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.