Israeli and Jewish American leaders are speaking out against New York University’s (NYU) decision to host performances of a play that has been criticized for whitewashing Palestinian terrorism and demonstrating anti-Israel bias.
“The Siege,” a production by a Palestinian theater company about a 2002 standoff between Israeli troops and armed terrorists at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, will make its North American premier on Thursday at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.
The five-week-long incident, part of Operation Defensive Shield, ensued after over 200 Palestinians — among them members of Fatah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad — fled from Israeli forces in Bethlehem and sought refuge in the revered Christian sanctuary, on the correct assumption that Israeli troops would not follow them inside. It concluded following complex international negotiations that resulted in the deportation of the wanted Palestinians to Europe and the Gaza Strip.
Likud MK Avi Dichter, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, condemned the production in a letter sent to NYU President Andrew Hamilton and Skirball Center senior director Jay Wegman, Israel Hayom reported on Monday.
“The play you are putting on seeks to rewrite history and instead of Palestinian terrorists who took the holy Church of the Nativity hostage, you are presenting [them] as innocent civilians who were hiding in the church,” wrote Dichter, who served as the head of the Shin Bet security service during Operation Defensive Shield. “A hostile takeover of one of Christianity’s holiest sites must not be turned into ‘a struggle for survival and freedom,’ as it is described in the program.”
These concerns were shared by Reservists on Duty (RoD), a group of former IDF soldiers and officers who counter delegitimization of Israel on US college campuses. RoD is collecting accounts from IDF soldiers who participated in the 2002 standoff, which they plan to present to students who attend the play at NYU.
“It is unfortunate that NYU chooses to bring a production that shows terrorists as victims,” RoD’s founder and chairman Amit Deri told The Algemeiner. “We gathered the testimonies of soldiers who were at the battle in Bethlehem and can tell students what really happened there. How the terrorists took over a holy place and shot at IDF forces while holding on to hostages.”
One of these accounts comes from former IDF sergeant Shani Kotev, who sustained life-threatening injuries when he was shot five times by a terrorist in the church.
Kotev told The Algemeiner that his superiors took great pains to minimize harm to civilians and the building during the mission, including by forbidding soldiers from carrying hand grenades.
“Our mission was basically just to surround the church, to make sure that no one comes out” while the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators tried to reach a diplomatic solution, Kotev said. He noted that terrorists were still able to regularly fire at IDF positions “from certain rooms in the church.”
During one mission to secure a storage room outside the main Basilica, Kotev encountered a terrorist and was shot five times with a Kalashnikov rifle. He was evacuated under fire to Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem, where he arrived in critical condition and underwent three surgeries in four days.
When he regained consciousness six days later, he realized that the Palestinian who shot him was also evacuated by Israeli troops to the same hospital for medical treatment.
“For some time, both me and the terrorist who shot me were lying in the same emergency room. And the Israeli doctors gave him the best medical care one can get,” Kotev said, indicating that this was a reflection of Israel’s moral values that the play fails to capture.
NYU’s decision to host the controversial production also drew an outcry from Jewish American groups, including World Jewish Congress for North America, B’nai B’rith International and National Council of Young Israel — which represents more than 130 synagogues throughout the United States — JNS.org reported on Monday.
“Having witnessed firsthand the ‘siege,’ a blatant terrorist outrage, I am especially outraged at this presentation,” Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman and CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told JNS.org. “Diminishing the true nature of this brutal attack serves to whitewash terrorism at a time when this scourge is taking so many lives and threatening so many more.”
The Anti-Defamation League also indicated in a statement that the play depicts a “one-sided” view of the 39-day Palestinian takeover of the church and other events of the Second Intifada, when “Palestinian terrorists targeted Israeli civilians [in] city buses, in cafes, and even during a Passover seder, killing hundreds.”
Wegman, the Skirball Center’s senior director, told The Algemeiner in a statement that “it would misguided to confuse the presentation of a particular piece with an endorsement of its viewpoint.”
“This play, which was reviewed and approved by a faculty advisory committee, does not reflect NYU’s ‘position’ on a political controversy,” Wegman added. “Rather, its staging reflects the University’s long tradition of offering our auditoriums, lecture halls, and stages as venues for the free exchange of a wide range of ideas, even controversial ones.”
He pointed out that Q&A sessions and discussions will follow all performances, and that NYU’s Taub Center for Israel Studies will host reserve Col. Lior Lotan — who served as the chief Israeli negotiator during the Church of the Nativity standoff — next week.
(C) 2017 . The Algemeiner . Shiri Moshe