Parsing the Jewish American Complex

In Itamar Moses’s new play The Ally, the “trickiest question”—“whether the fight against anti-Semitism belongs as a coequal branch of the social justice movement”—is itself a kind of trick question. Articulated through Moses’s academic alter ego in the play, Asaf Sternheim, a forty-something adjunct professor of playwriting played by TV star Josh Radnor, the trickiness of the question is its appeal for more Jewish American inclusion and understanding in an age of supremacist violence and trigger hating. Is there a place for Jewish psychic, affective, and intellectual complexity beyond Zionist demagoguery? Can a reasonable, liberal Jewish conscience align the struggle against anti-Semitism with Palestinian freedom and global racial liberation while also being pro-Israel? In the guilt-ridden Jewish American complex, will the fault only pile up for the good Jew who suffers internally for not doing enough good in the world while the contradictions of his positions implode around Israel and Palestine?

The Ally’s treatment of this quintessentially Jewish American predicament is arguably at the heart of the play. As the titular protagonist, Sternheim is a mostly supportive but ultimately conflicted and even contentious ally. He is all for the country’s racial reckoning but his unspeakable ethnonationalist feelings for the continuing legitimation of a Jewish state (even as he may object to Israel’s actions) sets him on a path that is diametrically opposed to the American Left. To put it another way, Sternheim believes there are compelling historical reasons for Israel to exist whether or not it is to blame for any number of state crimes or crimes against humanity. The soft spot pulls him back from what he deems to be inflammatory critiques analogizing Zionist militarism with colonial policing and indiscriminate Palestinian killings with the slow genocide of Black Americans. A #BLM manifesto-petition that tags on those critiques of Israel becomes the linchpin of his isolation after he retracts his signature, and students turn on him.

Meanwhile, progressive allies around him rush to align and activate their intersectional solidarities with Palestine while he is singled out as a PEP (progressive except for Palestine), and no longer that cool, hip, or young professor. But what Sternheim wants to do is simply to cover all his bases and hear every side of the argument. Why is he being “canceled” for wanting to say and hear more? Besides, his position as contingent faculty and a trailing spouse is neither privileged nor secure, and he has stuck his neck out to be the sole faculty sponsor of a Jewish-Palestinian student solidarity group. Is his milieu or temporality out of sync with the urgencies of the time? Like Israel, he is feeling attacked, defensive, and misunderstood. Surrounded by perceived hostilities, his liberal temperament and allyship are tested to the limit. Will his quiet grace finally blow up?

Crucially, The Ally’s rhetorical trick is sympathetically wrapped up in a campus drama of au courant issues from racial abjection, economic dispossession, university gentrification, and neoliberal pedagogies to illiberal pragmatism. Driven by riveting monologues and academic dialogues, the play’s diverse constellation of social observations and cultural critiques is itself a tour de force. They capture the pulse of our troubled times with earnest theses around our shared humanity one minute and accusatory indictments in the next. As for its incendiary topicality around Israel and Palestine, the play drew expressive groans and sighs from the packed audience at The Public in New York City whenever terms like “settler colonialism, genocide, and apartheid” were sequentially invoked. Much of the scorn was reserved for the brusque “wokeness” of the Jewish American student organizer who was lightly parodied in contradistinction to the leveled circumspection and respectable rage of the other characters.

It prompts a follow-up question: from whose point of view is parsing a trick or tricky question even possible? Who has the rights to, or space and time for, complex feelings and speech? As is clear, Israel and Palestine hover over the questions and their difficult terrains as two actors bigger than all the social justice warriors combined in their collective demand for space, corrective recognition, and humanistic understanding of the “other.” Across the US, universities are conflating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, and cautioning anyone who dares to cross the line that they will be met with procedural scrutiny and punitive treatment. Billionaire donors are coming out as a trifecta with MAGA Republicans and rightwing operatives to apply extreme pressure on universities to comply, forcing Ivy League Presidents to resign on charges of institutional anti-Semitism. Pro-Palestine student protestors are charged for trespassing on their own campuses, their names blacklisted on Wall Street.

Meanwhile, over 1.9 million Palestinians or over 80% of the population are forcefully displaced, bombs raining on them as they flee Israeli forces. The unspeakable cruelty of civilian death, over 30k and counting, is treated with the coldness of bureaucratic rationality: “Of course I’m not shocked because that’s what happens in war,” says Hillary Clinton when asked about the high civilian casualty at Berlin’s Cinema for Peace, World Forum event on Feb 19, 2024.  With no way out of Israel’s “right to defend itself” and all-out revenge for the 1200 lives lost to Hamas’s sneak attack on October 7, whatever nuance was imaginable for Palestinian psychic and performative complexity is left in the dust. Is parsing Palestinian suffering from all points of view even appropriate at this point?

For Aaron Bushnell, a US Air Force serviceman, and another unidentified woman who self-immolated in front of the Israeli embassies in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta respectively, there are no words left but “Free Palestine.” The spectacular shuttering of Palestinian lives and speech is tragically symbolized by the flames engulfing their bodies. The deathly ritual is a moral statement by gallant protestors around the world, from the Vietnam War to the Arab Spring. Bushnell said his “extreme act of protest” is “not extreme” at all “compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers.” His last act is a refusal to be “complicit in genocide.” Even then, the state’s military carceral complex would not let him off—a US secret service agent pointed a gun at him while another shouted, “I don’t need guns, I need fire extinguishers.”

The play asks, who is the real ally in the face of insurmountable conflict, endless war, structural violence, and willful misunderstanding? The social justice warrior, the self-immolator, the pragmatic middleman, or the Jewish American college professor? With all eyes on Sternheim, the limits of Jewish American liberal subjectivity are on full display. They are not so much an indictment on him per se as they are an indictment of liberalism’s equivocations and academic cowardice. And speaking academically, is the US-American university even equipped to handle the intellectual, social, and emotional weight of that discussion given its moral deracination? As critics have noted, US and Israeli universities are extensions of the settler colonial, neoliberal capitalist state. Caught in its state-sanctioned narratives, institutional logics, and administrative technologies, Sternheim’s dilemmas and lack of good options are as much a personal dilemma as they are a system design. To put it another way, his casualized labor is disposable in the university as an arm of the settler-colonial state, and what he sees and feels are determined in part by that frame.

Moreover, the play’s aesthetic frame is bound by realism’s structure of representation and identitarian coordinates. Moses cooks a potent version of political realism in a cauldron sometimes simmering and sometimes boiling with righteous rhetoric but always with an Ibsenian flair—as if to extract the genre’s continuing dialogic power on contemporary, issue-based theater. That aesthetic choice, which runs the gamut from forum theater, Theatre of the Oppressed, to other modes of socially engaged productions, is The Ally’s and by extension the figurative ally’s rhetorical seduction and Achilles heel. The fire of realism’s identificatory prism and emotional heft is everywhere to be seen and felt in the play’s multicultural casting, middle-class sensibility, inter-racial triangulation, and liberal conscience.

Sternheim is married to an Asian American woman professor and was previously with a Black American woman activist; each played up requisite racial injuries that are embroiled or entangled in his Jewish American subjectivity. In their multicultural surround are students representing the left-leaning Jewish-Palestinian-Black solidarity triad. He is at the center of them all. He self-identifies adamantly as a “reasonable” defender of Israel because of his hippie-dippy, atheist, Berkeley upbringing. The complexity of his dilemma is constituted by unmarked identities: “a progressive, a husband, an artist, an academic, an American, an atheist, and a Jew.” Consciously or not, Moses has imbued in Sternheim the dramatic entitlements of a heteronormative, Jewish American man as the only fully realized character. Everyone else revolves around him as an identifiable visitor or Other with a compelling thesis statement. Yet, the promise of multicentric understanding based on discrete identities also foregrounds its representational vulnerability and structural limit. Is the cost of humanization propped up by a descriptive all-siderism the cancellation of any viable position? Or, does it portend a purposeful open-endedness with an appeal to something like religious faith, a contemplative practice available even to an atheist like Sternheim at the synagogue?

There are no easy answers to any of this, not if everyone was right and everybody was wrong at the same time. Can theater inject a new understanding and dialogue to what is already fractured and irreparable in an age of racial reckoning and geopolitical conflict marked by unimaginable personal losses and ideological encampments? Perhaps the timeliness of this play has brought outsize demands for theater to inject a new understanding to the Israel and Palestine conflict. What The Ally does best is its emotional explication of a Jewish American man’s relational mindscape, diasporic complex, and intellectual process as he faces difficult, perhaps even impossible, positions that are both his own and beyond his own. In this regard, the play’s monumental achievement is its constellation of encounters, positions, and people in a Jewish American complex, both psychic and infrastructural, that is a work-in-progress, frightfully imperfect, and aspiring to another level of humanness that is yet to come.

Eng-Beng Lim

Eng-Beng Lim is an associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and the founding director of the Consortium of Studies in Race, Migration, and Sexuality at Dartmouth College. He is currently a visiting faculty fellow at Wellesley College’s Newhouse Center for the Humanities. He is the author of the award-winning Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spellbinding Performance in the Asias (NYU Press, 2014), which examines the legacies of queer colonialism in the performance of orientalist intimacies across Asia and Asia America. His current monograph projects include "Megastructures of Feeling," which extends Raymond Williams’s “structures of feeling” to architectural utopias and migration; "Ethnocuties," a visual study of photography and fantasy art by artists exploring radical queer friendship forged with plants or through aesthetic experimentations that are uncanny, wild, and cute; and a multi-volume anthology of one-act immigration plays by Asian American performers and writers.