Humanizing The Gaza War

Pulitzer-winning writer Lawrence Wright turns his New Yorker article
into a one-man show on the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

09/28/2010
Staff Writer
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 Last spring, Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New Yorker, approached David Remnick, the magazine’s editor, about writing a story on the chances for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Most editors would jump at any story idea by big-name writer, but The New Yorker has luxuries other magazines don’t.

“He sort of rolled his eyes,” Wright told The Jewish Week, referring to Remnick. “I wanted to write about the prospects of a two-state solution. … [But] David didn’t seem too excited. He said, ‘Why don’t you write about Gaza?’”

So began Wright’s trip to the region in the summer of 2009. The result was a 12,000-word story published in The New Yorker in November, at the height of the controversy over the Goldstone report, which concluded that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes in the Gaza war. That article, headlined “Captives: What really happened during the Israeli attacks,” has been transformed into a one-man play, written and performed by Wright, in a co-production with The Public Theater and 3-Legged Dog. Titled “The Human Scale” and directed by The Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, the staged version, which opens Saturday, features Wright playing himself as he describes how Israelis and Palestinians came to their current impasse.

“There’s a dehumanization of the other side that makes it impossible to see things from another perspective,” Wright said. “My goal was to try to enlarge [both sides’] vision.”

The play arrives at a portentous moment, too. “The Human Scale” opens just as the latest round of peace talks — begun last month after an 18-month lull — teeter on the brink of collapse: Israel’s 10-month settlement freeze expired earlier this week, an event Palestinians said would preclude any further discussions. Eustis even said that parts of the play would be re-written if any there were any significant political developments. “We already have gone through 24 drafts,” he said. “But we’ll have to go through some more.”

As it stands now, “The Human Scale” begins with the capture of Gilad Shalit. Hamas seized the Israeli soldier in 2006, and for Wright, his predicament epitomized the cruel moral calculus of the conflict.

Shalit has become a symbolic pawn for both sides: Hamas demands that the Israelis release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for their one soldier, a trade Israel refuses. Israel, according to one view, uses Shalit to emotionally manipulate Israelis into believing the other side is barbaric. Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders argue Israel’s refusal to make the prisoner swap suggests how little they value Palestinian lives.

“Everybody talks about Shalit as if he’s a holy man,” a Hamas official tells Wright in The New Yorker article. But, the official adds, “What’s the difference between their Shalit and our Shalits? …We are all Shalits.”

Wright then documents the outrage Israelis emote with any mention of the captured soldier.

“We dismantled the settlements, and then we sat back and said, ‘Let’s have a new beginning,’” Shavit tells Wright. “What we got instead was rockets and Gilad Shalit. … [Shalit] becomes an icon of that frustration.”

Wright decided to turn the story into play shortly after he was invited to give a lecture at NYU’s law school. The school wanted him to speak about the Gaza piece. And while researching videos to display alongside his lecture, Wright had the idea for a one-man show.

In the play, Wright includes footage he found of an Israeli air raid on the Jabalia refugee camp, taken by a Palestinian. The raid was followed by Hamas’ capture of Shalit, offering a provocative entry into the story. “You actually get to see what set this thing on fire,” Wright told The Jewish Week, adding that several other jarring clips are interspersed throughout the show.

Others include Palestinian cartoons aired on a Hamas-run TV station that depict a Mickey Mouse-like character being stabbed to death by an Israeli. Another cartoon shows a bee dying while being barred from crossing into an Egyptian hospital. “It’s, in a way, comic,” said Wright. “You see how the children are being groomed to accept this conflict; the way children are being manipulated.”

Much like the article, the play casts an unsparing light on both sides. That puts the play at some distance from “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” the incendiary 2006 show about an American volunteer bulldozed by an Israeli tank.

Oskar Eustis said that he thought “The Human Scale” avoids that kind of polemic. In its place, he said, is a more balanced, if no less harrowing, view. “I’m allergic to any tendentious point of view,” Eustis said. “And I think that Larry is too.”

Wright’s specific editor at The New Yorker, Daniel Zalewski, also noted that any story the magazine published on the conflict was expected to present its full complexities. “David [Remnick] expects nuance, everyone [who writes for us] knows that,” Zalewski said. “And Larry knows that too.”

But what audiences of both the magazine and the play ultimately want is a good story. Wright does not stint on that. “There’s a real correspondence between Larry’s dramatic writing and his writing for The New Yorker,” Zalewski said.

Wright, who is 63 and lives in Austin, Texas, also moonlights as a film scriptwriter. He co-wrote the screenplay for “The Siege” (1998), which starred Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis, and is currently working on a screenplay for the director Ridley Scott.

But the most direct parallel with “The Human Scale” is his one-man play, “My Trip to Al-Qaeda,” which played in New York in 2006, and was based on his Pulitzer-winning book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.”

A history of bin Laden’s terrorist group, “The Looming Tower” held a place on The New York Times best-seller list for eight-weeks, garnering numerous awards in its wake. But that book’s adaptation to the stage was a significant departure from Wright’s previous Hollywood films. This time he essentially told his own story, weaving his reportorial experience with the book’s essential findings.

“The Human Scale” does something similar, although Wright’s presence in the narrative is played down substantially. Eustis, who was one of the developers of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” said that they both decided to limit Wright’s first-person accounts, and instead have him, for the most part, narrate the past five years of the conflict.

Eustis had seen Wright’s original staging of “My Trip to Al-Qaeda.” And while his enthusiasm for that work convinced him to co-produce Wright’s new show, both agreed that the conflict itself should take center stage.

“I discouraged him from dramatizing any part of his acting,” Eustis said. “There’s nothing affected or artificial about his performance. [Wright]’s a natural storyteller, he’s a fair witness.”

But there will be some who question his fairness, no matter how assiduous his reporting. In The New Yorker article, Wright calls Israel’s 2006 war in Gaza and the subsequent naval blockade a failure. As evidence he cites the strengthening of Hamas and the growth of underground tunnels from Egypt that still provide Gazans access to the supplies Israel prohibits. Some might be put off by his assertion that Israel’s clamping of the border caused fruit to rot in the greenhouses left behind by Gaza settlers. (The greenhouses, purchased for the Palestinians partly with the help of funds from American Jews such as the World Bank’s James Wolfensohn, were to provide a measure of economic security for Gaza’s Palestinians.) News reports at the time widely chronicled the destruction of the greenhouses by Palestinian looters.

Then there is the emergence of Al-Qaeda. One of Wright’s most chilling encounters is with Abu Mohammed, an Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist who calls Osama bin Laden “our spiritual father.”

Wright found no direct connection between Mohammed and bin Laden’s wider circle. But Mohammed’s followers — mostly native-born Palestinians disaffected from Hamas, and many from hard-line families made refugees after Israel’s founding — consider even Hamas too liberal. “We have a clear ideology,” he tells Wright, in opposition to Hamas. “There is no middle ground.”

Wright said in the interview that, in light of Al-Qaeda’s presence, we have to accept Hamas as the lesser of two evils. “Say what you will about [Hamas], it is a democratically elected institution. We have to recognize Hamas as the governing power. There are much worse groups out there.”

“The Human Scale,” co-produced by The Public Theater and 3-Legged Dog, runs from Oct. 2-31 at the 3LD Art and Technology Center, 80 Greenwich St. For tickets call (212) 967-7555. $30.

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