Tuvia Tenenbom is no stranger to controversy. He has staged plays about love letters to Hitler, Arab virgins being raped by Israeli soldiers and the sex lives of chasidic Jews.
But only recently did the U.S. State Department step in.
Tenenbom, the artistic director of the Jewish Theatre of New York, raised questions of censorship this week after a listing for his newest play, “Saida,” was deliberately omitted from a posting of events issued to foreign journalists by the Foreign Press Center of the U.S. State Department. The department later agreed to reinstate the listing until the end of the month, when it will remove all cultural events from the press packets.
Tenenbom, whose shows are known for prolific nudity and foul language, opened his newest show, “Saida,” last month, at The Kraine Theater in Manhattan. The play, subtitled “A Tunisian Love Story,” details a love triangle between the leader of the Palestinian secret service, an Israeli Mossad agent and a beautiful, 19-year-old Tunisian woman.
After submitting it to the FPC to be listed in its events, as the Jewish Theatre has done in the past, Tenenbom was surprised to see it was not included.
“We called to figure out what happened,” he said, “then we realized that it was vetted by Washington.” Tenenbom’s initial call was routed to an administrative assistant in the FPC’s New York office. She informed him that the play was not listed because it was “too controversial,” said Tenenbom.
Tenenbom later communicated with Neil Klopfenstein, director of the FPC, who backtracked from the administrative assistant’s statement. In an e-mail Tenenbom shared with The Jewish Week, Klopfenstein wrote that the FPC is “moving towards narrowing our focus,” and only sharing events highlighting American culture. Klopfenstein, in the e-mail, acknowledged that in the past it has “featured cultural events with little or no ties to the United States.” Tenenbom countered that during the same week, the FPC featured an event by the Turkish Cultural Foundation on “Turkish Coffee Culture.”
“We don’t think that the State Department is obligated to publish anything,” said Tenenbom, “and they can do whatever they want. But the reasoning behind it is what bothers me.”
Michael Ratney, deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of Public Affairs in the U.S. Department of State, said that the listings have become inundated with cultural events, which distracts from the lectures and symposiums that the department wanted to highlight. “It was starting to turn into a listing that was already available to journalists,” he said. “We wanted it to be special, to fill a gap.” Ratney stated that this shift has been ongoing, and that “controversy has never been the criteria behind listings.”
To be fair, he said, all listings will be accepted until the end of the month, when plays, concerts and gallery viewings will be excluded from the bulletin.
So the play — which Jewish Week theater critic Ted Merwin called Tenenbom’s “most conventional play to date” — will return to the listings next week.
Tenenbom maintains it was the storyline — in the context of the ongoing Arab Spring — that caused the listing to be struck.
“They probably think a Jewish theater company might be offensive to Islam,” said Tenenbom, who noted that Al Arabiya carried a review of the play on its English website.
“This goes to the grain of free speech,” said Tenenbom. “In Iran, this is what the censor does.”
About the FPC’s move, Tenenbom said, “We are so extra careful in the name of security, in the name of not rocking the boat, that [people act like it is] better to forget free speech than to get in to trouble.”