Last night I was privileged to attend the Tel Aviv premiere of “Hastening the End,” a new play by my friend Motti Lerner.
It was a harrowing experience. I imagine that a colonoscopy administered without an anesthetic might provide a similar sensation of unwelcome and agonizing intrusion – particularly if it detects huge, ugly lumps of malignancy. A highly necessary medical procedure, but one that results in pain, despair and indignity.
“Hastening the End” deals with the murderous rampage of Baruch Goldstein and the spiritual and intellectual milieu in which he operated. Goldstein was an American-born doctor, a settler living in Kiryat Arba, adjacent to Hebron, and a prominent member of the fascist Kach movement found by Meir Kahane. One morning in 1994, Goldstein entered the Cave of the Patriarchs mosque in Hebron wearing an army uniform and carrying a rifle and proceeded to open fire on the Moslem worshippers, killing 29 and wounding 125. He was beaten to death by the enraged crowd.
A government commission of inquiry ruled that Goldstein had acted alone and that no-one else bore responsibility for the massacre. His grave in Kiryat Arba has become a place of pilgrimage for the extreme Jewish right-wing, many of whom regard him as the Jewish equivalent of a saint.
Lerner’s script is a play within a play within a play. It concerns a previously religious playwright who discovers that his still religious son (a youth in his late teens) had dressed up as Goldstein on Purim. Enraged but also intrigued by his son’s choice of costume, the playwright begins to investigate the netherworld inhabited by Goldstein and the influences that prevailed on the murderer. Those same influences, it becomes clear, are still at work on the playwright’s son.
His research takes him to the yeshivot, the rabbis and the tracts that are the backbone and the heart of the hard-core settlement fraternity. For those of us who do not share their beliefs, it is a very dark and unsettling place; a fanatical hothouse of dogma and messianic certitude that makes no concessions whatsoever to the last 300 years of relative enlightenment and progressive thought. Goldstein’s peers and successors inhabit a timeless world somewhere in-between the teachings of Maimonides and the arrival of the messiah. And their mission is to hasten the latter (hence the name of the play) by implementing to the letter the racist doctrines of the former, as well as those of his modern-day doppelganers.
The playwright concludes that the xenophobic and imperiously superior habitat inhabited by Goldstein – as expressed in the teachings and writings of such rabbis as Dov Lior, Yitzhak Shapira and Yitzhak Ginsburg – must have influenced Goldstein and provided rabbinical approval for the slaughter he unleashed. It couldn’t have been otherwise in the compressed and overheated environment in which he lived. But the theater manager and her legal adviser are not eager to take on such a hot potato. They recommend that he focus instead on the legal implications of the rampage –the commission’s ruling that Goldstein acted alone – rather than go head-to-head with influential rabbis. The theater, after all, receives state funding and needs donations to survive.
At the same time, the playwright is trapped in a downward spiral with his son, who regards his father as a damned apostate and the root of all the problems in his young and tumultuous life. Thus, the shockingly dry and matter-of-fact rabbinical texts are accompanied by the real drama of a man grappling with the political timidity of his colleagues and the unbearable prospect of losing his son due to his own actions. He could easily drop his research and write a play about something else, but his conscience won’t allow him to do that.
It is a play of words, ideas and clashing beliefs. There is very little physical action on stage; the power and the drama are all in what is said and left unsaid. It is tough theater. In lesser hands (Motti Lerner and director Ron Ninio) it might have been inaccessible to most audiences, but the staging is good and the metaphor of a play within a play works very well. The actors are all casually dressed secular people, even when playing the roles of the rabbis, which adds a subtly Brechtian dimension.
I left the theater feeling dirtied, contaminated – infected even. Though almost 20 years have passed since the Goldstein massacre, the murderer’s spiritual godfathers are still with us – and more prominent than ever. Their yeshivot are a lot bigger than they were in 1994, their students a lot more numerous and their influence has permeated the entire society. Avowed Kahane supporters are today in the Knesset and racist ideas that were once outlawed are now common currency. Most of us don’t even stop to think when we read about the increasing numbers of avowedly racist Jewish attacks on Arabs.
We delude ourselves that the racists and Jewish supremacists are a small and insignificant minority. But they aren’t; they are us. They speak through the arrogantly dismissive mouth of Yair Lapid, the self-satisfied disdain of Naftali Bennett and the casually racist, everyday remarks that just about all of us make. Hebron racism has infected us all.
Thank you, Lerner, Ninio and cast, for reminding us of that. Watching the play was not a pleasant or easy experience, but it was necessary. Just like a colonoscopy when you get to my age.