That is the question posed by British playwright David Hare in his one-man show, Via Dolorosa.
To try to find the answer, the fifty-year-old writer and director embarked on a journey to the fifty-year-old state of Israel. Via Dolorosa is the result of his travels and numerous conversations with politicians and artists, settlers and historians, both in Israel and the Palestinian territory.
Hare explores not only the landscapes, ideologies and emotions of the region, but his own values and beliefs, and those of Western civilization.
The monologue was written in 1997, debuted in London in 1998, and performed and taped in New York in 1999.
Grossman, who wrote a book about three months he spent in the West Bank in 1987, highlights the disagreement among Israelis over the issue of land. "Yes, of course, I want Israelis to have access to the Wailing Wall, but I don't need to own it. Nor do I need to own any of these holy places. It's new, this idea. That you have to own things. It's new and it's profoundly un-Jewish."
Novelist Philip Roth urges Hare to go: "These people are absolute lunatics. They're the maddest people I've ever met in my life. For any writer of fiction , they're the most wonderful material."
His play, Amy's View, is being performed at the Cameri theater and Hare gossips with the cast about the recent Israeli equivalent of the Oscars. The event is translated into the vernacular of the Middle East: all the acceptance speeches are political and a right-wing member of the audience pulls a bomb hoax that empties the hall, diffusing all the suspense leading up to the Best Picture award.
"In this production the Capulets really hated the Montagues. It was not a production about love, but about hate. Neither side needed the rhetoric at the beginning Because Israelis and Palestinians go straight to the emotion: you pick up a stone and throw it straight away," Baniel explains.
The production opened Baniel's eyes to various forms of oppression. Palestinians who wanted to see the play in Jerusalem had to be approved by the Israeli Ministry of Culture, the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of Defence. For an Arab, even to see the play was a privilege to be granted by the Israelis, not a right.
The conversation turns to the divisions between secular and religious Jews in Israel. Baniel, "a fine-looking man in his early fifties, bearded, articulate, in a black corduroy suit," rails against the Orthodox Jews who are exempted from army service and receive stipends from the state.
He also expresses the guilt many Israelis feel about the conditions of their Arab neighbors. "Have you been to the Palestinian territories? Look how the water is allocated. In the settlements, you have the obscene spectacle of Israelis sitting by their swimming-pools while Palestinians carry their drinking water round in jerry cans It's un-Jewish, it's un-Jewish behavior."
But Hare is most interested in a story Baniel tells him of an actress who became religious. One day she came to him and said that she'd decided to give up acting because it was wrong. "All theater is wrong, all fiction is wrong. God makes stories. What right have we to invent new ones?" This is a theme to which Hare returns. Jewish history, he says, is filled with the search for truth. We are here for so short a time, it ought to be spent trying to understand our world. "Why fabulate?"
As he drives through the pale, stony landscape, Hare pictures Arab country after Arab country stretching out to the east. "For the first time I understand how odd, how egregious Israel must look to the Arab eye." He marvels that at the incongruity of the four-lane highway which cuts across the desert and leads to just one small settlement.
Upon arrival, Hare is surprised the settlements are not the Wild West. Rather than muddy and makeshift houses, the setting is "not unlike Bel Air or Santa Barbara."
His hosts are Sarah and Danny Weiss, two former Americans. The Weisses live in a tight-knit community of settlers who watch out for each other, making it feel like "America before the fall."
As Grossman had warned, the settlers talk about the Six Day War as if it were the greatest victory in history and find justification for the land conquest in the Bible.
In the evening, Hare goes walking with Sarah and tries to understand how she can live in a place where she feels everyone in the surrounding communities wants to kill her. "The Lord promised us the land," she says. "But he never promised it was going to be easy. You may not be religious, but actually you need deep reserves of faith."
The conversation's friendly tone turns sour when Sarah asks if he is married and he explains that he has a Jewish wife. "I feel Sarah withdraw from me-up until now, I have been an observer. Now I am the husband of an assimilationist."
At lunch the next day, Hare discovers that nothing unsettles the settlers like the issue of Rabin's assassination. Almost all of the settlers believe it was a government plot to discredit the religious community and the settlers. The Weiss' neighbor, Miriam, states that Rabin knew of the impending attempt and did nothing to stop it.
Begin explains more rationally the pull of the land: "Jewish history is within 20 miles of Jerusalem. It is inconceivable to be deprived of our right to live there and walk there; to be where our kings ruled and where our judges judged; and most important, to walk the hillsides where our prophets prophesied."
He dismisses the more liberal "land-for-peace" strategy, pointing to the violence committed since the Oslo accord was signed in 1993. You give away land, he says, and you get insecurity.
Hare marvels at the statistics. Gaza is 45 kilometers by eight. One third is inhabited by 6,000 religious settlers. The rest is home to ¾ million Palestinians. Half live in refugee camps "temporarily" established in 1948. Hare describes Gaza as the most conservative culture in the world. No alcohol is served in restaurants and the women are covered from head to toe. The sense of struggle against Israel, the Intifada, is palpable.
In Gaza, Hare meets with Haider Abdel Sharif, a popular Arab politician. Sharif is frustrated by Arafat's corruption and says the U.S. has no interest in the people of Palestine. He says Palestinians' most urgent task is to reform themselves. "It's far more important than negotiation with Israel. You can't get anywhere if you live in a society without principles. When Mohammed came back from battle, he said, 'We come back from the little strife and we return to the bigger strife.' They asked him what he meant. 'The strife of the soul.' But of course nowadays, nobody thinks of these things."
Afterwards, Hare asks his British Council companions to drive to Arafat's house. They travel down a quiet sea-side avenue of villas. Other than the two tanks at the end of the lane, Arafat's house looks like the others.
A British Council officer named Pauline tells of her frustration with trying to set up a civil service in the territory. She describes the disappointment of peace and how it has demoralized the young people of Gaza, making an analogy to Susan Traherne in Hare's play Plenty.
Aghazerin also uses parables to describe the unhappy bind of Israelis to Palestinians. "Look, I do not discount what the Jews suffered. Nobody can. I know that they suffered in Europe. But to me it is as if they jumped from a burning building and they happened to land and break the neck of a man who was passing. And when the man says, 'Hey, you've broken my neck', they say, 'Sorry, it's because of the fire.' And when the man says, 'Yes, but my neck's broken', they just break his arm in order to try to shut him up. And when he doesn't shut up, they break his other arm. Then they break his leg. Then his other leg. All in the hope that one day he'll shut up. But, you see, I don't think he will."
Hare also meets George Ibrahim, the Palestinian co-producer of the famous Romeo and Juliet, who complains about the way Arabs are portrayed in movies. "'I hate Hamas myself, so I know that extremists are criminals. But I also know why. I know why they commit crimes. Just think of it. Think! Think what depths of despair it will take to make you walk into a market with lumps of dynamite tied round your chest. But no American filmmaker has ever tried to think. All Arabs get lumped together.'"
They are joined by his friend, Hussein Barghouti, who "with his long straggly hair and his chain smoking intensity, I instantly recognize as a figure who has tragically disappeared from British life, but whom you still see in Paris and Berlin: the genuine, twenty-four carat intellectual, arms waving and high as a kite on ideas."
Barghouti elaborates Ibrahim's point: "'Did you see The English Patient? Foreground action: white people, noble, fine feelings, strong, full of laughter, walking in gardens, taking showers, standing up! Background action: Arabs, shifty, mysterious, dirty, untrustworthy, sitting down! Or Air Force One! This picture explains to us what Arabs want. To capture the American President!'"
The path Christ walked to his death winds "unimpressively past postcard shops and up narrow alleys, filling me with loss, with a tangible sense of something lost."
It becomes evident that every detail is disputed. It's not even clear on which stone Christ was crucified. So Hare makes a leap of faith and kisses the ground. "After all, does the literal truth of it matter? Aren't we kissing an idea? Stones or ideas? Stones or ideas?"
His tour of Jerusalem ends at Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust. Hare describes the horror of Himmler's speech congratulating his men on "the discipline they have shown in exerting what he calls their 'moral right' to exterminate the Jews."
The last interview Hare describes is with Shulamit Aloni, a lawyer and former member of the Knesset, whose "world was destroyed by Rabin's assassination."
The outspoken Israeli is pessimistic about the situation. "We're going backwards. What's so difficult to understand? The Jews were once victims, now we are brainwashed to believe we will always be victims and victims can do no wrong. Suddenly we've become strong and greedy and pretend we can justify everything. We're told all the time the Palestinians want to throw us into the sea. We have six million people and the strongest army in the region. And yet we speak of them as if they were two equal powers. It's just manipulating people's fears."
When Hare asks her what she sees happening next, she predicts demonstrations, bloodshed and bitterness. She says Israel is in the middle of a culture war, a Kulturkampf, and bemoans the political power given to the clergy.
What the playwright calls the most important section of the play comes at the end: the epilogue. Hare returns to Britain and faces his own, personal Via Dolorosa.
As his taxi drives past Buckingham Palace, Hare weaves together brilliant memories from the trip with the London landscape. He contrasts the passion and vitality of Israel and Palestine with the comatose familiarity of Britain, as he turns down "Leafy street after leafy street, with sleeping houses, sleeping bodies, sleeping hearts."
Excerpts from David Hare's Via Dolorosa & When Shall We Live?
by Faber and Faber Limited
© 2000 MacNeil/Lehrer Productions