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Of morality; democracy in the Israeli classroom

Journal Correspondent

Renana Raz, playwright of “The Hearing.”

Does Israel, the only real democracy in the Middle East, countenance a full dialogue between public school students? In such a classroom, can an Israeli teacher question the morality of the IDF without being called a traitor?

These questions became real issues in 2014 when Adam Verete, a philosophy and Jewish thought teacher near Haifa, tried to moderate what he claimed was a classroom discussion free from agenda or propaganda. Verete taped the education ministry proceedings that followed, after which he was forced to resign. Then, Israeli playwright Renana Raz turned the tapes into the docudrama “The Hearing.” Guy Ben-Aharon, Israeli Stage founder and artistic director, saw the play at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and liked it. He has already given the play a staged reading at Emerson College and is now reprising it November 20 at Temple Israel of Boston.

A careful reading of Natalie Fainstein’s house translation for Israeli Stage shows the Raz effort to be a balanced if highly provocative play. Here, as in the actual hearing, Verete poses a striking though controversial question: “Israel says it has the most moral army in the world. Is it possible for an army to be moral?”

At the same time, Raz’s remarkably even-handed docudrama pre­sents the pros as well as the cons of the case. Here, too, some students defend Verete even as informing classmate Sapir Sabeh claims that their teacher spoke of being ashamed of the IDF – a claim he adamantly denies. Adam is equally adamant about feeling slandered. He is especially troubled by an apparent double standard: School officials will defend Sapir for saying what she wishes but will not do the same for Adam. While Sapir’s anti-Verete hate speech ends up on Facebook, school headmaster Avi Schwartz does call Adam a “good teacher’’ and praises his “exceptionality quality.” Ultimately Raz’ unassuming but powerfully disconcerting play leaves it up to audience members to make up their own minds about limits on freedom of speech in a democracy.

Ben-Aharon praised both the authenticity of the docudrama and its importance in a recent interview. “What audiences will hear is the literal transcription of the hearing that took place between Adam Verete, the school principal and members of the educational ministry. This play is extremely timely. As Americans are battling with questions of freedom of expression – what we can and should say and what we can’t and shouldn’t say – here we are confronted with the very same reality in Israel.”

As for the moral army question that Verete poses for class discussion and defends at his hearing, Ben-Aharon told the Journal, “People from more conservative parts of the map may view his question as a provocative one – but isn’t that the point? Aren’t our teachers supposed to provoke our students to think beyond their comfort levels, to think beyond what they know?” Seeing an analogous situation for theatergoers, he predicted that the play ‘’will force the audience to think about how much they value freedom of expression – and how much they allow themselves to be out of their comfort zones.”

The cast that challenged Emerson theatergoers will also provoke Temple Israel audience members. Lonnie Farmer, who plays Adam, will be joined by Maureen Keiller, Melinda Lopez and Nael Nacer.

The Hearing, Israeli Stage at Temple Israel, Boston, November 20. Israelistage.com.

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