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A Tiny Piece of Land examines Gaza conflict

April 12, 2010

A Tiny Piece of Land at the Pico Playhouse presents both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to its playwrights. “But, it is our position,” says Joni Browne-Walders, “that the Jews have a right to a homeland of their own, and that is Israel.” Her husband, Mel Weiser, who also directs, adds, “We have a line in the play: There are Catholic nations. There are Protestant nations. There are Muslim nations, Hindu nations… why shouldn’t the Jews have a homeland of their own? And Israel is it.”

The play is set among a group of Israeli settlers from the Gush Katif, a settlement of people who farm the land and struggle to find a new life within the turmoil that exists in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “And in the midst of all that,” says Browne-Walders, “we see the love of life of a very positive thinking people. When we visited a couple years ago, we were amazed by the people there; they find richness in everything.” 

A Tiny Piece of Land came about, they say, serendipitously. The couple was in Ashland three years ago for the Oregon Stage Works workshop festival. There was talk of staging My Name Is Rachel Corrie. As Browne-Walders put it, “There was a hassle going on because Peter Alzado wanted to produce Rachel Corrie – a very anti-Jewish, anti-Israel play. (Rachel Corrie was a young American woman who died in Gaza, defending Palestinian homes from an Israeli bulldozer.) 

“Gary Acheatel, who’s also moderating one of our talk-backs, told Peter he should present a play that presents the Israeli side.” In other words, “’If you’re going to do it, balance it out.’ Peter couldn’t find anything. We happened to walk into his theatre one day, wound up discussing it, and said that we’d write the play. He said that if we could write it, he’d stage it. We went home, wrote the script. He loved it, and scheduled it for the following season’s workshop.” 

Joni and Mel say they knew what they wanted to get across. But a trip to Israel last April solidified the concept. “We were invited to a home in Jerusalem for a reading,” says Weiser. “There were playwrights, professors, journalists, and politicians. They had great ideas – nothing huge – but some minor modifications like changing a character’s name from Dov to Yosi.” 

Yosi happened to be the name of a cab driver the couple met. “Dov didn’t work for purely Israeli reasons, from the politicians’ standpoint, so we changed it. They thought Yosi was perfect.” 

“At this reading,” adds Browne-Walders, “we discussed the pullout from the Gush Katif in August 2005. The government forced the settlers out to let Palestinians move in, but the Palestinians have since used the land to shoot rockets into Israel. They’ve destroyed everything there, even though they were living there. Why? Because the Israelis had used it.” 

Weiser adds, “While we were in Israel, we went down to Nitzan where the story takes place. It’s a temporary settlement for people from the Gush Katif waiting for their new homes being built in the Negev. We met with these people; they, too, made suggestions. We also stayed three nights in an Arab hotel and talked to people there and on the street.” His wife adds, “We wanted to present both sides.” 

Browne-Walders was emphatic over her desire to write A Tiny Piece of Land. “We wrote this because Israel gets an enormous amount of bashing in the media. The Arab press always presents Israel as the villain. And that’s why we wrote the play, so that people would see there’s another side to the story.” 

“It’s political in terms of presenting both sides of the argument equally and fairly,” Weiser adds, “except that, since this is an Israeli family, it is seen through their eyes. And this comes out when a character talks to his brother who has come over from America full of misconceptions from the media. He says, ‘All I want you to do is see it, to try to understand how WE feel about it. See it from our side.’ But it does present the Palestinian cause very, very strongly, with the belief that they deserve a nation of their own, too – everybody does. 

I asked Browne-Walders to complete this sentence: Gaza should be… 

She thought for a moment, then said, “Gaza should be settled decently by the Palestinians, Hamas should be thrown out, the Palestinian people should stand up to Hamas and decide to develop the place like a decent land, so the people there can benefit, so that its people can have healthcare and education and the children can grow up without learning how to use suicide vests to kill people. It should be that the Palestinian people want to establish a good piece of land on Gaza and live in peace with the Israelis.” 

Then how would she finish the sentence: The West Bank should be… 

”And I say the same thing for the West Bank. But at this point, also… no, I take that back. The West Bank is a different issue. I’ll tell you why. Because, first of all, if you’re going to carve out all of Israel so it’s indefensible, I think that’s not a good thing. Also, the so-called settlements the Israelis live in on the West Bank are cities. They’re like 200-300,000 people living there. What are you going to do, just throw them out of their homes? Until the Palestinians accept Israel’s right to exist, and decide to live in peace with the Israelis, then I don’t see any West Bank land being turned over to the Palestinians, because we see what happened when we turned it over in Gaza to Hamas and the Palestinians there – it’s a disaster. So I think the Palestinians have got to change their point of view, come to the table and say ‘We accept your right to exist, we will live in peace with you.’” 

Her husband moves a hand toward her arm. “It goes a little deeper than that. The Palestinians have a group of people that are radical Islamists, religious fanatics. They happen to be the leaders of the Palestinian people at the moment. These fanatics state exactly what they want in the Hamas Charter, and Article 32 has the clear statement, that they want the elimination of the Jewish people. But the real villain in the thing is not the settlement, and it’s not the nation of Israel, the real villain is a radical Islamist philosophy that says Jews do not belong in this region, in a country of their own. That’s it.” 

In talking with the two, it’s a challenge to determine how their personal religious beliefs affect their writing. Weiser says, “The American Jew – you have to start there – is basically an assimilated person, the way the Jews assimilated in Germany. They became Germans before they were Jewish. Same here – Jews who feel they’re more American than Jewish. For myself, I was a thoroughly assimilated American Jew. I knew NOTHING about Judaism. My parents were born here, my grandparents were born here. We go back into 1850 or 60 here in this country. I knew nothing from a Jewish standpoint about what Israel means.” 

He had to learn. “Politically, I had no particular feelings about Israel while I was growing up. But over time, I began to investigate more and more of my own Jewish background and came to say, ‘Hey, what is this? It’s not so bad to be a Jew. It’s pretty good. Look what we’ve done for the world, what we’ve given the world. Look what’s going on in Israel today with technology start-ups, medicine, and entertainment.’ I became a very proud Jew. At the same time, being aware of what’s going on in the world, those two things fused, leading me to want to write this play.”

Browne-Walders says she, too, was an assimilated American Jew with little, if any, religious feelings. “Both of us are secular Jews. I didn’t identify with any of it until I got older and started to read and learn and understand what it’s all about – what it means to be a Jew. Why were all these people attacking Jews in the media? Once I got to understand that, I began to feel like, ‘My God, I can feel proud about this. I don’t need to feel ashamed.’ And going to Israel was an incredible feeling.” 

There are many, many theatre spaces in Los Angeles. That the pair chose Pico Playhouse, in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, seemed no coincidence. Browne-Walders laughs. “We weren’t looking at a theatre for that reason, but this place was so right. It feels like the right place to be. We got such a great reception from Barbara Sanders here. We told her our time slot preference. She looked at her calendar and said, ‘That’s the only time I have available.’ How could we not book it?” 

The couple, who lives in Phoenix, put up their own money to stage the show, despite knowing that some will consider this a vanity project. It’s not, they insist. They also have lined up several moderators to host talk-backs after performances, including Danny Sussman of Brillstein-Grey, Rabbi Jerry Cutler of Creative Arts Temple, Nonie Darwish of Arabs for Israel, Roz Rothstein of Stand With Us, Gary Acheatel of Advocates for Israel, Talia Shulman-Gold of CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), and Gil Artzyeli, Deputy Consul General, Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles.

The cast includes Robert G. Bledsoe, Andrea Dovner, Anat Gerber, and Cliff Smith. (Photo credits Halstan Williams.)

 A Tiny Piece of Land runs through April 24 at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, 800-595-4849.

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