On the firing of Ari Roth from Theater J in DC

By now, many of you are surely aware of the fact that the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center’s Executive

Ari Roth

Ari Roth

Director fired the artistic director of Theater J, Ari Roth. This has been coming for some time, as Roth has insisted on exercising artistic freedom and bringing quality performances to the Theater J stage, even if those sometimes make some on the JCC board uncomfortable because they don’t jibe with the positions and narrative of Israel.

The JCC’s statements about Roth’s dismissal have been unfortunately spinnish. They first tried to characterize it as a mutually agreeable parting. When that failed, they tried to blame it on Roth having publicly disputed a report back in November that claimed that Theater J had “moved to cancel” a controversial program called “Voices From a Changing Middle East.” In fact, Roth is quite dedicated to that program (so much so, that he will be working to continue it outside of Theater J) and made that clear to the reporter who wrote the story in The Forward about the incident.

It’s all sheer rubbish, and it’s quite obvious that the JCC doesn’t want to explicitly state that they are firing Roth because his program has too often staged performances (usually written by Israeli Jews) that were sympathetic to the Palestinians. It is as plain and simple as that. Roth only held on this long because he has been such a wildly successful artistic director for Theater J and it is highly unlikely the JCC will be able to maintain that success with whomever his replacement is, as that person will, perforce, be far less independent-minded and courageous than Roth. These things actually do matter in theater.

It’s only the latest, tragic episode within the Jewish community, my community. It is a community horribly divided, between a generally older and more Orthodox generation whose numbers are dwindling but who have a great deal of wealth and use that wealth to squelch any debate, or even serious discussion, of Israeli policies, its history, and, certainly, the nature of Zionism; and their children and grandchildren, who are not the donors who pull the strings, but are far more inclined to either have critical but supportive views of Israel, have come to believe that Jewish nationalism is a failed path or have checked out of the Israel issue altogether.

The behavior of the donors and board members, not only the DC JCC, but of boards of Jewish Community Relations Councils, JCCs, synagogues and large, national Jewish organizations all across the United States only betrays the fundamental weakness of their position on Israel. Somewhere in all of their hearts, they know that Israel’s occupation, its discrimination against its own non-Jewish citizens and the growing nationalism that is getting uglier by the day within the Israeli right cannot be defended to most American Jews, let alone to non-Jews. But they cannot wean themselves from their own nationalism, which has, for most or all of their lives, dictated a simple philosophy: “Israel, right or wrong.” So, they move to use their most powerful tool, donations (be they community or political gifts) to demonize, propagandize and, most of all, make serious and sober discussion much more difficult.

It needn’t be this way. An honest assessment of Israel, the Palestinians, the broader Middle East including Iran, and how all of this plays out on the world stage, is not going to lead to a global pogrom or to increased attacks on Israel. No, the record of the past 100 years doesn’t paint Israel in a very good light, and it will have much to answer for. And, yes, that will not be a pleasant process, for Israel or for Jews the world over. But in the end, this sort of bullying resistance to that discussion only makes matters worse. It alienates more and more Jews, it makes the very idea of Zionism look monstrous (which it needn’t be), and turns “pro-Israel” more and more into the province of the ultra-right, a place that, to say the least, has never been very comfortable historically for Jews.

One needn’t like the shows that Ari Roth put on at Theater J. But he was successful at building a very popular small theater in Washington, one that was very much supported by large sectors of the Jewish community. He was fired not because he did his job poorly or because the Theater could be more successful without him. The contrary of both notions is true. He was fired to defend Israel from facing real, democratic, debate about its history and policies. That is a moral travesty. And it is an insult to the many performers who got ovations at Theater J under Ari.

Tony Kushner sums up that point far better than I ever could, so I leave you with his words on the topic, read by the cast and crew of his play “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures” after a performance at Theater J on December 19.

Or, you can watch the video of the reading here.

11 thoughts on “On the firing of Ari Roth from Theater J in DC

  1. Not just a Jewish problem but a “Free World” problem that blurs the distinction between democratic free speech and totalitarian censorship.
    Seems to me like a much more important story than the decision not to release a trashy movie that has been all over the news.

  2. Pingback: News: Mitchell Plitnick On the firing of Ari Roth from Theater J in DC | Maryland Theatre Guide

  3. Pingback: Reaction to Ari Roth's Dismissal Articles and Video Reaction by Cast and Tony Kushner-Update: Ari is Interviewed by Polly Carl and Howard Sherman Article and American Theatre - DCMetroTheaterArts

  4. Pingback: Roth was fired because DC Jewish leaders demand 'acquiescence' to Israeli positions -- Kushner

  5. I agree that the JCC Board should have been more direct, and not tried to sugar coat the action taken; otherwise I must respectfully disagree. Only those with a sense of entitlement (to use some else’s facilities, whether they like it or not) would see this as “censorship”. If you look at First Amendment cases (although the First Amendment does not apply here, in a technical sense, because there is no governmental connection), “compelled publication”, where one is forced to speak, is equally wrong. The microphone at the JCC does not belong to Mr. Roth. JCC members have rights too. If Mr. Roth had decided to put on “Springtime for Hitler”, don’t the JCC members have the right to say that they don’t want their organization to be associated with this? That being said, I do agree that serious and sober discussion of issues within the Jewish community is a good thing — but that does not mean that one side of the discussion gets to do whatever they want with someone else’s facility.

    • “Entitlement” doesn’t enter into it. Does anyone at the JCC know what an Artistic Director is? Do you realize that thinking of an AD position as if whoever holds it is a secretary who executes tasks for a board is how all this went wrong to begin with?

      Similarly, “anti-Israel,” “anti-Semitic” and the other terms that continue to be hurled at Roth…no serious person of any cultural or religious background can look at the evidence and agree with that characterization of Roth’s work.

      So, they can fire him. They did. He’s gone. But no one at all is fooled by the spin. This was a case of an Artistic Director being an artistic director. The proof there is that in 18 years Theatre J has become a nationally and internationally recognized theater.

      • We may well agree to a point. Artistic Directors and Boards are different animals — they react and respond differently, and sometimes that difference is so great that it cannot be bridged. The subject of “entitlement” only comes into play when some people argue that the Board’s action is somehow an act of “censorship”, as if they are entitled to use the JCC’s facilities as their personal soap box.

        It may well be that this Board let the problem get out of hand, and they made a mistake by trying to “sugar cost” what they were doing. They should have been more direct. But I would argue that fault is not on one side alone. It could be that we have an AD who was “tone deaf” to his host facility. If this AD felt that he could continue to put on plays that infuriated sectors of the Jewish community, it would suggest that he had his head in the clouds, or he didn’t care what anyone else thought. Who among us has the luxury of not caring what people who are important to our positions think?

        To answer MP’s question, I have sat on the Board of the synagogue in Northern Virginia where I’ve been a member for over 20 years, and on the Board of my HOA for 5 years. By trade, I am a lawyer, and I deal with board issues all the time in my practice. Any board member who is serious about his/her duties, and the success of the organization, of course takes into account a series of variables, such as what do the members want, what are our finances, and what are the pros and cons of different courses of action. Depending on the type of issues, there may be legal ramifications (which I had to deal with on the HOA, but not in the same way with a synagogue). To paraphrase from “Casablanca”, the artistic desires of one AD and his/her supporters may not amount to a “hill of beans” when the Board considers all of the other variables that it must deal with.

        I can understand the JCC Board dealing with plays that are perceived to be anti-Jewish or anti-Israel. I would not get too hung up on labels. If, for example, somebody wanted to put on a BDS event at our synagogue, the label would be irrelevant — it would infuriate lots of members, and the Board probably wouldn’t touch that with a ten foot pole.

  6. Andrew G, I’ll let others judge the merits of the bulk of your arguments, and raise just one point in response:
    Many of Ari’s supporters are JCC members, and a great many of those whose attendance at performances made Theater J so successful under Ari’s guidance were members of the JCC. Do they not have the same rights, at the very least, as a handful of large donors who, in the end, were the ones who made this call? This was not a membership decision, nor is there any indication that, if it were up to the members, this is the decision the majority of them would have reached.
    As a postscript, the controversy focuses on Ari’s choices regarding plays that were sympathetic to the Palestinians. But Theater J also put on performances that showed the depth and breadth of Israel, including more than a few over the years that would represent “the other side” of what you’re referring to here. So, I’d also challenge your assertion that only one point of view “had the microphone” under Ari’s direction.

    • I am sure that in any Jewish organization, there are “Big Machers”, or “Big Macher Wannabees” who throw their weight around. I don’t doubt that there was some ego here on both sides: “I am the Big Macher, and I make the calls, and whoever doesn’t like it, they can get lost”, and “I am the great artist, and I do whatever I want, and whoever doesn’t like it, they can get lost”. I was not there. I go to the JCC in Northern Virginia, and don’t have a feel for the membership in DC, but I suspect that a bit of compromise would have helped.

      That being said, the big issue in any organization is “who decides”. That is why, for better or worse, we have boards, which ultimately are responsible to the organization. I do not know the Board members personally, but I have to believe they are not fools. I have to believe that the Board at least had a finger on the pulse of their membership, and made the decision they felt would antagonize the least number of people, and at the same time, they have to pay the bills, and must be mindful of where the money comes from. I can tell you that in my opinion, there is no way on Earth that the Board at the JCC in Fairfax would want to touch these plays, not because of Big Machers, but the membership would be furious. It becomes a cost/benefit decision: why antagonize the membership over something that is one little piece of what the J does.

      PS: Being a Brooks fan, “Springtime for Hitler” came to mind. A better example would be someone showing “Birth of A Nation” because someone thinks that its a significant piece of movie history (which is true, but like “Triumph of the Will” it was cinematic talent in the service of a dark and evil cause). The crowd’s reaction would most likely be like the initial reaction of the theater crowd in the first Producers — utter shocked silence.

      • Andrew, I don’t know what you do for a living, or how much experience you have with Boards of Directors in nonprofits or with politics in JCCs, synagogues and other Jewish community institutions. But I can tell you, both from research and from a considerable amount of direct, first-hand experience, that things don’t generally get decided in the way you are imagining here. Machers rule on these matters. The community, in general, is not reflected in such decisions, primarily because matters regarding this sort of politics are not what the majority of members of any of those places regard as their priority as to why they are members of those institutions. Thus, they may well disagree but, as is the case with US policy regarding Israel, it’s not why they vote for one or the other party/candidate, or give money to their JCC.
        The very points you raise, the very way you imagine things working (and maybe they do work like that at your JCC, but it would be very much in the minority when it comes to Israel as a hot-button issue) are precisely why the issue of Ari’s firing has to be raised loudly. It was decided by a few, and a political agenda was the reason, not the will of the membership. Yes, on some issues in any community, the Board will take the pulse of the membership and make a decision based on that. But rarely is criticism of Israel on the list. The reason is not because there aren’t more people who would enjoy a diverse set of perspectives on Israel, but because it is not their priority, and, in general, the few whose priority it is tend to be wealthy, conservative donors. The only way, then, to make this a more democratic decision is for others to raise a voice. That’s what’s happening. That’s what has to happen, whether or not you support Ari’s position. Because that’s the only way decisions really will be made on this sort of thing in the manner you imagine, quite naturally, that they are made.

  7. OK, two more quick notes:
    1. I never used the word “censorship.” But there is no doubt that Ari was fired over politics and not merit.
    2. “Springtime for Hitler” would quite likely be warmly appreciated in the JCC as long as the lead was played like it was in either of the versions of “The Producers.” 🙂

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