or indirect.
As for the question of ``artistic freedom,'' he says it does not apply in this case. ``I have come to the painful understanding that a play which draws on such an agonizing period of history, to make such serious charges, is subject to the ... canons of history and cannot be allowed the license customarily afforded playwrights. It has to account for the facts it excludes - as well as those it presents.''