Did Washington’s Theater J fire director for complaining of censorship on Palestine?

The headquarters of the DC Jewish Community Center, Theater J’s parent company. (Adam Fagen)

Theater J, a high-profile Jewish theater company in Washington, DC, has reportedly fired Ari Roth, its artistic director of seventeen years, in a row over plays which tackled the subject of Palestine.

According to Washington Jewish Week, the multi-award-winning director, playwright and translator was “escorted out of the building by security” after being told that he’d been sacked.

The newspaper quoted an email, apparently written by Roth to friends, today (19 December), stating: “I was summoned to a 9:30am meeting this morning by [Executive Director] Carole Zawatsky at which … I was read the preamble to a letter dictacting the terms of an immediate separation between myself and the Washington DC JCC [Jewish Community Center]… I have until 10am tomorrow to sign the separation agreement letter which outlines confidential terms including a severance package.”

Further coverage, however, established that Roth had refused to sign the letter of “resignation” and had instead been unceremoniously fired. Theater J did not respond to a request for comment from The Electronic Intifada.


The cause of the acrimony appears to have been Roth’s staging of two plays dealing with the subject of Palestine.

One of these, The Admission, by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, centers on conflict between Israeli characters over the issue of the 1948 massacre of Palestinians at the village of Tantura, near Haifa.

Washington DC theater websites reported earlier in 2014 that controversy had erupted over plans to stage the play, and that a scheduled full theater production had been scaled down to a workshopped performance.

Roth insisted at the time that the controversy had brought about a “real sense of unity and solidarity amongst the actors, and the playwright, and the theater.” Theater J had staged a number of Lerner’s other plays before The Admission, and Roth, who was credited as co-translator of the DC production of the play, was said to have been a long-term friend of the playwright.

According to The Washington Post, the downgrading of the play happened after donors to Theater J’s parent organization, the DC Jewish Community Center, threatened to withhold funds.

The same group was also reported to have protested against Theater J’s 2011 staging of a production — by a Tel Aviv theater company — of an Israeli adaptation of Ghassan Kanafani’s Return to Haifa.

Kanafani was assassinated in 1973, along with his teenage niece, by a car bomb planted in Beirut by the Israeli secret service Mossad. He was a well-known Palestinian novelist and short story writer and a spokesperson for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Both The Admission and Return to Haifa had been performed as part of an ongoing festival at Theater J, titled Voices from a Changing Middle East. Roth’s public comments protesting at DCJCC’s canceling of the series were said to have been used as the basis of the charge of “insubordination” against him.

Despite his willingness to challenge received Israeli narratives, Roth is certainly no anti-Zionist. During the controversy over The Admission, he told one DC theater publication that he was “reaffirming Zionism.”

In order “to believe again in Israel,” it was necessary to recognize “the things that went wrong,” he claimed.

“Even in good wars bad things happen,” he added. He also sought to defend the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing that led to the establishment of the State of Israel. He said, “The battle of 1948, that was a good war.”

According to The Washington Post, Roth — who is also affiliated to a number of US universities and theater schools — was planning to set up a new theater group, named the Mosaic Theater Company. Given the apparent challenges facing even liberal Zionists within US theater, it remains to be seen what kinds of views and voices the new organization feels able to put onstage.


Sarah Irving

Sarah Irving's picture

Sarah is a freelance writer and editor, author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, co-editor of A Bird is Not a Stone (a volume of Palestinian poetry translated into the languages of Scotland), and a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. She has worked and traveled in Palestine since 2001.