Mixing nationalism and religion causes a lot of problems,” mused playwright Misha Shulman as he prepared to debut his new work, “Martyrs Street,” in New York this week. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes increasingly intractable, Shulman, a former IDF commander, fears that violence will erupt between different groups of Israeli Jews. In his provocative drama, which is set in the West Bank city of Hebron, militant Jews buy a bomb from Hamas in order to kill a dovish, anti-settlement group of Jews in Jerusalem. The extremists in the play, he said, “hijack both sides and lead them toward an explosion.”
Directed by Ian Morgan, “Martyrs Street” is kicking off a month-long run at the Theater for the New City ($18; www.smarttix.com) in the East Village. It focuses on two women, a secular feminist Palestinian academic named Noor (Maria Silverman), whose son Nimer (Haythem Noor) makes bombs for Hamas, and an Orthodox Jewish settler from Brooklyn named Dvorah (Nicole Kontolefa).
When both women are ordered to evacuate their homes by the Israeli government, they need to make difficult choices about how much to sacrifice for their respective ideologies. Even as the settlers try to foment violence that will bring the Messiah, the Arab bombmaker is happy to help them, since “starting a civil war among Jews,” Shulman noted, “is good for the Palestinians in the play.”
Having written other plays about the conflict, including “The Fist” (2004) and “Desert Sunrise” (2005), he was inspired by what he called a “very disturbing” trip that he took to Hebron almost a decade ago with Breaking the Silence, a left-wing organization that encourages Israeli soldiers to talk about the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
Shulman, who returned to Hebron last summer, views Hebron, where 67 Jews were massacred by Arab terrorists in 1929 and where 29 Arabs were murdered by Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein in 1994, as “foreshadowing what will happen in other parts of the country.” After the 1994 massacre, he noted, the Israeli government instituted curfews on the Arabs and created an ethos and structure of spatial segregation that “formed Israelis’ thinking about the conflict.”
The playwright was particularly disappointed about the re-election last week of Benjamin Netanyahu, who has suggested that he will not cede any territory to the Palestinians. The country has become increasingly polarized, Shulman pointed out, to the extent that left-wing Jews (including his own father, who teaches at Hebrew University) have been physically attacked for expressing their views.
Though he hopes that his plays will “influence Israeli politics to get people to see the value of coexistence,” Shulman worries that “people will feel depressed that nothing will ever change.” But he remains hopeful that America can play a role, by “applying pressure in Israel to end the occupation.”