February 12, 2016

"Bad Jews," the Play… and Yousef Bashir, the Reconciliation-Seeking Muslim

I hasten to clarify that in Bad Jews, the title of Joshua Harmon’s play which I recently saw at Studio Theatre here in Washington, the word "bad" has nothing to do with morality; instead, it refers to one character's lack of religious devotion.

The play opened in a 63-seat theater in New York City in 2012. Today, it is the third most-performed modern play in the United States, and has enjoyed successful runs in the UK. It was such a big hit when first performed at Washington's Studio Theater during its 2014-15 season that it was repeated in the current season and was a big hit again.

Here's how The Guardian described Bad Jews when the play opened in London:
The play examines two extremes of New York Jewishness through a tense, one-room comic drama: three cousins, all with very different religious beliefs, fight over a Jewish necklace that belonged to Poppy, their recently deceased grandfather. The necklace has significance not for its monetary value, but because of what it symbolises: Poppy kept it hidden for two years while in a concentration camp, storing it under his tongue. 
The issues at stake in the play reach far beyond the motivations of the characters and their religion. How can the current generation of young people, the play asks, carry forward the memory of such a major historical event that is so recent, so closely connected to their identity, and yet so far from anything they have experienced themselves?
Anti-Semitism in the U.S. and Europe
Before the play was performed in the UK, the playwright made a small, important script change. Harmon explains:
There’s a line with the phrase, "Now, when it’s safer to be Jewish than it ever has been…" It might still feel true in New York, but it doesn’t feel that way in Europe right now. They’re doing bag checks outside the theatre.
The play originally opened at a theater in Bath. When it arrived in London, anti-semitic hate crimes had already doubled within one year. Things were so tense that the London Underground banned the play’s posters from its stations because they “may cause widespread or serious offence."

Many of the crimes were linked to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in Gaza. Which brings us back to the Studio Theater. The three friends who attended the play with me were Larry Evans, a colleague from my BNA days; Jack Golodner, whom I've known since our student days at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations; and my new pal Yousef Bashir, who is from Gaza.

We adjourned to a nearby coffee shop and -- just a week after the city's crippling blizzard  -- enjoyed our drinks and desserts sitting comfortably outside. The conversation turned to the Gaza conflict because of Yousef's unusual connection. Here's a recent photo of Yousef.

Yousef and Gaza
I met Yousef last fall in my Palisades D.C. neighborhood. After hearing his mesmerizing story, I recounted it in a blog post -- Yousef Bashir: A New Friend with an Interesting History and Point of View.

I want to take this opportunity to update his story, but first here's a summary of the original post:

Yousef’s family has lived in Gaza for generations.  Yousef was ten years old in 2001 when Israeli soldiers occupied the family home… an occupation that continued for five years. In 2005, Yousef was in the front yard saying goodbye to UN visitors when he was shot in the back by one of the Israeli soldiers for some unknown reason.

He ended up in a Tel Aviv hospital where he received compassionate -- even loving -- care from Israeli doctors and nurses. They saved his life and worked with him for months to get him up and walking again. The juxtaposition of this care with the far different treatment he received from the Israeli soldiers transformed his life.

In the hospital, Yousef says, his father told him that he would turn his pain into something positive. He wouldn’t let that bullet define how he lived his life or thought about his future. And now he is validating his father’s prediction as he searches for ways he can help to reconcile the Israeli/Arab conflict, making this activity the centerpiece of his life.

Yousef in the U.S.
Yousef’s experience in the Middle East is remarkable, but I've been even more inspired by what he's done with his life since then.

Soon after his release from the Tel Aviv hospital, Yousef attended  Seeds of Peace camp in Maine, a regular summer program that brings together kids from both sides of a conflict. Yousef returned to Gaza, determined to finish his schooling in the U.S.

He wrote to every private high school in America, eager to complete his senior year of high school here. He was accepted by a school in Utah, and then -- with remarkable determination -- went on to earn an undergraduate degree in International Affairs from Northeastern University.

During his education in the U.S., Yousef gladly accepted invitations to tell his story to different groups. He had many one-on-one conversations as well.

As a result, his Northeastern graduation ceremony was attended by 20 people from all over the country. They didn’t know one another, but they had all been inspired to sponsor Yousef in some way.

And it continues. I've signed on.

After Northeastern, Yousef achieved another goal: to study in a school with lots of Jewish students. He got his Master's Degree at Brandeis last summer in Conflict and Coexistence.

Update on Yousef in Washington

After graduating from Brandeis, Yousef headed for Washington, figuring this was where he would have his best opportunity to work on conflict resolution. Yousef had no contacts with “the high and mighty” here, but – as usual -- he's done remarkably well through his own efforts.

Yousef applied for a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship. Twice each year, the Scoville organization selects several recent college graduates to spend up to nine months in Washington working on jobs that involve issues of peace and security.

More than 200 individuals applied for the spring 2016 fellowships. Yousef was one of only four selected. He has decided to work for the Partnership for a Secure America.

He's just started  his work there, but he already is learning  how the wheels turn (or don't) in Congress.

Yousef and My Jewish Friends
When I first met Yousef and heard his story, my immediate response was to tell him "I'm going to get you together with my friend Marione Ingram." Put her name in the "Search Blog" box (top right, above) and you'll find links to several posts about Marione.

Her childhood narrative is as riveting as Yousef's. She has written a best-selling memoir, The Hands of War. about growing up in Hamburg, Germany, daughter of a Jewish mother and Aryan father, Marione survived the Holocaust and, at age 8, the horrendous 1943 Allied firebombing of Hamburg. When I got Yousef together with Marione and her husband Daniel, Marione sounded more angry than Yousef about what Netanyahu was doing in Gaza and the West Bank.

I've since sat in on serious discussions between Yousef and other Jewish friends of mine. Major differences of opinion were voiced, but always respectfully and without anger,

Ari Roth Interviews Yousef
Ari Roth  is a controversial figure in the local Jewish and theatrical  communities these days. The artistic director for 18 years of  Theater J -- one of the most respected Jewish theaters in the  nation, -- Roth was fired in December, 2013. His departure was the culmination of a long-simmering dispute stemming  from complaints that Roth  was selecting  too many plays that many considered anti-Israel.

Roth has started a  new company, Mosaic Theater. As part of its inaugural season, Mosaic is offering a five-play "Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival," a continuation of a series Roth started at Theater J. The first two plays were one-man performances that address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first -- Wrestling Jerusalem -- is performed by its creator, playwright Aaron Davidman. The second -- I  Shall Not Hate -- is based on a memoir by Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor and activist for peace and human rights.

After the performances of both plays, audience members were encouraged to remain for discussions about the works. At the end of one performance of I Shall Not Hate, Ari Roth asked Yousef to join him on stage, and then interviewed Yousef.

Roth told Yousef he's thinking about creating a play based on Yousef's upcoming memoir, which may be published later this year.

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I hope Yousef's story -- and his call for reconciliation -- attract maximum public attention, particularly now that bigotry appears to be on the rise. The leading Republican candidate for president has called for a ban on Muslims coming to America. That same candidate has also disparaged Mexicans.

I hope many others will meet Yousef. Too often these days, advocates for policy changes come across as angry and mean-spirited. That's not Yousef. 

1 comment:

John Schappi said...

O.S. Update on the Ingrams: Marione and Daniel recently returned from a month in Germany where she gave several author talks in connection with the recent release of the German edition of "The Hands of War." Marione was overwhelmed by the warm and enthusiastic welcome they received every place they went.