‘Forbidden Conversation’ has people talking

February 9, 2017
The Forbidden Conversation, written and performed by Gili Getz. Photo by Basil Rodericks

In the summer of 2014, Gili Getz flew home to Israel to visit family. But the 43-year-old actor and photojournalist, who has lived in New York for the past 20 years, spent much of that trip going in and out of bomb shelters, heeding the incessant warnings of sirens from the Gaza War.

That bloody summer, which widened the canyon-like ideological divides between many in the pro- and anti-Israel camps, also silenced the spirited political debate Getz had long appreciated with his father.

“It was the first time we ever struggled talking,” Getz said. “We reached some sort of wall that I’d never experienced before. With the war and that volatile atmosphere, conversation became contentious, and our ability to talk openly about choices Israel faced was shrinking.”

Getz’s new one-man show, “The Forbidden Conversation,” is his attempt to scale that wall and expand the discussion. The 35-minute show is an intimate, honest reflection on his experience with his father, the current state of how people with conflicting political views talk about Israel, and why it matters.

He will stage the show at The Pico Union Project, a multifaith cultural arts center, on Feb. 14 and 16. The Feb. 14 show will be a workshop and lunch for mostly clergy, educators and community professionals. The Feb. 16 show will be open to the public and will feature a panel of experts discussing the challenges of dialogue. 

Getz grew up talking politics endlessly with his father, a career politician who spent time as Israeli ambassador to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Getz was optimistic about achieving a lasting peace with the Palestinians. His father was of another generation — hardened, more conservative. Tense debate wasn’t uncommon. Disagreement abounded. It fueled compelling discussion. It kept Getz engaged and in tune with Israel’s political landscape. It always ended with food.

Getz developed his show as an artist fellow at LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture at the 14th Street Y in New York. He wanted space to understand if others experienced what he had and what they were doing about it in their communities.

He was fascinated with what people felt when talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People young and old, politically left and right, were tired of screaming matches, tired of being demonized. He found rabbis fearful of any conversation about Israel, afraid to alienate congregants. The struggle, and often pain, was ubiquitous.

Getz premiered the piece in the spring of 2015 at the 14th Street Y. A panel discussion ensued from it and Getz decided to have the audience break up into discussion groups afterward to continue the dialogue. It’s a signature of the show that stuck for subsequent performances on college campuses and at Jewish institutions. The show has now become as much of a dialogue with the audience as it is a performance.

Getz said he loves seeing his audiences break up into groups because “that’s where they can really talk.”

“We have had people representing many different political perspectives,” he said. “Some might disagree with me personally, but most have had a positive experience overall. People on my left and right have shared their struggle to engage with others on Israel.”

A high point for Getz was hearing a male audience member loudly boast after a performance that he had managed to talk to people about the Gaza War without yelling or screaming.

“For this guy, it was the fulfillment of his own personal ‘I have a dream,’ ” Getz said.

However, Getz has received one note of criticism: Why even bother talking about Israel? If it’s so strained, why not just disengage?

Getz pushed back on that view:

“The American-Jewish community is deeply connected to Israel. The notion that we can’t develop a culture where we can talk openly about such an important issue in our community, I don’t accept. It’s the one opinion I have a hard time with.”

Getz makes it a point at performances to address individuals who are skeptical about engagement on Israel. For him, that’s where the discussion starts — persuading people that, because Israel is such a near and dear issue in American-Jewish circles, engaging on Israel equates to engaging communally in a strictly Jewish context.

“A kid growing up in the Jewish community today learns that we can’t disagree respectfully while sharing a space grounded in Jewish identity and commitment to the community,” he said. “A space like that doesn’t exist. If they don’t learn there’s a healthy way to disagree while also being committed to the community, they’re likely to leave it altogether. If we have a space that supports engagement with Israel, however it comes — as long as it’s grounded in Jewish identity and genuine concern for the well-being of Israelis and Palestinians — it should be welcomed. That includes supporting the settlement movement, opposing occupation, solidarity with Palestinians and everything in between. Spaces like that have to develop or it will exacerbate the divide.”

Getz also believes that hearing the other side, something his show strongly promotes, can benefit hardliners, regardless of their political leanings. 

“Those spaces and honest dialogue help us better understand our own arguments,” he said. “We don’t always understand our own viewpoints fully until we are confronted by other human beings who voice a counterargument.”

In the play, Getz discusses his own progressive position. He opposes the occupation and is a proponent of a two-state solution. An illuminating moment comes when he refers to Israel’s fallen prime minister, Yitzak Rabin, as his “first political hero.”

During the early 1990s, Getz was a photographer for the Israeli military — his mandatory service. In 1995, on his final assignment, he took photos at the funeral for Rabin, who before his death was on the precipice of peace with Palestinian leadership.

When asked about Rabin, a drawn-out silence passed before Getz answered:

“Doing this play, I went back and thought about those times, and looked at those photos, and relived the trauma of the Rabin assassination and the death of the peace process, essentially — what I feel ended up being the death of the two-state solution,” he said. “This play is definitely a way for me, still, to mourn all that. And it definitely shaped my point of view.”

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