Who's Afraid of Elie Wiesel? Theater J's Ari Roth was always willing to defy any critic. So why did he cave to a Nobel laureate?

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BERNIE:I wanted to tell Wiesel. Of all people! Wiesel, on that night, I wanted to tell! ... I wanted to say: Wake up, asshole! Wake up! I can’t stand that shit! It’s a danger to the world, that picture, that idea of moral men! —p. 32

Roth, even after the cancellation, still talks like a guy who’s willing to brawl in the name of defending creative freedom. “We’re up for a good fight, man,” he says. He should know: Under his guidance, Theater J has held readings of controversial plays that have taken sharply critical stances towards Israel—irking many of the JCC’s members.

Several years ago, it staged a private reading of My Name is Rachel Corrie, about an American activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip. The New York Theater Workshop had previously cancelled the play in the face of criticism; Roth thought it worthy of consideration but then found it to be a mediocre work. Theater J later revisited the subject with a Fringe Festival monologue about the controversy. And, last March, it held a public reading of English playwright Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children (along with a companion piece, Seven Palestinian Children, by Margolin). Some critics denounced Seven Jewish Children as anti-Semitic—a denunciation that left Roth undeterred.

“People feel like this last year’s been a humdinger,” says Roth. “The last year has increased the ways in which Theater J is discussed in the community… We’ve heard more from the community in the last year, and the JCC has heard more, than at any point in my tenure.” That’d be 13 years.


Initially, it looked like Imagining Madoff would carry on in that tradition. The theater greenlit the play after what Roth describes as a “relevatory” reading last December. Theater J commissoned promotional artwork for Imagining Madoff by the artist David Polonsky, chief animator of the art-house hit Waltz with Bashir. Polonsky originally drew a poster featuring both Madoff and Wiesel; in a later version he removed Wiesel.

So why did Roth decide to duck a fight this time? Interviews with Roth, members of Theater J’s governing council, and top JCC administrators suggest that he never even considered attempting to go forward with the original version once Wiesel raised objections. “Wiesel is part of the family,” he says, referring to Wiesel’s symbolic relationship with Jewish artists and the Jewish community. That could apply to Roth’s own family, too. His mother, who as a child was hidden from the Nazis during World War II, has been acquainted with Wiesel for half a century; he advises the Holocaust Education Foundation of Chicago, of which she is a founder. And they’re friends: Roth says Wiesel heard him sing Adon Olam in Chicago when he was 12.

But Roth says that the difference also had to do with the aggreived party’s role in the conflict: While the authors of Rachel Corrie and Seven Jewish Children are sharply critical of Israel—and hence invite a reaction from the Jewish state’s defenders—no one involved in Imagining Madoff thinks of Wiesel as a bad guy in the Ponzi schemer’s criminality. (Roth, in fact, says he wanted Wiesel’s blessing; so does Margolin.)

“This play was designed to reconstruct something of Bernie Madoff’s motivations and confer some pathos on Elie Wisesel. But to him it represented—he felt the play was defaming,” says Roth. “That is not a fight we want to have—when you’re looking at that kind of traumatic reaction, that’s not a fight we would want to have.”

All the same, it’s not a fight they necessarily would have lost, either. In fact, Margolin had prepared for a bit of blowback. Some time before she wrote her letter to Wiesel, Margolin also asked a lawyer friend of hers to take a look at Imagining Madoff. In a memo, the New York attorney wrote that Theater J had the right to use Wiesel’s name and likeness in a work of art because he is a public figure. Whether the play was potentially defamatory was a trickier question. Lawrence B. Steinberg, a lawyer practicing entertainment litigation in Los Angeles, says that as long as Imagining Madoff was clearly labeled a work of fiction, a public figure like Wiesel would have a hard time in court. To establish defamation, he’d have to prove malice. But if Wiesel would have difficulty winning a suit, that wouldn’t stop him from bringing one. (After Margolin began revising her play, the JCC’s counsel looked at the proposed name changes and concluded the work would no longer be legally actionable.)

That wasn’t enough for Roth, who felt that the gray areas of the law could land him in court—a place he’d willingly go to defend some sorts of creative freedom, but not the right to offend Elie Wiesel. “It was never Elie Wiesel,” Roth says. “It was a metaphor. But if it’s to be discussed in court, it’s too expensive a conversation. I love that question. I think we should debate it forever—it just requires a leap for the subject being dramatized to accept or tolerate this sympathetic diversion from the truth.”

After Wiesel informed Margolin that he would not give her play his blessing, and Roth and Margolin decided to revise the work, Roth informed Theater J’s governing council. He says there was no dissent. “It was strong, risky writing,” says Stephen Stern, a council member. “I personally like that aesthetic but there are other considerations, even in the world of art. Sometimes, you draw back in terms of other human considerations.” In other words, sometimes you decide you’re not up for a good fight, man.

“I think if it had been somebody else with a lesser name, we would’ve done that,” says Irene Wurtzel, a playwright and a chair of Theater J’s council. “But it just was so significant a character—so significant a name. It was just, ‘let’s not go there.’”

And critics of the decision—in the theater community, everyone’s a critic—think Theater J’s failure to go there is an embarassment. Isaac Butler, a New York-based director and theater blogger who helps helm the influential blog Parabasis, says Roth’s decision to offer the foundation a look at the rewrite was problematic.

“I thought it was cowardly, and I said so at the time,” Butler says. “If Ari Roth and Elie Wiesel are such close friends, why did he threaten to sue them rather than picking up the phone? And when lawsuits were threatened, why didn’t Roth cover his company’s and his playwright’s back? I know he’s [Wiesel’s] friend. But that doesn’t matter. He’s the artistic director of a theater. He has a loyalty to his community, but he also has a loyalty to his artists. And I honestly think he was trying to navigate that relationship and it blew up in his face.”

Of course, Butler—his mother is Susan Butler, chair of Studio Theatre’s board—understands the competing interests Roth faces. “Theater J is a community-based theater,” Butler says. “They have different missions and different responsibilities and work differently from theaters that are independent nonprofits.” All the same, he thinks Roth’s creative side should have won out. “I think as an artist, as a director, the proper response would be, ‘Go fuck yourself, I believe in this play and I’m doing it.’”

Ford, the J’s chief program officer, says the JCC has always given Roth complete freedom—even when he wants to use controversial material.

“He’s an artist with a great deal of influence and sway and we respect that,” Ford says, describing Theater J and the JCC’s relationship as “mutually beneficial.” When the JCC’s board of directors does weigh in on matters related to Theater J, it’s almost always for budgetary reasons, Ford says. Theater J’s annual operating budget is about $1 million, although it doesn’t have to pay rent or utilities.

And for every controversial play it stages, Theater J also produces plenty of crowd-pleasing fare. To wit: Its 2010-2011 season features productions of The Odd Couple and The Chosen. Imagining Madoff will be replaced by Willy Holtzman’s Something You Did.

So it picks its battles. “It’s a question of degree,” says Wurtzel. “And, you know, when you’re a theater and you’re always counting your pennies, who needs a lawsuit? You say, ‘Too bad, but I’ll look for alternatives.’ If you don’t have alternatives, it’s different.”

The actor Rick Foucheux, who would’ve played Madoff in the play (the other roles weren’t cast), says he admired the play but, upon reflection, didn’t think it required the specificity of the tête-a-tête : “As far as I was concerned it didn’t have to be Elie Wiesel and it didn’t have to be Bernie Madoff.”

Asked if Imagining Madoff has been diminished by the removal of Wiesel’s name, Roth says: “Yes, it’ll lose something, but it could gain something.”

Our Readers Say

I'm deeply disappointed in the theater for caving in to "censorship by request". Artistic license is part of the creative endeavor and Mr. Wiesel's request was simply that.

The decision to comply speaks of a sad state of affairs for American theater.
I'm all for having a fight to defend artistic license; and Theater J had and keeps the right to produce this piece. But as a former student of Deb's, I know the depth of her connection to her subjects as well as her own vision. Ultimatley, this isn't about a lawsuit. Roth and Margolin both have immense respect for Wiesel. Seeking his blessing wasn't about avoiding a battle in court, it was about preserving the dignity and integrity of someone for whom they have that level of respect.

Every piece of theater is more than just a piece of art removed from the world; it is art embodied in the world. To produce a play is to stand before a group of others and make a statement. I can understand why neither Margolin nor Roth want to make a stand for a statement that offends a friend a pillar of their community. That Wiesel sees her play as offensive is sad. That Theater J chose not to go ahead with the play upholds the spirit of generous community that Theater J, Ellie Wiesel, and Deb Margolin all stand for, and is in best traditions of writing.
To those who have studied Wiesel he is not a symbol of moral clarity but rather an icon of hypocrisy. He lies about the Palestinian dispossession in 1948 and has never been able to apologize for the massacre committed by his employer at Deir Yassin. He hides the truth of what he personally lost to Bernie Madoff, which some have estimated to be over $20 million. Rather than bow to his wishes and threats, the theater group should recognize him in the words of Noam Chomsky as a "terrible fraud."
I too have long considered Elie Wiesel to be an egomaniac and an intellectual and aesthetic fraud. His greed driven association with Madoff (because 20% returns were his due, of course)only underscores the level to which he is a moral fraud as well.

Ms. Margolin seems to have constructed a character that is far deeper intellectually and spiritually, far more grounded morally, far more complex, then Wiesel, rather an intellectual for the weak minded, has ever been. The key for Ms. Margolin in salvaging this piece might lie in recognizing that the reason Wiesel objected to this characterization was that it was so glaringly far above him. Wiesel knows on some instinctive level that he is unworthy of this veneration.

Ari Roth, in my mind, seems badly tarnished by this episode. Let it be for him an opportunity for growth that might provide Theater J with a stronger platform from which to launch its next phase. Roth might recognize the petulant adolescent that Elie Wiesel has proved himself to be and shed the preconceived notions embedded in his psyche by Wiesel's careful management of his own public image. By casting aside the imposter, Wiesel, Roth might truly open his stage to more righteous portrayals of a "certain kind of jewish morality."

I look forward to seeing this work fully realized at some point in the future and hope Ms. Margolin finds the support she needs at Theater J to that end.
I agree with comment #2. The City Paper piece is framed as a question whether Theater J had the courage to "stand up to" Elie Wiesel or, more personally, whether Ari Roth was "man enough" to do it. There are many other values in life, many of them far more important, than such playground-type baiting.

Whether Elie Wiesel deserves the respect the world seems to accord him is a different issue; I had thought so but haven't studied his life. What seems clear to me, though, is that theatres must be free to make production decisions on any basis they choose, whether it involves tearing down icons or respecting them, and that there is courage also in ignoring demands from any quarter to make other kinds of choices. For my money, Ari Roth's track record amply demonstrates his personal and artistic courage.

Wiesel's detractors are more than welcome to produce a play trashing Wiesel with their resources. Ari Roth made a decision in accordance with his own conscience, and that is all I expect from him. He wasn't bowing to financial pressure or public opinion, but the feelings of someone he respects. The fact that WCP feels the need to frame such a simple human dynamic - respect - as a battle of wills and who's the bigger man is far sadder than any other aspect of this episode.

As an aside, I'm not sure why Wiesel objects so strenuously, but whatever. He's an old man who's led a difficult life, and like anyone he's free to object to any public portrayal of himself he finds distasteful. Theater J is free to abide by or defy that objection; I see nothing cowardly in their call.
The Wiesel is at it again.

jEWS only believe in suppressing others. They are genocidal megalomaniacs.
jews are terrorists. Mel Gibson changed his Passion script because he stated that he feared jews would come to his house and kill him.

jews are a clear and present danger to America and everything it is supposed to represent.
Hawaii Shaloha Education Off-shore Nation Building from Paper Forged Shangri-la Fantasy Island sovereign Paradise: "Look Boss, de Planes"! Made In Amerika? The Project For A New AIPAC Century [PNAC]: "A New Pearl Harbor"? [Paul Wolfowitz: DOD - World Bankster: DC / Asian Development Banksters, Manila, PI / International Monetary Fundsters: DC to the French Socio-Economic Engineers: "Yes We Khan"!]

Ref: Black Gold Holy Secret Warriors De-Classified: "The Swiss, The Gold, and The Dead" from "Waltzing With A Dictator: The Marcoses And The Making of American Policy" [Ray Bonner] links: The Evil Roots of Good, The Evil Roots of Bad, The Evil Roots of Ugly under The public subsidized Amerikan Idols of Greed [A.I.G.] with Aloha from the U.S. Militar cross-roads in the remote U.S. Offshore South Pacific [Camp Smith] for: "The Crimes of Patriots" [Jonathon Kwitny]: Old Soldiers never die, they just never....ever....fade away: "Killing Hope: The U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War 11" [William Blum];

Public Scope for well calculated All-Amerikan Politico Frauds: The Knights of Malta; Opus Dei; Jesues Angleton [CIA]; 1948 Israeli War of Independence; Meyer Lansky [Murder Inc]; Jewish Defense League [JDL]; Kissinger of Death New York Associates [9/11 WTC Commission "Report"]; Classified Family Jewels Report [Church Commission with Inside Staffer Mole - future AIPAC Executive Leader: Tom Dine [1980 - 1993] to Steve Rosen [1993 - 1999: Clinton - Ken C.V. Starr extorted Lewinsky investigation DOD spy ring with Keith Weissman Pardoned by Obama Administration visa Jane Harmon [Woodrow Wilson Institute] & Douglas Feith [Cox & Zell]; and the Ford 1976 Halloween Massacre; The 1976 Foreign Soverign Immunities Act [FSIA]; CIA: Allan Dulles, John McCone, Richrad Helms, James Schlesinger, William Colby, George H.W. Bush, William Casey ["The Man Nobody Knew"]; Former Nixon Sect of Labor - former Nixon Sect of Treasury - former Reagan Sect of State: George Schultz: S.F. Bohemian Club; = "Fifth Column: The Host and The Parasite" [Greg Felton];

Hawaii Aloha Hana Hou Compromised: "It Takes A Pillage" [Naomi Prins]for The Best Fascist Shadow Government Money Can Buy: "Although you may never see us, we are in your everyday lives" [Office of Hawaiian Affairs]: Hawaii Shaloha Hana Hou: "Democracy in America is being undermined [hyjacked] from within. It's been going on for a long time and it's getting worse. [i.e. Koch Industries, Jackson Stevens Inc, Sheldon Adelson, Bernie Madoff, "Casino Jack And The United States of Money"]. Not only that, but we're being forced to fund the deception" [V - Ventura];

We are Bank Fraud Legions: "Never Forget - Never Forgive....expect us"! Voltaire: "In general, the art of government consits of taking as much money [private targeted properties, "smart" business ideas, privatized personal assets] as possible from one class of citizens to give to another"? Hana Hou...."Yes We Khan"!

Jews planned to exterminate the entire German people well before Hitler came to power. The results of Jewish-run World War Two were millions of dead Germans.

And all we hear about is the mythical holocaust of six million; heard from the mouths of frauds like Ellie Wiesel.

All Jews are murderers of the race of mankind. John 8:44.

"The Germans cannot understand the talk of civilized people. They must be approached in their own idiom. That's why I wrote 'Germany Must Perish.'" [The Canadian Jewish Chronicle, 26 September 1941] Written BEFORE WWII and the "holocaust."

"..... the solution for the ills of the world lies in sterilization of the German people." [Ibid.]

"I advocate the sterilization of all Germans." [Ibid.]

"The goal of abolishing the white race is on its face so desirable that some may find it hard to believe that it could incur any opposition other than from committed white supremacists." [Jewish Doctor, Noel Ignatiev, Harvard Magazine]

"There is much in the fact that Bolshevism itself, in the fact that so many Jews are Bolshevists, in the fact that the ideals of Bolshevism at many points are consonant with the finest ideals of Judaism." [The Jewish Chronicle, April 4, 1919]

"The Bolshevist revolution was largely the outcome of Jewish idealism. What it so powerfully contributed to accomplish in Russia, the same historic Jewish qualities of Jewish mind and heart are tending to produce in other countries". [The American Hebrew, September 10, 1920]

The International Jewish crime syndicate uses the holocaust hoax to denounce all who oppose their agenda for a world ruled by Jews. Jews use the holocaust as an excuse to blend the white races out of existence through massive non-white immigration into white countries and only into white countries. It is genocide.

"We have been at war with him (Hitler) from the day that he gained power." [The London Jewish Chronicle, May 8, 1942, "Sermon of the Week."]

Rabbi M. Perlzweig, head of the British Section of the World Jewish Congress, speaking in Canada, stated: "The World Jewish Congress has been at war with Germany for seven years." (Toronto Evening Telegram, February 26, 1940.) {Long before the "holocaust."}

Vladimir Jabotinsky, Jew-communist and founder of the Irgun terrorist organization wrote in the January 1934 issue of Natcha Retch: "The fight against Germany has been carried on for months by every Jewish community, conference, congress, trade organization, by every Jew in the world, There is reason to believe that our part in the struggle will be of general value. We shall let loose a spiritual and material war of the whole world against Germany. Germany's ambition is to become a great nation again, to reconquer her lost territories and colonies. Our Jewish interests on the other hand demand the complete destruction of Germany. The German nation is collectively and individually a danger to us Jews."

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