David Hare letter in WORD format (zipped). Click HERE.
Open Letter To
David Hare about his play
I think we have a mutual respect for one another as playwrights without quite warming to each other’s work. No crime in that, but I read that you’re performing ‘Via Dolorosa’ for a second airing, and as it worried me first time round I thought I’d revamp an essay I wrote about it that no one wanted to print. Let me remind you, though, that I wrote admiringly to you about ‘Acting Up’, the book born from your debut as an actor.
I called the essay ‘Troubled Gentiles’ – a syndrome not officially recognised as yet and subdivided into numerous species, and not to be confused with old-fashioned anti-Semites.
The ‘troubled gentile’ is a more interesting and recent phenomenon ranging from the great and honourable who are distressed by a hatred of Jews they find incomprehensible, to the closet anti-Semite whose emotions are confused by the holocaust which, their dislike of Jews notwithstanding, they find abhorrent. It’s a curious syndrome affecting even such as the dauntingly intelligent Germaine Greer who, on hearing me lecture about my play Shylock said, as I came off the platform: “You’ve forgotten a man called Benjamin Netanyahu!” The reflex is Pavlovian. Talk sympathetically about Jews in mixed company and sooner or later someone will ask “What about the Palestinians?”
Which is not to deny that ill treatment of suspected Palestinian terrorists doesn’t occur in that beleaguered state, as ‘The Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories’ testifies constantly in its thoroughly documented publications. I quote from an issue of their quarterly report (October 1998):
|The most disturbing thing about human rights in Israel is neither the scope nor the gravity of the human rights violations themselves. In scores of countries around the world, the human rights record is worse than Israel. What is disturbing and what renders Israel’s abuses unique is the relentless efforts by Israel to legitimise blatantly illegal acts, to justify what cannot be justified.|
Let me state my position. From 1948 on I believed in the justice of a Palestinian state (so did the Israelis which is why they accepted the UN’s partitioning of the land which the Arabs did not), and have often declared my views to Jewish audiences attracting profound hostility. On the 5th February 1989 at the Hampstead Town Hall shortly after Arafat announced his preparedness to recognise the state of Israel (which instantly made him a Zionist by the way), I shared, with PLO representatives, a public platform to discuss the way forward – a question you constantly repeat in your play ‘…but what is the way forward?’ Fesial Aweida from head office and Ms Karma Nebulsi of the London office of the PLO joined with Col. Ran Cohen, a Knesset member representing the Citizen’s Rights Party, Dr. David Cesarani, scholar and Co-Chairperson of British Friends of Peace Now, and myself, and were given 10 minutes each to make our statements. I ended:
... I am not enamoured of Mr Arafat. I don’t like demagogues and I’m suspicious of politicians who pull at heart strings, dress up in uniforms like fancy dress, and grin all the time with flashing eyes. Nor does the bellicose Mr Shamir impress, full of loud emotional blackmail, wielding the Holocaust in front of world Jewry as though the Jew as victim can do no wrong. But Arafat has placed himself in the firing line and that commands respect and support.
I share the fears, doubts and anxieties of other Jews. Is there, I can hear them asking with justification, an Arab playwright penning such cautions and criticisms in the Arab press? One of the strongest intellectual traits revered among Jews is the spirit of non-conformity, of questioning the status quo, of challenging authority. I could not trust anyone incapable of disobedience when it was necessary. I would not be able to negotiate with people who were terrified of dissent. This is both alien and anathema to me.
But the dialogue must begin ...
Since I see you, David, as an eminent troubled gentile let me briefly explore both this curious syndrome and what I find disappointingly politically correct in your thinking. (By the way, I understand ‘political correctness’ to be positions arguing the current cant in vogue, what the American novelist, Sinclair Lewis, described as a product of ‘main street’ mentality.)
‘Via Dolorosa’ recounts your trip to Israel and your meetings with liberal Jews who believe the Palestinians should have their own state, with zealous Jews who believe the lands quoted in the Bible belong to them, and with aggrieved Palestinians living under an oppressive Israeli administration.
Your performance was truly impressive, and though I write this without having seen your second effort I’m sure it will be just as impressive. The concept, too, was imaginative. ‘Let’s have no actors being artificial about all this’ you seemed to be saying, ‘I want to talk directly to my audience. I know what I mean, and from my meaning will come the true emotion that belongs to it.’ You were right. The audience that night experienced a rare event in the theatre – the genuine, troubled artist himself conducting and playing his own concerto with no distorting intermediary. Your director, Stephen Daldry, carefully guided but mostly left you alone; and since your theme – embodied in one of your last lines – was ‘stones or ideas’, the bare stage with simply a model of the argued-over Jerusalem Mount was a stunning ‘set’ - the only image possible. At the end many rose to their feet. I was full of admiration.
You are skilful at creating an intellectual energy linked to emotion. One senses an interesting mind is at work on the world’s problems. I’m not an authority on your plays, though I’ve seen many, but ‘Via Dolorosa’ – fascinated as I am by troubled gentiles – drew me to a closer inspection of the printed text.
The play is launched by a brilliant and witty first line. You knew the enormous interest that would be aroused by you delivering your own words on stage. You knew the question everyone in that audience would be asking: why is he doing it himself? And your monologue begins by answering that unspoken question. “Partly, of course, I just wanted to see what it’s like.” That’s the first line. You could have begun by asking the question for them: ‘What am I doing here, you’re wondering?’ You resisted, that’s the second line (redundant in my view); instead of beginning with the question you begin with the answer. It was a witty opening, charming, and, most important, it was consummate stage-sense. At once the audience is eating out of your hand. You could now say anything and it would be perceived as charm, wit, and - meaningful. You don’t, however, say just ‘anything’, you’re too intelligent to say just ‘anything’.
But though the text bubbles, troubles and bursts all over the place your troubledness troubled me. Example: You quote in ‘Via Dolorosa’ the passionate outburst of my old friend, Eran Baniel, the Israeli director:
Fuck the land! Fuck it! What does land matter? The highest value to a Jew is human life. The idea that stones now matter more than lives is a complete deformation of the Jewish religion. A deformation!
I warm to the spirit of Eran’s outburst but nothing in life is so theatrically simple. It’s true that the value of human life is paramount in Jewish thinking. Says Martin Buber: ‘…the relation to a human being is the proper metaphor for the relation to God …’, but land has always mattered. The Jews spent forty years in the wilderness waiting for the Promised Land, and - because still regarded as strangers in any country - possessing land is of special and reassuring significance for them. It’s also possible that land might in some situations be a way of guarding the sanctity of human life.
There is not space to take issue with everything that worried me in the play, but worried I was, and more examples follow illustrating why. You quote the Israeli novelist, David Grossman, as saying:
Yes, of course, I want Israelis to have access the Wailing Wall, but I don’t need to own it…‘It’s new this idea. That you have to own things. It’s new and it’s profoundly un-Jewish.’
I would argue: that because their history is one of frequent expulsions it has become very Jewish to want to own things, to create the illusion of stability and anchor. In the past it was gold and diamonds, which could be easily packed for speedy departure. Today, when the grotesquery of ethnic cleansing is wrought upon other than Jews, then owning land and property, as I’ve suggested, has become a nervous need to assuage the ever-present anxieties about expulsion which, illogically, persist within the Jewish psyche. It’s no accident that so many property magnates are Jewish. Nor does that inhibit them from loving ideas or revering the word, as evidenced by the huge endowments to learning and the arts that they’ve made. Further, how many Jewish academics, lawyers, or artists have opted for rented rooms rather than bought their own houses? It’s a strange thing for Grossman to have said even though I might agree with his basic view that Israel doesn’t have to own the whole of Jerusalem in order that Jews can pray by the Wailing Wall.
I’m concerned that you imagine you’ve raised inflammatory issues and offered inflammatory views when, to my mind, you’ve uttered nothing more dangerous than the equivalent of ‘yes - but what about the Palestinians?’ And when the text does touch on a question that needs to be courageously thought about you duck.
‘Via Dolorosa’ recollects a woman named Pauline, sent to help the Palestinians set up a civil service, who declares ‘…there are more people in prison today under Arafat than there were under the Israelis…’ Doesn’t that deserve a pause to ask, is this significant of something? Nor do you pause to ask dangerous questions about the Palestinian leadership after you’ve revealed that Haider Abdel Shafi, a highly respected Palestinian politician, has resigned from the legislative body ‘in protest at the notorious corruption of Arafat’s regime’. Might not that say something significant about what the Israelis are facing? The implications are ignored.
There is one moment when, deep in the desert, you believe yourself struck by an ‘inflammatory’ insight: ‘… that the Jews do not belong here.’ It’s not so much inflammatory as impertinent. Not because, as you later report, an idiotic Israeli military commander ‘… sits across a desk smiling, telling me that only 20,000 Jews have been killed in the cause of setting up the state …’; it’s not merely the sacrifice of those lives that might earn the Jews a right to belong there; nor would I use Shamir-type emotional blackmail and offer the Holocaust as justification. There is a more pertinent reason why they belong there – because, at the dawn of the century, the Jews who came from Europe and elsewhere bought land, which they lived in deprivation to cultivate. I think of the end of the Brecht play ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ in which Azdak must decide to whom the child belongs – the mother who gave birth to, but neglected, the child; or the mother who looked after it:
Whatever is, should belong to those who are good for it … the children to the motherly … the valley to those who water the land so that it may bear fruit.
Your text carries no acknowledgement of the extraordinary history of the kibbutz movement. You quote Eran for a second time:
…Look how the water is allocated. In the settlements you have the obscene spectacle of Israelis sitting by their swimming pools while Palestinians carry their drinking water round in jerry cans … It’s un-Jewish …
But that’s not the really dangerous observation to make. After all, Baniel is able to travel the world while his Palestinian counterparts barely have the means to run a theatre. You own a house in expensive Hampstead when there are homeless on the streets of London. I have grandchildren who are loved and well fed while others are a pathetic collection of bones in their mother’s arms. To observe this may be observing a truth but it is not a useful one. My grandchildren going without food would not solve the plight of those African children. You relinquishing your house would not solve the problem of the homeless. Doing away with the swimming pools would not solve the problem of the Palestinians with jerry cans of water. These are manifestations of the problem, not the nature of them.
Much more dangerous would have been to observe the obscene
spectacle of Palestinian refugee camps being deliberately retained for
the sake of keeping the problem before the world, sacrificing hundreds
of thousands of lives in a long historic sulk. And the really dangerous
– though not politically correct - question to ask in your play
would have been why has the oil-rich Arab world permitted that obscene
spectacle to continue? It is inconceivable that Jews would keep Jewish
refugees in such appalling conditions as hostages for the world’s
I suppose I had been expecting something pioneering. I had the idea that settlements would be like the Wild West, timber-frame buildings slung up, everything muddy and makeshift. Far from it. To my amazement we are coasting smoothly into an area not unlike Bel Air or Santa Barbara …
But all the early kibbutzim – not today’s settlements - were like the Wild West. That’s the point about Israel. The land was purchased and pioneered – mud, makeshift, timber-frame buildings and all. Why should the magnificent achievements resulting from hard work and sacrifice be a disappointment?
The nearest I can get to describing it is to say that, but for the barriers and armed guards, it looks like one of those towns Steven Spielberg uses when he wants to show aliens arriving to disrupt total suburban normality.
To your shame, dear colleague, you raise a cheap laugh by ignoring the human endeavour that turned desert and swamp into pasture.
Of course I’m referring to the mainstream kibbutzim and not the provocative settlements going up in the occupied territory such as you were about to visit and about which I’m also ambivalent. Even so, nowhere does the text pause to ask a dangerous question like: should the Israelis, by the same token, ask its million Arabs to leave Israel? Nor do you say to those Palestinians, who don’t want Jews in their midst, what you say to Grossman:
…Surely there’s a problem at the heart of Zionism. It now admits immigrants of only one faith. Won’t it one day have to become a modern country, multicultural, like any other?
Or you could have asked a dangerous question of the Palestinians: why don’t you ignore the settlements and build your own beautiful towns around them? Overtake them! Supersede them! Be better than them!
The observation that ‘the Jews do not belong here’ is also a little silly.
… I am speeding through a huge land mass - feel the topography, I feel the land, a great hot continent stretching away to my right, Arab country after Arab country – and for the first time I understand how odd, how egregious Israel must look to the Arab eye.
What does this mean? Brash, modern Jews in the middle of ancient, majestic desert lands? Noisy Israeli life disturbing quiet, romantic, nomadic Arab life? What of the modern cities with their wide roads and skyscrapers built with petro-dollars in the rich Arab capitals of the world?
Nor are these the only double standards operating in ‘Via Dolorosa’.
I say yes, I understand this – this yearning, this two-thousand-year spiritual yearning to go home – but that my time in the settlements has disturbed me. I have met people who are choosing danger, who choose to live in a place of danger, and yet who refuse to negotiate themselves out of that danger. Isn’t this a form of madness, to live with no conception of the future?
Later, and here comes another double standard, you quote the Palestinian theatre director, George Ibrahim (‘one of the few people in Palestine allowed to make theatre’ – no pause to ask the dangerous question ‘why?’)
… I hate Hamas myself, so I know that extremists are criminals. But I also know why. I know why they commit crimes. Just think of it. Think! Think what depths of despair it will take to make you walk into a market with lumps of dynamite tied round your chest…
You don’t say ‘but these are people who choose to live in danger, and yet who refuse to negotiate themselves out of that danger’. You don’t ask of Hamas: ‘Isn’t this a form of madness, to live with no conception of the future?’ Nor do you ask the really dangerous question: Is this really ‘despair’? Isn’t this glory? Aren’t the suicide bombers promised by The Koran a paradise of beds, fruit trees and ‘bashful virgins’ for dying a martyr’s death?
I recorded in my autobiography the day in September 1993 that Rabin shook hands with Arafat:
The Washington signing was a period in which everyone was surprised off-balance by the suddenness and momentum of what was unfolding. ‘The World at One’, in the swift, breathtaking run-up days, interviewed everyone they could lay hands on, among them a spokesman for an Islamic extremist movement – Hamas perhaps. He said something terrifying for the logic of its madness and might be, I fear, a harbinger of the cruel times to come. Supporting the view that Arafat had sold them short, was a traitor and a dead man, he threatened that the struggle to eliminate the state of Israel would continue, for, he said – and these are his exact words: ‘we hold life cheaply’ and therefore it would be no problem for them to call upon thousands to throw themselves into death’s way ‘because we know there’s a better life to come’…
You quote George Steiner and, coincidentally, you quote the same Steiner observation that I do in my autobiography, the one about the Jewish inclination being more towards thinking than story telling. But I’m not quite sure why you offer that quote since it bears no relationship to your thesis ‘stones or ideas’. Unless you’re suggesting that because the Jews have produced better thinkers than storytellers therefore they should stick to thinking and not worry about a land of their own? That would be a very bizarre thought. In fact Steiner took up another and more pertinent position in a lecture to the Hebrew University (I can’t recall the year) when he argued that the Jew derives his real nature from 2000 years in the Diaspora. All that is best about being Jewish, he argued, came from not having to fight for and run a state. The moment the state of Israel came into being, the best of Jewishness was lost. Had you quoted that dangerous thought from Steiner I’d have understood. It’s a stunning, if shocking, observation demanding serious consideration – if only to be refuted – and one that many Jews, including myself, have pondered over.
It’s this ducking of the really dangerous questions that has troubled me about you as the troubled writer – for you’re that, too, as well as being a troubled gentile. But it is not enough to be troubled, David, not enough to be charming, winning, disarming. Dangerous and subversive, or gloriously celebratory is what we need. The theatre is supposed to be where courage obtains. I fear it is the politically correct that obtains instead. ‘Via Dolorosa’, despite its author’s undoubtedly honourable and troubled soul in search of an answer, is nothing more than the Pavolovian guest in the room who, having heard something good spoken of Jews, asks ‘but what about the Palestinians?’
Nor, in the end, are we quite sure what is being juxtaposed in conflict. Eran Baniel is quoted again as part of a final litany of echoes: ‘Fuck the land …The highest value to a Jew is human life.’ Are we then invited to chose between ‘stones or ideas’ or ‘stones or human life’? There’s a difference. And why don’t you dare dangerously to suggest that the Palestinians should utter the same cry - ‘Fuck the land’? Or are you only calling upon the Jews to ‘fuck the land’? It is a pity you didn’t meet the moderate PLO negotiator, Sartawi, who observed that had they, the Palestinians, accepted partition in 1948 then the state of Palestine would have been some thirty years old by then. That wasn’t possible. An extremist faction murdered him.
Let me assume the traditional Jewish mode of black, ironic humour. As you’re not asking really dangerous questions or offering daring solutions; as you seem to think you’re being politically incorrect by standing up to the great big bullies on their little bit of land then let me pose a daring solution that I think will please everyone – except the Jews but they don’t matter. I propose a return to the good old days of pogroms. I’ll explain.
In the beginning, when I was sixteen, I was cynical. A Jewish homeland? Ha! We’ll all be in one place and it’ll be easier for them to get rid of us forever. But it didn’t stop me dancing into existence the new state of Israel. We linked arms and danced a hora outside The Kingsway Hall in Holborn, London, 1948.
Then, in my thirties upwards I was angry with and embarrassed by Israeli foreign policy towards the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular.
Now I’m sad. Sad that the Palestinians didn’t accept partition; sad that they went to war on the first day of the creation of the state of Israel; sad that they went to war with Israel again in 1967 and 1973 so that what had been allotted to them was now occupied because they lost those wars.
I’m saddened to see the education of five generations of Palestinian children sacrificed in an appalling sulk by keeping them in refugee camps in order to win the sympathy of the world rather than using oil money to build cities, schools, universities and factories to vie with those built by Israel.
I’m deeply distressed and saddened to read how young people can be inflamed by their elders to kill themselves and other innocent people in the streets and cafes of Israeli towns. Cherie Blair’s observation, and your approval of it (Evening Standard 9 July 2002) in not entirely honest is it? In reply to a question about the latest suicide bombing she said: “As long as young people feel they have got no hope but to blow themselves up you are never going to make progress.” That would be true if those young people were only sacrificing themselves as Jan Palach did in Czechoslovakia, and the young Chinese did in Tienenman Square. We felt for the Czech and Chinese youths because they were not taking innocent lives with them. And so I’m saddened to witness an honourable Palestinian people be so mislead by their leaders.
“Become victims” said Arafat to them. Well, I can’t prove that is what he said to them but I’m the poet on his shoulder listening, imagining, surmising. “There is only one way to defeat the Jews” he told them, “and that is to make ourselves bigger victims than they were. Of course” he said, “we can’t really be such big victims because no one’s going to exterminate six million Palestinians in gas chambers, but we can appear to be victims. We will stay in ugly refugee camps with as few facilities as possible, and the world will see our plight – or rather your plight, not mine. I’m your leader, and leaders need the best food, the best cars, the best offices to work from, and the best houses to live in. We will keep the refugee camps going like a festering sore. We will not spend all the money we received from our brethren in the Arab states and from the European Union on educating our children; instead we will buy weapons and teach them how to hate and to shoot guns. The good-natured Europeans will slowly come to support us rather than the Jews because we will make ourselves the new Jews of the Middle East. It will be easy because the Europeans don’t really like the Jews. They had to pretend to like them because of the holocaust. We will provide them with what can appear as a legitimate reason for exercising their closet anti-Semitism.”
And his people listened to him. And it saddens me. And so, David, I think - along with George Steiner: let the Jews leave Israel and return to the Diaspora where they belong. Let them return to being a minority in everybody else’s country, and they’ll be loved by them again, especially by the left. The left likes easily identifiable victims, support for whom reveals how noble they are. The Jews used to enjoy such high-minded support. Let the Jews leave Israel and become victims again. It will be hard, but not as hard as it is now. What will it matter if we lose a few more million in one sort of slaughter or another, at least we might get another play from you called perhaps ‘Via Auschwitz’, and we’ll be loved as in the good old days of pogroms.
Good luck, dear colleague. I’m sorry we trouble you. Nevertheless in the spirit of debate with which this open letter is written I wish your revival a large audience.
David Hare was invited by Arnold Wesker to read this letter and consider a reply to appear at the same time. He wrote a card: