A little more than halfway through Via Dolorosa— at about the point that Palestinian voices enter David Hare’s account of his trip to Israel and the Occupied Territories— he describes a meeting with the theater director George Ibrahim and the poet Hussein Barghouti. Hare recounts their explanations for why they failed to bring a collaborative theater project to fruition. He quotes Barghouti: “We didn’t agree because I don’t deal with audiences. I’m a poet. I make a good artistic text. I’m not interested in how it will be received.”
Hare, of course, knows better. Though he begins his 90-minute monologue by suggesting that in this work he will reverse his typical project as a playwright— “putting words in other people’s mouths”— he does not for a second lose sight of the audience. Indeed, Hare plays the perfect tour guide as he walks us through his dolorous yet astonished steps from the nightlife of Tel Aviv to Shabbat in a West Bank settlement, from the dusty poverty of Gaza to the lively cafés of Ramallah. He gestures toward risky ideas along the way, at perspectives or details that might nudge us away from liberal pieties if we had time enough to explore them, but he quickly moves us along to the next site, making sure we don’t step off the path to meet any real danger.
Hare has said that his title serves to mark his role as outsider, as Christian observer, but his Via Dolorosa equally applies to the well-worn trail he treads from station to station of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I should confess that I have been down that road many times myself and have, over the years, interviewed many of Hare’s subjects. But I have also taken alternative routes— they do exist— so Hare’s careful tiptoeing past unpleasant points and avoidance of unsure avenues is all the more glaring to me.
Despite widespread acclaim for the piece’s bravery, Via Dolorosa offers a familiar narrative that naturalizes the conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Jewish Israelis. The work is thoroughly ahistorical— the conflict is presented as a given, like the scruffy landscape, simply a fact of the region. And it is completely apolitical. Sure, Hare quotes Israelis and Palestinians denouncing the intransigence of Netanyahu or the corruption of Arafat— it’s impossible to talk to anyone there for two minutes before they are doing one or the other or both. But Hare is not interested in engaging the messy business of land appropriation, housing demolition, administrative detention. He doesn’t want to delve into the reasons Hamas recruitment works, or the ways the negotiating process doesn’t. “My subject as a playwright,” he states, “has been faith.”
And this, of course, is why Via Dolorosa is such a huge hit, particularly in New York, where a large portion of the audience is Jewish and
liberal— and Zionist. Here are some of the certitudes offered in Hare’s account, sure to keep his audience cushioned enough to hear a Palestinian plaint or two: Jews are the most persecuted people of all time. The seizure of Arab lands began only in 1967, after Israel was forced by Arab aggressors into a war that it miraculously won. (Never mind that 1948 refugees might beg to differ.) The Palestinian Authority uses torture as a means of interrogation (but the use of torture by Israeli interrogators— long defended by Israel’s supreme court— never comes up). The problems in Israel are the fault of right-wing settlers, whose zeal is extreme but also somehow admirable. Palestinians simply hate Israelis; they must be born that way. Yet Palestinians are a real people, with artists and intellectuals, too often portrayed only as terrorists, and, oh, how we feel for them.
The odd thing is, though Hare claims to be interested in faith, that isn’t the theme here, either. In an interview passed out in the press materials, Hare describes his subject as “the conflict between Judaism and Islam,” but that’s hardly what has defined the discord between Palestine and Israel over the last 50 years. Besides, Hare doesn’t talk to anyone about Islam, and his only foray into Judaism is his recounting of a heated dispute over a Bible passage about a girl watering camels— it generates the evening’s biggest laughs.
The faith Hare really wants to find in the Holy Land is a mushy, romantic myth. “I visited two countries where people are regularly dying for their beliefs,” he says in the same interview, betraying everything that’s mis-
guided about Via Dolorosa: first of all, there is no country of Palestine at the moment, and second, apart from some settlers, Israelis are hardly willing to die for any beliefs these days. Talk to practically any Jewish Israelis who can remember the founding of the state, and they’ll bemoan the loss of ideology in Israel, the lack of the current generation’s belief in anything other than the free market. And Palestinians aren’t dying for beliefs, either. You don’t have to dig very deep to learn that the boys swept into fundamentalist fervor are acting out of pure desperation.
Hare is little concerned with the reality of the Middle East at all. Rather, he draws upon an Orientalist image to provoke himself to question the staid comfort of his own stuffy life. How ardent they are over there, he concludes, drawing a weary comparison to the complacent old West. Like the shallowly self-scrutinizing psychiatrist in Equus, who yearns for the passion of a boy who could blind horses, he uses the suffering of others to poke at the presumed pain of his privileged existence.