“The Ally” Israeli-Palestinian argument a riveting drama set on college campus

By Lucy Komisar

If you don’t have the time to read or listen to every argument about the Israeli-Palestinian question, spend an evening at the Public Theater production of “The Ally” (ie America’s ally, Israel) and you will get it all. In an entertaining and succinct fashion. From the voices of characters who represent the various sides and in-between of the debates. Playwright Itamar Moses has presented a theatrically staged event that could easily have occurred, and parts already have in U.S. spaces, especially universities, where this story takes place. Director Lila Neugebauer allows passion to power the arguments without ever becoming nasty.

Josh Radnor as Asaf, photo Joan Marcus.

It has all the elements. Asaf (Josh Radnor) with family roots in Israel is a playwright married to Gwen (Joy Osmanski) who happens to be Asian. He followed her from New York when she got a job as a university “outreach” official. Her job is to smooth the way for a community to accept expansion of the university, a move that destroyed another community. But she is sure it won’t happen this time.

Asaf, working on his plays, also teaches one course a year. His most talented student, Baron (the very good Elijah Jones with a defining street accent), arrives distraught because a cousin has been killed – murdered as shown on a video – when stopped for no reason and, when he asked why, was thrown to the ground, hitting his head. The cops were investigating a car theft. The culprit was found later. They said the murdered youth grabbed for a gun; the video shows that was a lie.

Elijah Jones as Baron, photo Joan Marcus.

At the same college is Nakia (Cherise Botthe) a black woman Asaf was briefly married to a few decades earlier. He is “progressive,” she very radical. She wears an appropriate African-style beehive hairdo.

Baron wants Asaf to sign a protest manifesto. Nakia wrote it. Asaf will, though he is bothered by text that talks about the apartheid state of Israel. Asaf wonder why that is the only other country mentioned in this way. Not India over Kashmir, China over Tibet or the Uyghurs, Turkey over the Kurds. I must interject here to tell the readers and the author that the charge of China abusing the Uyghurs is U.S. propaganda. Some Uyghur separatists who set off bombs that killed people were arrested. The U.S. sent Uyghurs it labeled terrorists to Guantanamo. Since the U.S. targeted China as “the enemy,” it no longer mentions that. See this for details.

Asaf doesn’t like use of the word “genocide.” Well, there’s a lot of evidence for that. Or that the U.S. is complicit. That too.

Michael Khalid Karadsheh as Farid and Madeline Weinstein as Rachel, photo Joan Marcus.

It won’t end there. Asaf is visited by two students, a Jewish activist Rachel (a funny quirky Madeline Weinstein with a great exaggerated college girl accent) and a Palestinian, Farid (Michael Khalid Karadsheh), who has family in the West Bank. They want to sponsor a talk by a prominent Middle East expert professor, but her group’s national office won’t permit it. Claims the professor calls for the destruction of Israel. The students need a sponsor to run a joint event and ask Asaf. Yes.

Joy Osmanski as Gwen, photo Joan Marcus.

We hear the students talking about Israel’s expansion of territory, using the 1948 war for cover to push Palestinians out, the 1967 “preemptive strike.” You learn some history. Including the contention that the U.S. used 9/11 to make state surveillance for endless war. Well, yes, that happened.

Asaf argues with his liberal Bay Area Jewish self. He is the in-between, unsure, looking for answers while the others are certain.

Meanwhile, Asaf’s wife Gwen (Joy Osmanski) is worried what effect his support of such activists will have on the university’s donors. (Itamar Moses is quite au courant. For donors, read Marc Rowan, who got the president of the University of Pennsylvania fired for allowing Palestinian voices and not declaring mea culpa in a congressional hearing. Rowan runs Apollo, the private equity fund that owns Athene Life, an insurance company that does phony accounting that should elicit SEC charges if it cared. So much for “morality.” See this.)

Ben Rosenfield as Reuven and Josh Radnor as Asaf, photo Joan Marcus.

Then another student, Reuven (a passionate Ben Rosenfield) arrives to give the AIPAC/Israeli government view charging advocates for Palestine with anti-Semitism. He claims that Israel is surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs ready to overrun it. (The reality is that the surrounding Arab states do not support the Palestinians, some have trade and arms deals with Israel and even use its surveillance technology. When I asked the Lebanese foreign minister what Arab states were doing to help the Palestinians, he fudged.)

The pro-Palestinian Rachel says she thought “never again was for everyone, not just us.”

Josh Radnor as Asaf, Madeline Weinstein as Rachel, Cherise Boothe as Nakia, and Michael Khalid Karadsheh as Farid, photo Joan Marcus.

Moses vividly sets out the arguments on all sides. He even includes radical Nakia linking the issue to capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy. (Arguments can be made.) All the actors are excellent.

This play exercises the mind and the passions and should be put on at colleges around the country to expose students to all views of the issue. Unfortunately, people like Marc Rowan might threaten to pull out their megabucks to block opinions other than their own.

The Ally.” Written by Itamar Moses, directed by Lila Neugebauer. The Public Theater,  425 Lafayette Street (at Astor Place), NYC. Runtime 2hrs35min. Opened Feb 27, 2024, closes April 7, 2024. Review on NY Theatre Wire.

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