Theater Space & Jewish Community (Ari Roth at the DCJCC)

dcjcc

The unfolding and painful story about Ari Roth at the Washington D.C. JCC (DCJCC) touches upon basic points of interest to (Jewish) political philosophy. What is a community? How are communities formed, negotiated, and re-negotiated in relation to movement between a mainstream and a margin? What is a consensus and how do the terms of a consensus shift over time? What are the responsibilities of community directors in striking a balance between the various conflicting parties to the community? To use the terminology of J.Z. Smith, is a (Jewish) community a “locative” thing predicated on a sense of place (and the limits imposed by place)? Or is it “utopian,” a non-space based on the principled violation, transgression, and transcendence of those very defining limits Let’s keep in mind that a JCC “is” not the community. It only “represents” the community and the “community interest,” broadly conceived. It’s just a building, one community structure among other community structures such as synagogue, university programs, or art venues.

The primary category error in these kinds of arguments about the kind of mainstream community space represented by a JCC or a synagogue or a campus Hillel would be to absolutize and freeze a community norm, on the one hand. It would be just as wrong to absolutize and make sacred the right to push and press those norms, on the other hand. A general rule of thumb: the more outrage, the more censure, the more self-righteousness with which a position gets articulated, the more it’s more likely that something is badly amiss about the position taken, or about the way in which the position is being taken and pushed. That none of this is easy or black and white is indicated by Roth himself.

If you look at the history of modern art, there’s a proud space for secessionist movements; an avant-garde breaks from the mainstream institution of an art academy or academy style in order to pursue its own vision. In this light, I’m posting here  a very interesting and informative interview with Roth about his work at Theater J, and about politically engaged theater, and his recent firing by the DCJCC where the Theater is located. I cannot help but think this firing represents a terrible loss. But I have a hard time mustering the kind of outrage about alleged censorship in the Jewish community, with which the story’s getting played out in the press and on social media networks. My guess here is that Roth leaving the DCJCC had been long in the works and that it was Roth who chose to leave by making the greatest possible dramatic impression.

My takeaways from the interview are five:

[1] Roth did remarkable work creating a creative, open, and nurturing space for collaboration and dialogue around difficult subject matter. (A friend with some inside knowledge informs me that last year there were attempts by some donors to withhold funding to the DCJCC and establish ideological litmus tests, but that the DCJCC pressed back and that Roth had the Executive Director’s support in those earlier collisions)

[2] At what point is enough enough? After the Gaza war this summer, there was deep reluctance to stage programs relating to Israel. The executive directors at the JCC wanted a quieter year (these are Roth’s words, which I’ve also heard from D.C. friends), whereas Roth chose to end the relationship with high drama.

[3] There were institutional and personnel pressures at work that had little to do with staging Israel and Palestine per se. Roth wanted a seven year season and the executive directors scotched one play that Roth himself was writing.

[4] From the interview, it is possible to conclude that this story may in fact have nothing to do with rightwing donors pressuring leftwing Jews. (Even if this is the way Roth explained it in his remarks here at the New York Times, where the issue was described in terms of politics and donor pressure).

[5] This may or may not be a lose-lose collision. Or perhaps this was a natural parting of ways that one of its principles wanted to dramatize for his own ends. What makes this story an informative one is not the one dimensional argument about free artistic expression versus community-institutional support for avant-garde expression as much as the collision between points of political principle and mundane institutional politics, in other words, between theory (norms) and practice. What happens next and what “the community” actually “wants” will get figured out with the appointment of a new director at Theater J.

About the institutional politics, Roth states:

Don’t be afraid of people on the far margins who threaten to boycott. My firing was not about only program choices, it’s a very long, deep, political, and personal relationship with both the CEO’s office and the bureaucracy of a community institution that has twenty-one different programs of which the theater is just one. So there’s jockeying for space, there’s turf warfare, there’s many different things, the theater was the tail wagging the dog of the institution and they wanted to correct that as well. There were many different things going on but when you talk about flagship theaters in our country, about strong independent politically engaged theaters in our country, have them lean into this issue as well, and that’s what they should take from my situation. There’s a ton of interest out there. 

Re: the bogeyman of rightwing donors exerting undue influence, Roth had this to say

Don’t be afraid of people on the far margins who threaten to boycott. My firing was not about only program choices, it’s a very long, deep, political, and personal relationship with both the CEO’s office and the bureaucracy of a community institution that has twenty-one different programs of which the theater is just one. So there’s jockeying for space, there’s turf warfare, there’s many different things, the theater was the tail wagging the dog of the institution and they wanted to correct that as well. There were many different things going on but when you talk about flagship theaters in our country, about strong independent politically engaged theaters in our country, have them lean into this issue as well, and that’s what they should take from my situation. There’s a ton of interest out there.

I’m posting below a statement from the DCJCC that was circulated on email. It’s more interesting than the shorter version by Carole Zawatzky which you can read here

  • Theater J is one of the crown jewels of the DCJCC. The quality of the art presented by the theater is cornerstone of our community, no matter who is employed as Artistic Director.
  • Theater J’s strong legacy was envisioned by Martin Blank and later implemented by many talented professionals employed by the DCJCC A search will begin to find a new artistic director to continue to realize Theatre J’s mission.
  • The DCJCC has a broad commitment to great art and full exploration of important issues related to Israel. Over the past few years, we have invited journalist Ari Shavit, filmmaker Dror Moreh, musicians Yeman Blues, Achinoam Nini and David Broza, playwright Motti Lerner, author David Grossman, and so many others who explore issues related to Israel in often critical ways. Our commitment to continued engagement on Israel issues will continue.

Ari Roth’s dismissal related to a pattern of insubordination, unprofessionalism and actions that no employer would ever sanction. His politics were not a factor in his firing.

  • Ari Roth was dismissed from his role as an employee of the DCJCC for insubordination and disrespect to the organization that employed him.
  • Ari Roth was planning his departure from the DCJCC for many months and had indicated that the 2014-15 season would be his last. He presented the JCC management with three exit strategies, all of which were rejected as inconsistent with the goals of the DCJCC. These exit strategies would have required DCJCC to abandon its sponsorship and support for Theater J. After requesting new terms of employment, he was presented with the terms under which he would be invited to remain an employee of the DCJCC. He was given until January to accept the terms of employment.
  • During the interim period while Ari was deciding whether he would accept the terms of employment offered to him, his behavior was in clear violation of his role as a JCC employee.

o Devoting salaried time and his energy to his new theater endeavor rather than to the projects prioritized by the organization that employed him.

o Damaging the DCJCC’s reputation in the media.

o Despite clear warnings about this insubordinate behavior Ari continued to disregard direction from the JCC management.

  • Once Ari was terminated he was offered an amicable separation with generous severance of six months, positive references and a joint press statement praising his work. He immediately violated this agreement by publicizing his firing and accusing the JCC of allowing politics to motivate the decision to terminate him rather than his lack of professionalism.
  • Ari’s creative vision – which included significant works of a political nature – was always defended and supported by Theater J and the DCJCC. Our commitment to challenging theater never wavered. But Ari’s failure to maintain basic professional conduct and standards made it impossible to continue his employee relationship of the DCJCC.

FAQS

Did the Executive Committee make this decision?

This is a personnel decision. This, like all personnel and management decisions, was one made by the DCJCC’s CEO.

Was this about the content of what Theater J produced?

This was always about professionalism and never about politics. The DCJCC proudly presented a diversity of voices in thought-provoking, challenging works of art produced by Theatre J. As a community theatre we see our role as offering the Washington community great art – even when it is provocative and challenging. But increasingly, Ari was focused on political projects, which is why he initiated an effort to take control of Theater J away from the DCJCC .

Was the DCJCC under pressure from donors (individuals and foundations) to push Ari out?

This was a personnel decision made by the professional management of the DCJCC, not by donors. The decision was made because of Ari Roth’s lack of professionalism and disrespect for his employer, the DCJCC.

A clear example of his insubordination was his efforts to split Theater J from the DCJCC, his efforts to get support for a new theater venture from the Theater J council, and his use of paid time to plan his next venture.

Did COPMA win?

COPMA never has been and never will be a factor in our creative or personnel decisions. COPMA wanted to silence art that presented challenging depictions of Israel’s social, political and cultural landscape. Our stage will continue to present such work. There is no change in our mission to tackle tough issues through art. Theater J will continue to produce work about and from Israel.

Explain the “Voices from a Changing Middle East” and what role it played in the separation with Ari Roth.

“Voices from a Changing Middle East” was a theater festival (plays, readings and panels) that explored the social, political and cultural landscape in the Middle East. Ari was clearly enamored with this project and he has our permission to take the program to his next venture.

Is the DCJCC stifling creative exploration and discussion around Israel?

We are proud of the diverse voices we continue to bring to the community, voices that are heard not only through theater but also through film, music and literature and cover many sides of life in Israel, including and beyond the political fray.

What will you look for in the next Artistic Director?

We are first and foremost looking for someone with an outstanding record of producing great theater. We are looking for someone who will build on Theater J’s strong legacy.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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One Response to Theater Space & Jewish Community (Ari Roth at the DCJCC)

  1. I was fortunate to have a very open and inspiring conversation with Ari Roth about his vision and values (which I greatly admire). In it he explained that his commitment to bridge building through theater is based in an ethical principle: “There’s an imperative to reconcile, not an imperative to exact revenge.”

    The full conversation can be found here: http://dcmetrotheaterarts.com/2014/12/26/imperative-reconcile-conversation-ari-roth-john-stoltenberg1/

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