In today’s dark political climate, vengeance is in the air. America has answered the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with a full-scale assault on Afghanistan and a pledge to root out terrorists from any country harboring them. A torrent of suicide bombings in Israel has unleashed an Israeli military response that penetrated Palestinian towns. Just last month, Israeli officials uncovered an alleged conspiracy by a group of Israeli settlers to carry out mass terror attacks against Arab residents in East Jerusalem.
Given the real-life events, the appearance of dramatic productions dealing with Jewish extremism is hardly surprising. But in fact, the film and two plays that open this month and next in New York were conceived years ago, and had been scheduled last fall, before the events of last September made their subject matter seem temporarily irrelevant. Their coincidental arrival in New York, however, comes at a moment when Jews are confronting the meaning and limits of Jewish self-defense.
The rise of nationalism and uninhibited expressions of anti-Semitism in Europe, coupled with the nearly global condemnation of Israel has forced many Jews to re-examine their own understanding of the Holocaust’s legacy. Does "never again" mean championing universal brotherhood and human rights? Or does it mean preserving Jewish lives and security at any cost? When does self-preservation cross over into unjustified aggression?
"You can really look at it in terms of two lessons of the Holocaust," said Yossi Klein Halevi, the author of several books, including "Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist: An American Story," a chronicle of his involvement and eventual disenchantment with the movement of Rabbi Meir Kahane.
"One is, ‘Don’t do unto others what was done to you,’ " Halevi said. "The other is, ‘Don’t be taken for a fool.’ The first lesson tends to be instituted among Americans, and the second among Israelis."
Henry Bean’s film, "The Believer," takes the Holocaust imperative to a sinister extreme. In one of the most stirring scenes of the prize-winning film, a neo-Nazi skinhead named Daniel Balint confronts a group of Holocaust survivors. Daniel’s audacity is made more shocking by the fact that he is a Jew.
Despite his embrace of anti-Semitism, Daniel is still deeply connected to the Judaism of his youth. His refusal to identify with his fellow Jews instead is a reaction to Jewish powerlessness. In his perverse rendering, the lesson to be drawn from centuries of Jewish victimhood is not, "Never again," but rather, "Kill your enemies."
Bean, whose past credits include scripts for thrillers like "Internal Affairs" and "Enemy of the State," acknowledges that in Daniel he has drawn a portrait of an extremist: one roughly based on the story of Daniel Burros, a real-life story, Jewish neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klansman. As a screenwriter, the drama and confidence of extremism "appeals to me," Bean tells The Jewish Week in an interview in a Chelsea restaurant a week before the film’s May 17 premiere in New York and Los Angeles. "The Believer" is the first in a trilogy of films he’s planning that focus on fanatical characters.
"I don’t find that kind of thinking (‘I’ve got to kill him to save the world’) simply lunatic," Bean said. "I would never do it, but it’s so easy to feel utterly powerless. You want to blow things up to make an impact."
Calling this the "darkest historical moment I’ve been aware of," the graying writer and director says that "tolerant liberalism" is in crisis. He sees the dedication to pacifism and universal human rights being strained by a sense that aggression is necessary for Jewish survival. "There’s a growing feeling that ‘You have to kill a lot of the enemy before they’ll leave you alone,’ " he says.
If Bean is echoing his film’s protagonist, it may be because he sees the character of Daniel Balint as "an Everyman, only written a little more luridly."
"We all harbor contradictory feelings in our hearts," he says.
A new production of Jason Sherman’s provocative 1996 play "Reading Hebron" gives audiences a different kind of Everyman in the character of Nathan Abramowitz. Abramowitz is consumed with the 1994 massacre in Hebron, when Baruch Goldstein, an American-born Israeli settler, gunned down 29 Muslims and injured dozens while they prayed. Goldstein was killed by some of his would-be victims.
An Israeli court of inquiry concluded that Goldstein acted alone, but Abramowitz spreads the blame more broadly, faulting Israeli policies that failed to safeguard Arabs, the Orthodox educational system for laying the groundwork for his militant ideology, and American Jews for funding the settlements. Even General Motors plays a role in keeping the Middle East conflict roiling in the interest of "market forces too complex for most people to understand."
Imaginary dialogues with over 50 characters, including his ex-wife, his boss and his comically overbearing mother, shape Abramowitz’s understanding of the massacre. More prominent among them are figures known for their outspoken criticism of Israel: Edward Said, Hanan Ashrawi and Noam Chomsky.
Still, Abramowitz cannot find any absolute answers. He blasts his boss for her unquestioning support of Israel, and accuses her of oppressing the Palestinians. She replies: "I don’t believe that. You read it somewhere. It sounded so good, you added it to your armor." At another point in the play, a sympathetic reference librarin tells Nathan, "There is no truth, only positions."
A similar ideological limbo grips the Futterman family in "American Maccabee." Lee Futterman is a divorced father and former civil rights activist who raised his son, Zack, to fight for his beliefs. But his own convictions are tested when Zack joins a vigilante group in Israel to avenge the death of friend killed in a suicide bombing.
Although the play deals with the clash of American liberalism and Jewish extremism, the Holocaust is clearly a force in the Futterman family. Part of the family lore has a cousin participating in a revolt at the Treblinka death camp. Zack tries to rationalize his political actions by comparing Palestinians to Nazis. "It isn’t 1942, and this isn’t Warsaw," Lee Futterman tells his son. "It’s not different," Zack replies. "Being a Jew is no different."
Like "Reading Hebron," James Henerson’s play was inspired in part by the Hebron massacre. Before that murder, the idea of a Jewish assassin would have been unthinkable to the first-time playwright. The incident provided him with a compelling conflict: forcing parents to weigh family against ethical principles.
"I wanted the play to be a metaphor of what it costs to be Jewish," Henerson, a veteran television writer, says in a telephone interview.
While previous generations in Europe and Russia sometimes had to pay for their Jewishness with their lives, Henerson suggests, American Jews who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s could enjoy their Judaism freely.
"It doesn’t costs much (I thought back then [in 1995]) to be a contemporary Jew," Henerson says. "It costs more now."
"The Believer" opens today at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Angelika Film Center in Manhattan; "Reading Hebron" runs through May 25 at Access Theater, 380 Broadway, Manhattan (212 206-1515); "American Maccabee" opens June 7 at Urban Stages, 259 W. 30th St., Manhattan (212 205-1515).