Trouble on Martyrs Street
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Trouble on Martyrs Street

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A Jewish terrorist and an Arab bomb maker display a strange symmetry in ‘Martyrs Street.’

“We are either a Jewish state or we are nothing,” says the Hebron settler Tsadok (Jonathan Raviv) in Misha Shulman’s earnest and compelling play, “Martyrs Street,” now at the Theater for the New City in the East Village.

Tsadok is prepared to offer a blood sacrifice if that is required to bring about the Israel he imagines. As he tells the Arab terrorist bomb-maker he pays for a suicide vest, “We are both fighting the same thing – peace.” A Jewish terrorist, Tsadok hopes to catapult the country into civil war.

Director Ian Morgan establishes the central conflict in the play immediately through the set designed by Stephen Dobay and Caleb Levengood, two rooms side by side on the stage, separated by a narrow alley. On the right is an illegal Jewish outpost used as a religious center by Tsadok, his cousin Dvorah (Nicole Kontolefa), and members of Tsadok’s group, Hand of God. On the left lives Noor (Maria Silverman), a widowed Palestinian sociology professor, and her teenage daughter Aisha (Dahlia Azama). Noor’s house is also in legal limbo; she has no official authorization to build, but she has long had the protection of an Israeli official who was a friend of her late husband. But the Israeli has retired, and Noor has received a notice that the army wants to demolish her home. Her Jewish neighbors also are worried that the government will destroy the building they have taken over.

Shulman tries to avoid a simplistic symmetry between the two sides by giving his characters nuanced histories. Dvorah is an American Jew who has come to Israel to find a transcendent meaning for her life. She does not want normality; she wants a heightened and deepened reality, which comes through war and violence. She has fallen in love with the kind-hearted Israeli Eliyahu (Amir Babayoff), a close friend of Tsadok’s and a former group member, but she believes in Tsadok’s apocalyptic visions much more than in Eliyahu’s reasonableness, and she won’t leave. Because hers is perhaps the least fully developed character in the play, Dvorah’s actions don’t always seem credible, particularly her behavior with Noor.

Eliyahu visits the group for Chanukah and tries to warn Tsadok and Dvorah that the government will not stand for violence, especially against Jews. Embedded within the debate (and it does feel like a debate) between Eliyahu and Tsadok is one of the play’s most intriguing questions: Just what is the relationship between the Israeli government and the nationalist settlers? Does the government encourage and support the settlers’ violence toward the Palestinians? After all, as Tsadok smugly points out, they have never done anything much to stop them. Martyrs Street itself, the central commercial street in Hebron, was closed to Palestinians after the attack on praying Arabs by Baruch Goldstein. The settlers, on the other hand, can move freely. Does the government and Israeli public tolerate the settlers’ aggression because it provides an excuse to apply harsh measures? It is impossible to avoid such thoughts after the last Israeli elections.

Noor is the sort of secular intellectual Palestinian feminist it is easy to like, and it’s clear that Shulman’s sympathies lie with her. (In general, the Arabs get the few funny lines in the play.) But Noor has a big problem of her own. Her son Nimer (Haythem Noor) is a member of Hamas and embodies the opposite of everything she believes in. When he brings his sister a hijab, Noor explodes in anger, and she is equally contemptuous of the Palestinian “heroes” Aisha studies in school. People who make bombs to kill people are not heroes, she insists. They are murderers. Like Eliyahu, Noor cannot convince the people she loves that they are wrong, and she is anguished by her failure.

Shulman grew up in Jerusalem and served in the Israel Defense Forces, so he is no stranger to the situation in the West Bank, and “Martyrs Street” is far more complex than most treatments of the subject. Less exposition and more effective dialogue would make it a better play, but just avoiding propaganda is a major achievement when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians. Here, Shulman has succeeded. Neither the Arabs nor the Jews are presented as heroes or villains. Rather, they are both struggling to find some sense of self-respect in a frightening and incomprehensible world, and that may be the scariest scenario of all.

Talkbacks are scheduled for several performances. The play runs through April 26.

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