Provocative Play on Rabin murder to open in US

Motti Lerner's latest play explores nationalist and religious fervor and the toll of constant conflict.

itzhak rabin 88 (photo credit: )
itzhak rabin 88
(photo credit: )
As police in riot gear clashed with protesters during the evacuation of the Amona outpost on Wednesday, playwright Motti Lerner took off for Baltimore, where his latest play - an exploration of nationalist and religious fervor and the toll of constant conflict - will premiere on Saturday night. The Murder of Isaac, which Lerner began writing in the aftermath of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, has never been performed in Israel. According to Lerner, the play was not ready when it was first submitted to Israeli theaters after being completed in 1999. "It was written with a lot of hate towards Rabin's assassin and those who backed him, and hate is not a good perspective from which to write - it renders things superficial and one-dimensional," Lerner told The Jerusalem Post earlier this week. It is clear, however, that the reluctance of Israeli theaters to produce The Murder of Isaac - which may finally be staged here later this year - was based on more than dramaturgical considerations: when the play was performed in Baltimore in 2003 as a work-in-progress, two Jewish members of the audience waved swastikas during the performance, as a protest against what they considered to be the play's anti-Semitic bent. When the play was performed in Heidelberg several years ago, representatives of one of Israel's ultra-orthodox parties demanded the Israeli government request Germany to cancel the performances. Independently of one's ideological perspective, it is difficult to imagine an Israeli or American audience remaining unperturbed by Lerner's emotionally and politically provocative play, centered upon a group of patients in an Israeli rehabilitation center for victims of posttraumatic stress disorder. In the hospital, patients who include former settlers, secularists, atheists, and different kinds of believers - each a survivor of terrible violence - come together to produce a chaotic, absurd, carnivalesque play-within-a-play, whose subject is Rabin's murder. Binder, an amputee wounded in Israel's Independence War, plays the role of Rabin. During the play, he confronts a fellow patient, Yuda, who believes in the rule of power and is revolted by the idea of a peace agreement, as well as a motley crew of other disturbed and disturbing characters - including Shulamit, a settler whose husband and two children were murdered in their home by a terrorist; Talia, a suicide bombing victim whose body has been maimed by severe burns; and Yigal, a young religious man wounded in Lebanon, who plays the role of Yigal Amir. "Writing about shell-shocked patients enabled me to think about our reality from different points of view that I am not accustomed to considering, and that do not stem from a rational perspective on reality. Rather, these points of view emerge out of a collective unconscious that we refuse to see and recognize," Lerner told the Post. "I think this metaphorical use of injured people is very effective for understanding a reality that we refrain from talking about." Some of the most provocative moments in Lerner's play include a scene in which Shulamit, the former settler, refers to her breasts and genitals as "Judea, Samaria, and Gaza" - Lerner's way of commenting on what he considers to be the extreme right's fetishistic approach to the Land of Israel. During other deeply disturbing moments in the play, Talia, the suicide attack victim, attempts to seduce fellow patients and audience members by exposing areas of her horrifically disfigured body. When the play ends, the lines between the historical act of violence enacted by the patients and the reality of their life in the hospital blurs in a tragic way. Asked whether he believed his play heralded real-life political violence to come, Lerner said that he did not see the point of comparing reality and fiction. "Reality contains crazy events, like those at Amona today, in which thugs attack the security forces, but the play aims to examine what underlies this reality - how the experience of war becomes a formative collective experience," Lerner said. Lerner said that over the past year, he has met numerous times with representatives and members of Baltimore's Jewish community, in order to initiate a dialogue about the play - which will continue in a series of events surrounding the premiere, including a panel with Rabin's son, Yuval. Lerner said that the play's American producers saw it as a meditation on the vicissitudes of war, power and violence, which applied to the US as much as it did to Israel. "I feel that rather than doing damage to Israel, this play serves us by presenting a deep and painful process of self-reckoning. It shows a country that is constantly examining itself, and this is something only a strong society can do," Lerner said. "In the end, I believe the play can do a great service to Israel's image. It's no secret that we are a conflicted society that contains fundamentalist and racist elements - the question is how we deal with them."