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Elliot Leven

Tony Kushner

David Frum


Do we separate the artist and the art ? Leven says Yes. Craig Posner Responds

By Elliot Leven, March 20, 2012

 Editor's note: Our op-ed columnist Elliot Leven has written his thoughts about the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's decision to stage Tony Kushner's Angels after a reader, Craig Posner wrote in sending us a link to David Frum's artilce on Tony Kushner in the National Post. Kushner has written that Israel’s creation was a mistake and an example of “ethnic cleansing " in a letter referred to in Commentary Magazine.

Frum writes: "Perhaps you have heard of the playwright Tony Kushner? Kushner is the author of Angels in America, a seven-hour long play that combined ideas of gay liberation with ideas left over from 1950s-vintage Communist fellow traveling. The play gained immense praise in the 1980s. I won’t debate the merits of the play here, but I will note for the record that in a quarter-century of spending a lot of time with literary types, I have never heard anybody quote a memorable line from the play or spontaneously mention the names of any of its characters. Kushner has always seemed to me the 20th century equivalent of those 19th century academic artists who painted huge scenes from history: like, say, Henry McArdle, whose vast depictions of the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto hang in the Texas legislature. Kushner may not have much to say, but he needs a lot of space in which not to say it.  

"One subject on which Kushner has pronounced is the state of Israel. Briefly: He thinks its creation to have been a mistake. That’s far from a unique opinion of course. It’s an opinion shared with many millions of people, many of whom have been willing to back their view with war and murder. Kushner goes only so far as lending his name to those who would wage economic warfare against Israel: He serves on the advisory board of Jewish Voices for Peace, a group that accepts boycotts, sanctions and divestment of Israel as legitimate tools of politics."

Frum continues : "It’s strange. The world is full of failed states. Yet nobody ever suggests a debate on whether it was a good idea to create, say, Sierra Leone.Barely half the population of Iran are ethnic Persians. When do we debate the redrawing of Iran’s boundaries so as to show respect to the aspirations of those of its people who speak Turkish languages, or Kurdish, or Arabic?.."

"Kushner describes his critics as people “whose politics are based substantially on fantasy and theological wishes.” Personally, I think that’s a much more accurate description of those who place faith in peace negotiations with a Hamas-Fatah Palestinian unity government — or those who fix blame on Israel for the terrible problems of the whole vast Middle East — or those who regard Tony Kushner as a great artist of the age."

Citing Frum's article Craig Posner wrote to us that he disagreed with  WJT's decision to stage Kushner's "Angels" given Kushner's positions on Israel. Elliot Leven in the article below  supports the WJT's position. We welcome comments by readers on what their views are on this one are.


by Elliot Leven

From March 21 to April 1, 2012, the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre will perform Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. (Actually, the WJT will perform the first half of the lengthy play; the full play would run over six hours.) The WJT has made an excellent choice.

 “Angels” is set in New York City during the 1980s. The central characters are gay Americans (some Jewish) caught up in the AIDS crisis. Creatively combining fact and fiction, the play incorporates real historical characters such as Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg. Cohn was a right-wing Jewish lawyer who helped the notorious McCarthy committee persecute American communists. He helped send American Jews Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair for spying for the Soviets. He was also a deeply-closeted gay man, who died of AIDS in 1986. In perhaps the most memorable scene in the play, Ethel Rosenberg’s ghost visits the dying Cohn in the hospital, and sings him Tumbalalika in Yiddish.
Though the play does not focus on Jewish themes, there is ample Jewish content. Indeed, the opening scene is set at the funeral of a Jewish grandmother who came to America from Eastern Europe. The eulogy comments on the unique journey made by such immigrants.
 “Angels” is a very well-written, controversial, thought-provoking, often hilarious play. It was staged in Winnipeg once before, at the MTC Warehouse. I am sure that WJT audiences will applaud loudly for this fine drama.
Which brings us to Tony Kushner and Israel. Though Kushner is proudly Jewish and loves, among other things, klezmer music and Yiddish curses, he has publicly criticized the State of Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. Among his more controversial comments have been musings that the Jewish people might have been better off if the modern State of Israel had not been created. He has clarified these controversial remarks by pointing out that he supports Israel’s right to exist today, and favors a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In a May 14, 2011 opinion piece in the National Post, Canadian Jewish journalist David Frum criticized Kushner for his musings about Israel and, after claiming that he did not want to debate the merits of Angels in America, made several snide remarks about the merits of the play.
Today, Craig Posner questions whether the WJT should stage Angels. I think that it should.
Firstly, there is a difference between the artist and the art. Many great artists were not very nice human beings. Dostoevsky was anti-Semitic, but he wrote brilliant novels, which were not at all anti-Semitic. We don’t know much about Shakespeare’s private views but, judging from The Merchant of Venice, he was probably no more and no less anti-Semitic that the average British Protestant of his era. Victorian British novelist Anthony Trollope wrote superb literature, but some of his novels (e.g. The Way We Live Now) were quite anti-Semitic. Of course, other artists had other personal failings. For example, Picasso painted great pictures, but he was a notorious philanderer. Thomas Jefferson wrote brilliant essays about democracy, but he owned slaves.
Despite all of these realities, Jews can enjoy reading Dostoevsky and women can enjoy viewing Picasso’s paintings. We judge the art, not the artist.
I think that Tony Kushner’s understanding of 20th century Jewish history is marked by ignorance and irrational thinking. The Yishuv and the State of Israel saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews who would otherwise have died. Between 1933 and 1939, the Yishuv absorbed hundreds of thousands of German Jews, when no other country in the world would take them. If not for Herzl and Ben Gurion, virtually all of these Jews would have died in the death camps. Technically, this preceded the 1948 birth of Israel, but the Yishuv and Israel are part of the same historical package.
I think any rational analysis of 20th century history leads to the conclusion that, for all of Israel’s imperfections, the birth of Israel was good for the Jewish people. So Tony Kushner is dead wrong on this score.

But I am delighted that the WJT will be staging Angels in America. It is a fine play, and it will be appreciated by both Jewish and general audiences.

Craign Posner Responds:

I am writing a response to Elliot Levin’s view that the WJT should have produced the Tony Kushner play Angels In America ( Part 1).I strongly disagree. I am a defender of free speech and do not support any form of censorship. However it is not a right but a privilege to have your work produced by a theatre company. In the case of a Jewish theatre company it is my view that the preservation of the Jewish people and the state of Israel overrides any theatrical piece of work. Tony Kushner is an enemy of Israel in a time of rising anti Semitism in Europe, and North America. This is in addition to centers of hatred in other parts of the world such as Iran, and Venezuela to name a few. Kushner’s play would not be shown in many counties of the world and his sexual orientation would not be tolerated and may even result in imprisonment. In Israel he would be free to live as he likes. His work has been shown by other companies in Winnipeg and may be done so again.It is my hope that these considerations will be made in the future when choosing plays to be shown at the WJT.I also believe that the showing of th eplay gave the WJT an opportunity to inform audiences with a disclaimer as to the articles written re: Tony Kushner's views about Israel.Truly an opportunity lost.
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