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‘Our Class,’ a timely play asking big questions about antisemitism, makes its New York premiere

(New York Jewish Week) —“But what could I do?” 

Variations of this question are asked again and again throughout Polish playwright Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s “Our Class.” The play is inspired by the real-life 1941 pogrom in the small Polish village of Jedwabne, in which local residents murdered hundreds of their Jewish neighbors.  

And now, at a time of increasing antisemitism stemming from Israel’s war with Hamas, “Our Class” makes its New York premiere at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fisher Fishman Space. 

“Our Class,” first produced in 2009, tracks 10 Jedwabne residents — half of them Jewish and half Catholic, with the majority of the characters based on real people — from 1925 through the pogrom and beyond. The characters begin as young classmates, children of 5 and 6 playing and learning together and dreaming of their futures. In this context, “But what could I do?” refers to harmless events, such as one student silently standing by while another is teased for his unrequited crush. As they reach young adulthood, the classmates are haplessly thrust into the roles of victim and perpetrator, and “But what could I do?” takes on a terrifying gravity. 

That the murderers in “Our Class” were conducted by Jews’ neighbors, rather than occupying German Nazis, is what made director Igor Golyak so eager to tackle Słobodzianek’s text. 

“It was just regular people, just like you and I, that could reach these heights of hate and find a reason to burn their neighbors,” Golyak, a Ukrainian Jew who immigrated to the United States at the age of 11, told the New York Jewish Week. 

Based in the Boston area, Golyak is the founder and artistic director of Arlekin Players Theater, a company made up of Jewish immigrants and refugees from Eastern Europe dedicated to presenting Russian theater. He’s gained acclaim in recent years for his virtual theater work, including “State vs. Natasha Banina,” which was a New York Times Critics Pick, and “chekhovOS/an experimental game/,” starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jessica Hecht. 

When Golyak and his creative team first read “Our Class” together in May 2023, they drew comparisons to the ongoing war in Ukraine. What they couldn’t have expected was how Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, and its aftermath that has included both a war in Gaza and global displays of antisemitism, have recast Słobodzianek’s play in a new light. 

“It feels very urgent, like it’s another recognition of the importance of not forgetting the antisemitism and hate that unfortunately exists in the world,” Golyak said. “We think this lies asleep in the world culture. But it is a very light sleeper.”  

The Jedwabne pogrom was thrust into the spotlight in 2001 with the publication of Jan T. Gross’ book “Neighbors.” Gross, a professor of history at Princeton University, discovered that despite public perception — and even a memorial in Jedwabne — the massacre of the village’s 1,600 Jews did not happen by the hands of the Nazis. Rather, it was the local Catholic Polish population who took the initiative in torturing, murdering and burning alive their neighbors. Gross’ revelation led Poland’s president, Aleksander Kwasniewski to apologize to the international Jewish community in 2001, though some Poles remained in denial. A decade later, on the 70th anniversary of the massacre, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski asked for forgiveness again.

More recently, however, the Polish government has adopted an official stance of denial, vigorously rejecting any claims of local complicity in the Nazi campaign against the Jews, which left 90% of Polish Jews dead.

Alexandra Silber, a Jewish actress with a ream of Broadway and West End credits who’s playing the part of Jewish classmate Rachelka, has also felt the tenor of the play shift since the events of Oct 7. “It’s made it horrifying and relevant in a new way,” she said. “I felt really called upon by Rachelka to serve her. I have a lot to say on her behalf.” 

Rachelka is one of a handful of Jewish characters in “Our Class” who aren’t killed in the pogrom. One of her Polish classmates hides her away and eventually marries her. She converts to Catholicism and changes her name. Like with each of the 10 classmates, Rachelka’s journey raises its own questions. 

“Is it better to survive?” reflects Silber. “Rachelka’s Jewishness, her Jewish name, her Jewish soul departs, and she has to live as a new person. Every single thing about her survivor’s life does not resemble who she began as, and is that better?” 

Alongside Silber, the cast is made up of actors hailing from New York, Los Angeles, Ukraine and Russia, and includes both Jewish artists and some with Polish roots. “We’ve really created an unbelievable diversity of humanity in our group of 10,” Silber said. 

Golyak adds that after the Oct. 7 attack, the cast came together in a series of discussions. “We have cast members and team members, designers, that were personally affected by Oct. 7 because of relatives and friends that have actually been murdered,” he said. “So it’s been a very, very personal journey.”

While “Our Class” dives deeply into its challenging subject matter, it is not without its moments of levity. 

“I’m trying to find a lot of humor in this play because people are funny, and that’s what makes them humans and humane,” Golyak said. “We can relate to people that make mistakes and are sometimes funny and sometimes awkward, and these people are just like us.”

New York audiences will have the chance to see themselves most clearly in the character of Abram, the only one of the 10 classmates who left for the United States before the 1941 pogrom. Throughout the play, Abram (played by “Indecent” star Richard Topol) communicates with his old friends through letters, trying to piece together the conflicting information he receives from the safety of his home in New York. 

Abram serves as a foil, a reminder of the fallibility and subjectivity of memory. “We need to understand this as people living in America, separated by the ocean from evil,” Golyak said. “The more relatable Abram is, the more we understand that this evil is actually closer than we think.”

Technology has become a hallmark of Golyak’s work, and this production uses devices such as a fake documentary movie set — complete with an onstage camera person — along with chalk drawings and projections, to expose elements of the characters’ journeys. He’s joined by a creative team including scenic designer Jan Pappelbaum, music director Lisa Gutkin, choreographer Or Schraiber, and many more.

“Our Class” raises a lot of questions, but neither Słobodzianek nor Golyak are interested in offering simple answers. But for the director, that’s precisely the point. 

“It’s very difficult to overcome these big events in one’s life, and I’m definitely not here to judge who did the right thing or the wrong thing, because I don’t know how I would act in these situations,” Golyak said. “But the beauty of this play is that it asks these questions.”

“Our Class” will be performed through Feb. 4 at BAM’s Fisher Fishman space (321 Ashland Pl., Brooklyn). Tickets start at $59.

The post ‘Our Class,’ a timely play asking big questions about antisemitism, makes its New York premiere appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Top Swiss Diplomat Appointed to Mediate Tensions Between Jewish Tourists, Businesses in Davos Ski Resort

A Hebrew sign at the Pischa Restaurant in the Swiss resort of Davos informing Jewish guests that they are banned from renting ski equipment. Photo: Screenshot

The tourism authority in the exclusive Swiss mountain resort of Davos has appointed a top diplomat to mediate the growing tensions between local businesses and Orthodox Jewish visitors as complaints of antisemitism increase.

Michael Ambühl — the former State Secretary of Switzerland previously in charge of the country’s relationship with the European Union (EU)  — will head a task force to tackle the problem, Swiss media outlets reported on Friday.

The announcement of Ambühl’s appointment comes just days after the resort was roiled by the refusal of a restaurant that operates a ski equipment rental store to provide services to Jewish guests.

A sign in Hebrew at the Pischa Restaurant in Davos stated that “due to various very annoying incidents, including the theft of a sledge, we no longer rent sports equipment to our Jewish brothers. This affects all sports equipment such as sledges, airboards, skis and snowshoes. Thank you for your understanding.”

Swiss police are currently investigating the incident as a possible case of discrimination. One Israeli tourist reported that he had visited the Pischa Restaurant where he “pretended not to understand Hebrew and asked if we could rent the equipment. After the woman consulted with the manager, she rejected our request.”

The tourism authority’s decision has irritated the country’s main Jewish representative body, the Swiss Israelite Association (SIG), which had been engaged in a separate dialog with the authority about accommodating Jewish guests that was abruptly closed down last year.

“The latest case shows that something is obviously wrong in Davos,” SIG General Secretary Jonathan Kreutner said in remarks quoted by the Blick news outlet.

Kreutner said that “comparable problems are not known from other holiday destinations, especially in those where our dialogue program is still active.” Kreutner acknowledged that the tourism authority “wants to take a new path, but we don’t yet know what it looks like and where it will lead.”

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‘Israel Outright Rejects International Dictates’: Biden Creating Plan For Palestinian State, Netanyahu Pushes Back: Report

US President Joe Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the 78th UN General Assembly in New York City, US, Sept. 20, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

US President Joe Biden, along with a number of Arab states, are quickly working to form a plan to end the Israel-Hamas war and create a Palestinian state, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday, sparking pushback from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The first step of such a plan would be for Israel and Hamas to agree to a six-week ceasefire in exchange for the Israeli hostages. Then, during that pause in fighting, the U.S. and its Arab partners would announce the plan and start to form an interim Palestinian government.

The US, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates are all reportedly are part of the talks, which have an ultimate goal of creating a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Washington Post also suggests that Israel may be expected to expel many of its own citizens from West Bank settlements and help rebuild Gaza.

The development of these plans is part of the reason Biden has cautioned Israel against moving on to fighting Hamas in Rafah — the terrorist group’s last stronghold. He believes such a ground offensive could jeopardize the prospect of peace. 

In a statement on Thursday, the White House said Biden “raised the situation in Rafah [during a call with Netanyahu], and reiterated his view that a military operation should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the civilians in Rafah.”

In response to these reports and the conversation he had with Biden, Netanyahu wrote that “Israel outright rejects international dictates regarding a permanent settlement with the Palestinians. Such an arrangement will be reached only through direct negotiations between the parties, without preconditions.”

He added, “Israel will continue to oppose the unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. Such recognition in the wake of the October 7 massacre would give a huge reward to unprecedented terrorism and prevent any future peace settlement.”

The tension represents the latest hiccup in Biden and Netanyahu’s relationship, which has grown increasingly sour since October 7 as Biden put pressure on Israel to wind down its fight against Hamas.

Netanyahu, jpwever, was not the only one to question the prudence of the proposed American-led plan. Left-leaning group Democratic Majority for Israel said in a post on Twitter/X: “We have always favored a two state solution. But right now, how do we ensure the lesson does not become ‘sheer evil,’ pays? That must be a central part of any plan.”

Richard Goldberg, a Senior Advisor at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies contended that the plan “is doomed to fail for several reasons. Two big ones: It’s premised on Hamas surviving and involves Qatar.” 

“Israel will be in a much stronger position after it takes Rafah,” he argued.

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Harvard University Issued Subpoenaed for Antisemitism Documents

Pro-Hamas students rallying at Harvard University. Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder

Following weeks of warnings and ultimatums, the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce subpoenaed Harvard University on Friday to hand over documents related to its handling of allegations of antisemitic intimidation and harassment.

The order represents an escalation of tactics by the House Committee, which began investigating Harvard University last semester to determine whether it ignores complaints of discrimination when the victims who lodge them are Jewish. Since then, Harvard has been asked twice to submit a trove of materials requested by the committee.

Last week, Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) wrote Harvard a censorious letter accusing school officials of obstructing the committee’s investigation with “grossly insufficient” responses to its inquires and submitting content of a “limited and dilatory nature.”

In a statement to Reuters, Harvard maintained that it has cooperated with the committee in “good faith,” providing “10 submissions totaling more than 3,500 pages that directly address key areas of inquiry put forward by the committee.” Chairwoman Foxx told the outlet, however that the problem is one of “quality, not quantity,” suggesting that Harvard is frenetically pantomiming compliance without providing anything of substance.

Foxx has requested “all reports of antisemitic acts or incidents and “related communications” going back to 2021 that were sent to Harvard’s offices of the president, general counsel, dean of students, police department, human resources, and diversity, equity, and inclusion, among others. She also requested documentation on Harvard Kennedy School professor Marshall Ganz, who, the school determined, had “denigrated” several students for being “Israeli Jews.” Originally, Foxx gave Harvard a deadline of Jan. 23 by which to comply.

“While a subpoena was unwarranted, Harvard remains committed to cooperating with the committee and will continue to provide additional materials, while protecting the legitimate privacy, safety, and security concerns of our community,” Harvard told Reuters.

“We will use our full congressional authority to hold these schools accountable for their failure on the global stage,” said committee member and Harvard Alumnus Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) in a statement announcing the action.

The past four months have been described by critics of Harvard as a low-point in the history of the school, America’s oldest and, arguably, most prestigious institution of higher education. Since the October 7 massacre by Hamas, Harvard has been accused of fostering a culture of racial grievance and antisemitism, while important donors have suspended funding for programs, and its first Black president, Claudine Gay, resigned in disgrace last month after being outed as a serial plagiarizer. Her tenure was the shortest in the school’s history.

As scenes of Hamas terrorists abducting children and desecrating dead bodies circulated worldwide, 31 student groups at Harvard, led by the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) issued a statement blaming Israel for the attack and accusing the Jewish state of operating an “open air prison” in Gaza, despite that the Israeli military withdrew from the territory in 2005. In the weeks that followed, anti-Zionists stormed the campus screaming “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “globalize the intifada,” terrorizing Jewish students and preventing some from attending class.

In Novevmber, a mob of anti-Zionists — including Ibrahim Bharmal, editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review — followed, surrounded, and intimidated a Jewish student. “Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” the crush of people screamed in a call-and-response chant into the ears of the student who —as seen in the footage — was forced to duck and dash the crowd to free himself from the cluster of bodies that encircled him.

By Dec., Claudine Gay —  along with Elizabeth Magill of University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and Sally Kornbluth of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — was hauled before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to account for her administration’s handling of the problem. For weeks, Gay was reluctant to punish students who chanted genocidal slogans and unequivocally condemn antisemitism. During questioning, she told the committee that determining whether calling for a genocide of Jews constitutes a violation of school rules depends “on the context.”

Two days later, the committee launched investigations of Harvard, Penn, and MIT.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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