Commentary Magazine


Contentions

The Jewish Federation, Theater J, and the Washington Jewish Week

A recent Forward article about the Washington Jewish Week’s sudden dismissal of a top editor generated a bit of a stir among the D.C. Jewish community last week. The report suggested that long-time editor Debra Rubin may have been terminated a few weeks ago because she published several articles that were critical of the D.C. chapter of the Jewish Federation — an organization that the new WJW ownership has close ties to:

Several sources, from within the paper and the Jewish community, say Rubin’s firing was a culmination of increasing friction with owners who sought greater influence over some editorial content. “They wanted it to be a federation mouthpiece,” said one of the sources, who, like others approached by the Forward, would not speak on the record.

It’s hard to know how much editorial power the D.C. federation has been exercising over the WJW since the new ownership took over, because sources both inside and outside the paper have been unwilling to speak about the situation on the record.

But whether or not politics played a role in Rubin’s termination, there are still members of the Jewish community who have expressed concerns about the federation’s involvement in the paper.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who leads the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., told me that he believes the new owners of the WJW “have wonderful motivation and intentions,” but added that “they have ended up doing something that ultimately won’t be helpful for the community. I don’t think the community deserves to lose an independent voice that has served as a check on the Federation.”

And a check on the D.C. federation is especially necessary right now. Recently, the organization has been reluctant to discuss its controversial funding of Theater J, a playhouse that has hosted misogynistic, anti-Israel, and borderline anti-Semitic productions.

One of these plays, Seven Jewish Children, has been called a “10-minute blood-libel” by Melanie Phillips. “The underlying message is that the Jews who started out as victims of the Nazis — when they were Good, apparently, because they were Victims and even better were Dead Victims — then claimed the land of Israel out of a sense of their own superiority, dispossessed its rightful Arab inhabitants and ever since have set about killing them out of instincts of rapacious colonialism, hatred and blood-lust,” wrote Phillips.

Theater J has also staged the play Return to Haifa, which was written by a known Palestinian terrorist linked to the 1972 Lod Airport massacre. In 2008, the playhouse hosted comedian Sandra Bernhard, who told the audience that Sarah Palin would be “gang-raped by my big black brothers.” In addition, the theater’s director, Ari Roth, has represented Theater J at events sponsored by Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions organizations.

Despite the Theater J controversy — which has reportedly cost the D.C. federation donors — the organization has still defended its funding of the playhouse:

“The Washington [DC Jewish Federation] will present nearly 100 programs this year that deal with some aspect of Israeli life: some will make you proud, some will make you laugh, some will make you cry and many will make you think,” the Federation told the WJW. “Occasionally one might make you angry. But that is okay, so long as the conversation continues and we express our love for Israel by our honest engagement, through wrestling and hugging and through our ability to disagree civilly.”

But according to some prominent members of the D.C. Jewish community, the offensive content in the plays is far from OK.

“We can debate what the community’s priorities should be, but anti-Semitic theater presumably is not one of them,” Andrew Apostolou, who sits on the board of the D.C. Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), told me.

Apostolou, who made it clear that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the federation-funded JCRC, said that the federation has declined to publicly debate its contributions to Theater J.

“The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is willing to have Theater J promote an anti-Semitic play in a public forum, but is not willing to debate this support in public,” he said. “For all the waffle from the federation supported DCJCC about ‘honest engagement’, they are remarkably reluctant to discuss the antics of Theater J publicly.”

That’s a problem the D.C. federation is going to have to address eventually — and we can only hope that the independent reporters at the Washington Jewish Week will still be able to call the organization out on it.



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