From Jenin to Manhattan

Freedom Theater's 'The Siege' - about 2002 Bethlehem standoff - to take the stage at NYU

The Freedom Theater's "The Siege" (photo credit: SAHAR ROUHANA)
The Freedom Theater's "The Siege"
(photo credit: SAHAR ROUHANA)
It’s set in Bethlehem and was created by a theater in Jenin. But soon the Freedom Theater’s The Siege will be taking the stage in Manhattan – at New York University’s Skirball Center.
The play, created and directed by Nabil al-Raee and Zoe Lafferty, is based on the 39-day standoff that took place between the IDF and Palestinian terrorists in 2002 at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
According to the theater, the play is a “passionate retelling of the story... told from the point of view of some of the armed Palestinian fighters who found refuge in the church.”
The show, which is performed in Arabic with English subtitles, will be making its North American premiere at NYU, and appear there from October 12-22.
Jay Wegman, senior director of the Skirball Center, said there were a variety of reasons – mostly educational – for choosing to stage The Siege at NYU.
“Arabic plays performed in Arabic are a huge rarity in the United States,” Wegman said via phone on Thursday. “Knowing that Skirball is embedded in an educational institution, we wanted to bring it for that reason... I knew it would be good for the Middle Eastern Studies and for people who are studying Arabic.”
Aside from its performances in the West Bank over the past two years, the play toured the UK in May and June 2015, staging more than a dozen shows across England and Scotland.
At the time, the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland called the play a “whitewashing of the Second Intifada,” and the Board of Deputies of British Jews said it “promoted terrorism as positive and legitimate.”
A reviewer for the Jewish Chronicle said the play was “an unashamedly political polemic. The Israelis exist pretty much exclusively as tanks and loudspeakers on a projector screen.” Pro-Israel protesters turned out at some of the 2015 performances.
While Wegman said he has yet to hear any backlash about the performances at NYU next month, “I would have to been naive to think that there wouldn’t be some controversy with this.” The decision to stage the play, he said, “was vetted with the faculty advisory group and the provost’s office.”
Roz Rothstein, the CEO and co-founder of the campus Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that the “one-sided depiction” in the play is concerning.
“StandWithUs respects artistic freedom and the right of NYU to present this play,” she said. “However, it’s important to note that this is a one-sided depiction of a complicated issue. It lacks context including that the siege happened at the height of the Second Intifada when Palestinian terrorist groups were carrying out suicide missions in Israel, killing and wounding thousands.”
The play tells the story – via narratives from six of the terrorists – of the 39-day siege. During an IDF raid in the West Bank at the height of the intifada, dozens of Palestinian terrorists pursued by the Israeli army took shelter in the Church of the Nativity, one of the holiest sites in Christianity. They remained there for over a month – along with close to 200 civilians and clergy – as the IDF surrounded the site, and negotiators from Israel, the PLO, the US and Europe tried to resolve the crisis. Ultimately, a deal was struck, and 13 of the terrorists were deported to European countries and 26 to the Gaza Strip, while the remaining people inside the church went free.
According to the theater, the show portrays how “fighters are seen not only as idealized symbols of resistance or demonized symbols of terrorism, but as individuals who under extreme circumstances take actions that will have far-reaching consequences.”
The 13 men deported to Europe were responsible for the murders of dozens of Israeli citizens in the years leading up to the standoff, according to the Israeli government.
Wegman said that the university has planned a series of events related to the play, including nightly Q&A sessions after each performance.
In addition, the Taub Center for Israel Studies, he said, is hosting Col. (res.) Lior Lotan, the former IDF chief hostage negotiator, who was involved in the 2002 siege. That discussion is scheduled to take place on October 15, and Wegman said there are related film screenings in the works.
The play’s original production was funded by the EU, the British Council and a variety of other organizations. Its West Bank shows were later sponsored by the Consulate-General of Sweden. The New York staging is produced by ArKtype.
JTA contributed to this report.