A Palestinian, and Israeli, and a German Walk into a Malmö Theatre….
So a small group of Palestinians, Israelis, and Germans –all in their 30s–are having drinks in Malmö, Sweden with a bunch of Jews, Muslims, Christians and other people of all ages who don’t identify with any religion.
That is not a joke. It happened a few days ago. I was there.
The group was the ensemble cast of Third Generation: “work in progress,” a brilliant performance piece conceived by Israeli playwright and director Yael Ronen (who was also there) and developed as a joint project of Berlin’s Schaubuhne and the Habimah National Theatre of Israel.
At the start of the show, Niels Bormann appears alone in front of the curtain; dressed in grey sweatpants, a red t-shirt emblazoned with 3G in large black letters, and a kefiya. He introduces the play with one apology after another: He is sorry that the costumes are not more sophisticated, but the show was developed in the Middle East, not Europe. He is sorry for making that politically incorrect statement. He is especially sorry for the role that Germany played in the murder of so many diverse groups of people. He polls the audience;
“Are there any Jews here?” Many hands go up. He apologizes.
“Any homosexuals?” A lesbian couple raises their hands. Bormann points to them, smiles, and says something along the lines of, “Oh? Two women? Sure, women can also be homosexual…” and continues to apologise. He continues polling the audience, seeking Communists, Gypsies, disabled people, developmentally delayed people…apologizing on behalf of the Germans who murdered their kind, and for his own political incorrectness. Eventually, his cast members give him the hook as the curtain opens on seven other people dressed in similar sweatpants and T-shirts.
It quickly becomes clear why the show has a complex, double-barreled name. Four years after it premiered in Germany and Israel, it remains a “work in progress,” because the players, the topics they address, and their individual and collective points of view on them are constantly in flux. That is what it means to be a member of the Third Generation; someone whose grandparents were alive and involved in the events, which, between the years 1939-1945, caused the overlapping geopolitical, emotional, and spiritual maps of the world to be forever altered.
The actors experiment with their own identities and with identity politics, using a few tears but primarily laughter. Their family backgrounds are extraordinarily diverse. Some of the Germans had grandparents who were Nazis. One is from a family whose members were born on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. The Jewish Israelis all have different origins– from Europe, from generations in Eretz Yisrael, from North Africa. Some of the Palestinians are Muslim and others Christian. Together, they make some of the funniest, edgiest jokes about circumcision that I’ve ever heard.
It is more challenging by orders of magnitude is to address deeply nuanced issues such as German -Jewish relationships, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and even the Holocaust and the Nakba, yet Third Generation manages to do so with aplomb. A highlight for me was how the Israeli actors portrayed their teen-aged selves going on the obligatory pre-army death camp tour of Poland. “Auschwitz” was the best, they declaim, accompanied by the perfect angst-filled, guitar accompanied original songs.
Equally hilarious is how two gay Germans each attempt to be more politically-correct-than-thou, unsure of where the dual narratives of Palestinians and Israelis living on the same small piece of land fit into their world view, and their deep concern for animal rights.
Underneath all the jokes, however, is the tragedy that is spelled out in the “Don’t Compare” monologue offered up by Orit Nahmias in an attempt to guide the perplexed:
Excuse me, how can you compare? Palestinians are Palestinians, Germany is Germany, and the Holocaust is the Holocaust. The Holocaust is a unique event in the human history…I hear again and again, from many people, from all kinds of countries…How can you Jews—after all you’ve been through—how can you do the same to the Palestinians? And I answer, PLEASE please don’t compare. The Holocaust wasn’t a lesson for Jews—if anything, it was a laboratory for the whole world, BUT it doesn’t mean that O think that what we are to the Palestinians is ok. It is not ok. It is wrong. Very, very very wrong. BUT—don’t compare….
…..Of course, not all Germans were Nazis. BUT not all Arabs are terrorists, BUT some of them do bomb themselves killing women and children, BUT the terrorists are hiding behind families BUT it is because they feel they have no choice BUT the Israelis too feel they have no choice BUT there is always a choice. Even the Nazis had a choice. And also today the Germans have a choice to look behind their façade of a perfect democracy where xenophobia and Anti-Semitism are raising their ugly heads. BUT please, please don’t compare…
Scenes that are absolutely tragic, including the heart-breaking death of a Gaza family during operation Cast Lead, punctuate the unexpected, ironic humour. Thus the players remind us that their daring wit is only one of many approaches to the complex, multi-layered “situation” that they have each inherited from a different perspective. Another, equally necessary approach is weeping and lament.
But the Third Generation is at its best when it takes on the sacred cows that have become taboo subjects in many quarters, and are almost never discussed in “mixed” company. In the process, their exploration and analysis becomes increasingly impolite. In the end, the players are openly living the stereotypes that they drank in with their mother’s milk: All Germans are Nazis, all Jews are Zionist settler occupiers, all Palestinians want to drive all Jews into the sea. But when the final curtain falls, as bruised and battered as the players are—they are all alive, and still willing to talk amongst themselves.
This ensemble attempts the near impossible: “to comprehend the foundations upon which our personal identity is based within a particular national context,” as the program notes put it. They know enough to have no answers. That they are willing—eager, even—to share this knowledge with an audience makes this work in progress of the Third Generation more meaningful by far than basic agi-prop. Combined with a short documentary film about how the piece evolved, and a talkback with the audience, this play, challenges, entertains, and moves the audience
At one point in the show, the notion of a cultural boycott of Israel comes up. During the Q and A session afterward, I had to ask Yael Ronen—who informed us that she is married to one of the Palestinian actors, and is clearly deeply critical of the Occupation—about her perspective on the cultural boycott of Israel. Her response, while predictable, was affirming. She said, essentially, that while she understands that boycott can be an important tool in bringing down a racist regime, she also sees the crucial need for the type cross-cultural collaboration that a boycott renders impossible. From where I sit, Third Generation and similar artistic enterprises do much more to challenge the Occupation paradigm than any boycott ever could.
Near the end of the show, a toddler wanders on to the stage. We later learn that the parents are the Israeli Ronen and Palestinian ensemble member Yousef Sweid. The fourth generation is already here.
If you get the opportunity to see this Schaubühne – HaBimah joint production, which is a multi-lingual experience that — always includes super-titles in the local vernacular-do not miss it.