Homeless in Homeland: Artistic Social Activism or Palestinian Propaganda?

Went to see “Homeless in Homeland” at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a one-woman play written and performed by Saria Idana. The play recounts the experience of a Jewish-American woman on a Birthright trip to Israel and a BirthWrong journey to the West Bank. At the core of the play is the poet’s perennial search for an address – a place to call home. Idana uses her considerable talents to sing, dance and give voice to numerous Israeli and Palestinian characters who purportedly help educate her (and us) about what’s really going on in Israel/Palestine.

According to Idana the play aims to “explain the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to humanize both Palestinians and Israelis to an American audience.” On her website Idana writes that her work “can bring healing not only to the Jewish and Arab communities, both in the region and without, but also to other communities affected by fear and cycles of violence, and thus it will assist in the creation of a different paradigm.”

Unfortunately, the play failed to achieve these noble goals.

“Homeless in Homeland” portrays the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a black and white struggle between demonic Israelis and victimized Palestinians. Towards the end of the play Idana’s Grandmother, who speaks with gravitas and moral authority, actually says, “we [the Jews] have become such monsters.” The Israelis who are truly humanized in the play are those that are more Palestinian than the Palestinians – for example, Tal a 16 year-old Israeli who advocates a world-wide boycott of her own country (a position held and championed by the playwright as well).

In contrast, Israelis not hypercritical of their country come across for the most part as intellectually vacuous and morally negligent. Not a a word is uttered about Israel’s (legitimate) concern for security or about Palestinian terrorism (which has claimed, among its thousands of victims, the Israeli peace camp). If, as one of the Israeli characters poetically states, “the biggest enemy of love is fear, and we are all afraid”, why not explore the root of that fear? Nor is a word uttered about Israel’s (laudable yet insufficient) efforts to bring the conflict with the Palestinians to an end. Doesn’t Idana’s audience deserve to know that most Israelis yearn for an un-molested/un-molesting life? When asked about why she excluded the mainstream Israeli perspective, Idana explained that she believes it’s already out there and well known to her audience (is it?).

As for the Palestinians, they are indeed humanized (albeit as pacific victims). And for the most part their humanization is a good thing (and done well). However, even here one cannot help but at times feel manipulated – for example, one young girl that Idana portrays keeps crying incessantly to her parents – like a Palestinian E.T. – that she wants to go home (presumably to the home of her great-grandparents inside Israel.) Another memorable character we meet is a Palestinian from Deisha refugee camp who derides the efforts of coexistence sessions between Israeli and Palestinian (à la Seeds of Peace) as “normalization of the occupation” (the exact opposite of what these sessions actually achieve), and tells Idana that she needs to go back to her country and get her government to stop financing Palestinian suffering.

When dealing with the Birthright crowd, Idana sadly cannot avoid being condescending. Everyone else but her comes across as a Jewish automaton lured into a moral slumber or agitated into an orgy of incestuous self-righteousness by the enchanting allure of an avuncular/erotic zionism. In one of the lowest points of the play, Idana mocks Birthright participants who after visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem cry in bewilderment (and apparently in a whiny voice) “Why do they hate us?” Idana, on the other hand, seems un-stupefied by this age-old question. Rather she provides the audience with a clear-cut answer: the world hates the Jews because the Jews act monstrously toward the Palestinians (one is left wondering why people hated the Jews prior to the advent of Zionism). Idana even admits that for a while she too hated “everything Jewish” (that hate, she claims, was later overcome by attending a progressive synagogue in California).

All considered, it is hard to comprehend how “Homeless in Homeland” provides complexity and/or healing for those of us who know and have been hurt by this conflict. True healing for everyone will only come when empathy flows in all directions and the basic human needs of all are attended to. Narrative art indeed has an important role to play here as it calls on people to generously imagine and insert themselves into the life of the other. In the words of philosopher Martha Nussbaum: “Narrative art has the power to make us see the lives of the different with more than the casual tourist’s interest-with involvement and sympathetic understanding, with anger at our society’s refusal at visibility.” But I am afraid that a distorted manichaeistic account of the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, as provided by Idana, does nothing more than agitate the very souls it claims to heal.

Perhaps Idana has yet to figure out whether she wants to agitate or to heal (both don’t seem to work in this context).

A final point, in reviewing a play or any other work of art, it is usually wise to differentiate between the artist and his/her characters. But you get a sense that Idana uses her characters as a mouthpiece for her own ideologies. She confirmed this suspicion in the Q & A session when she articulated her own views – like her support for the BDS movement – and her offer to provide people with alternative news sources so they can further educate themselves. (If I recall correctly Idana even had a BDS spokesperson in attendance ready to inform and enlist the interested). This is all fine, but in doing so “Homeless in Homeland” comes perilously close to being Palestinian propaganda. This is a shame since Idana is talented and compassionate enough to fulfill the humanizing promise of her play.

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4 responses to “Homeless in Homeland: Artistic Social Activism or Palestinian Propaganda?

  1. Very interesting points, and I absolutely agree that the complexity of the conflict (both between Jews and Palestinians and between Jews and themselves) is easily seen as simplified in Homeless in Homeland. I found that as an audience member, I was constantly seeking to make Idana the one responsible for making this a black and white issue, one that I could blame her for taking a one-sided position on. I found that she actually did represent both sides of the issue through the different voices of the characters she portrayed, and also let us know, as her audience, that through all that she was exposed to, she felt pretty overwhelmed with compassion and empathy for the displaced Palestinians.

    During the talkback, when Idana mentioned that the pro-Israeli side of the conflict is the one we are near constantly spoon-fed by the media, I realized that she was correct, that our government’s financial and political support of the Israeli settlements is all I have ever heard on the evening news. Very little if any coverage of the Palestinian side of the conflict has ever gotten through mainstream media coverage. I felt quite grateful that Homeless in Homeland gave me at least a contrasting view, a more informed eye with which to filter the news I so regularly hear.

    I left the show feeling not like Idana had presented a one-sided perspective, but that I just knew so little about the lives that are led in the heart of this conflict. I felt like Idana was presenting an alternative to seeking your own identity in a “Homeland” half a world away, through accepting herself and all the conflicting and harmonious voices she hears within. I felt like the clearly opinionated voices that she heard over and over while in Israel were still resonating in her, and that the show was her ongoing struggle with finding peace. I don’t think Idana was claiming to have packaged up and figured out this conflict. I think that she was merely helping us to at least turn the package around, see what the writing on the other side was trying to say.

  2. I find this review quite harsh, and even somewhat fearful of the vast spectrum of questions and characters that Ms. Idana inhabited in her brilliant, complex performance.
    BirthWrong? That is just silly, and insulting. It is totally natural for American Jews, who grow up with a very different sense of social justice than Israeli Jews, to ask questions that do not contain the usual dogma that has far too long lodged itself in the defense of the actions of Israel. A natural progression of that curiosity would be to actually go into the West Bank and try to discover for oneself what is really going on there- only a mini-bus ride away from where it is told to us that our promised homeland waits and yearns for our return.
    I would also agree with her that yes, even the Holocaust has been misappropriated as a justification for Israeli violence, and that many Americans take a superficial, projectionist view of it for a moment and then go back to their normal, free, and sadly often ignorant, life. The shoah alone is not enough to provide the moral justification of the 42 year old occupation, and the violence is still far too overwhelmingly perpetrated by Israel, even if it doesn’t always start it. But to question the nature of what is happening with an open mind is NOT equivalent to a widespread condemnation of Israel. In my view, it actually represents hope for its future and promise- it represents true Jewish values and ideals through its quest for reason, understanding, and justice.
    Having lived in Jerusalem 3 years, I found her characterizations of Israelis both sympathetic and fair, if at times a bit revealing. And her portrayal of birthright and the mostly oblivious American college students who come for the free ride and hook-up opportunities to be sadly accurate as well.
    To pursue an understanding of the other side of a conflict which has been shielded for one’s whole life can reveal a very fragmented, harsh reality that I feel she expressed with surprising grace, and not without some pain. Most of what Jews in America are told about Israel, and our relationship to it, is portrayed in black and white and paints a reality that is vastly distant from the truth; that Israel is only a victim and always the hero.
    To me, her performance left an open-ended question about her Jewish identity, her relationship to Israel, and the occupation, and never questioned Israel’s right to exist. It very plainly did not come across as any type of propaganda.
    It is hard to come to understand something you love as so fundamentally different from what you thought it was or hoped it would be- what you had been promised that it is. It’s like finding out the love of your life has a fake identity.
    I have a lot of hope for Israel, but having gone through similar experiences as Ms. Idana (under different circumstances), I also feel that Jews worldwide need a wake-up call to what it has become and demand immediate and comprehensive change in the behavior of the nation that claims to represent all Jews. Learning about who Palestinians are and listening to their stories is a logical starting point.
    What this review lacks most of all is the understanding that Homeless in Homeland is an art-piece about one woman’s journey and experience, and not a news report or a political science research paper attempting an objective view. Experience is subjective, and the dismissal of hers reflects an unwillingness and fear to look beyond this author’s own.

  3. I’m always saddened by the way many people deride any effort to humanize the MANY voices of this complex situation. I was most impressed by the Israeli voices I’d never heard, such as the North African reggae singer. I will feel hope when American Jews, both Zionis.t and non-Zionist, and non-Jews are able to hear directly the many voices that are heard in the Israeli press, but rarely in the American press.

    And aside from the content, the artistry, poetry, and acting are inspiring and powerful.

  4. I, too, saw Ms. Idana’s show at the Nuyorican, and I wonder if we were at the same show, or if, perhaps, your opinions and prejudices prevented you from watching the show with truly open eyes.

    First of all, to say that this play failed to achieve these noble goals is a VERY broad statement made by ONE person (you, the author of this ‘review’). There were people, both from the Jewish and Arab communities, at the performance I saw, and during the talkback after the show, they indicated that the show had actually contributed to some healing in their lives. And I take their word far more seriously than your blanket statement that this play failed to achieve its goals because YOU weren’t ultimately pleased with it.

    Then you go on to suggest that Idana turned the conflict into a ‘black and white’ issue. And it’s here that I wonder if you actually watched the show at all. I found more shades of grey in ‘Homeless in Homeland’ than most movies/tv shows/books/media get into over the course of hours/seasons/hundreds of pages. Because the standard mainstream pro-Israeli trope that echoes from the halls of Washington, DC was not repeated forcefully enough for you in this show, you accuse Idana of making this issue black and white. It’s absurd! You’ve belittled and diminished what I–and those who saw the same show I did–found to be a nuanced, subtle, and ultimately uplifting work.

    I could go on, and piece by piece take apart this vitriol in the guise of a review, but I doubt I’ll change your mind, as it’s apparent to me that it was made up before you even walked through the door of the Nuyorican. You pass judgment on Ms. Idana and her work, and I am left wondering, after all, what YOUR motive is. Ms. Idana stepped into a void and shed a personal, human light on the struggle in the mid-East, a struggle echoed in Ms. Idana, and, indeed, in me. And instead of appreciating her work, you, without any serious attempt to understand, tear it down, accuse her of being a Palestinian propagandist, and otherwise besmirch her character and reputation. I believe you ought to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask yourself just WHY this human play, which clearly touched many people, has put such a bee in your bonnet. Perhaps, then, you can learn to bring a little healing to yourself.

    And next time you’re going to review a show, paying attention to it, and thinking deeply about it, should be requirements. It doesn’t really seem like you’ve done either for ‘Homeless in Homeland.’

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