In the last three weeks of the Bush Administration, Israel’s air strikes against Palestinian civilians in Gaza dominated the news. Seeing parallels between the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Israel’s occupation of land mandated for Palestinians by the U.N., Twin Cities peace activists protested at politicians’ offices and in Loring Park.
One of those activists, Flo Razowsky, lived in Gaza and the West Bank for two years. Testifying to what she witnessed there, she’s debuting as a playwright with a work-in-progress, Cafe Intifada.
|cafe intifada, a play written by flo razowsky. presented from january 30 through february 7 at bedlam theatre, 1501 s. 6th st., minneapolis. for information, see bedlamtheatre.org. flo razowsky will appear on kfai’s catalyst at 11 a.m. on january 30.|
“From an early age,” says the studious young woman, “I was very involved with and invested in my Jewish culture and identity. Coupled with that, I was engaged in a certain relationship to Israel. From what I was taught and [through] my own initiative, I identified Israel as my homeland. From the time I was a teenager, I did work to make Israel a secure place for Jews. I lacked any knowledge of Arab people. All I knew was that they supposedly hated me because I’m a Jew. My education stopped there.”
Politically active since age 13 around issues of the environment and Indigenous people’s rights, Razowsky found her Zionism challenged by another activist when she was around 20 years old. Shocked by her own ignorance, Razowsky embarked on a journey of reading and questioning. Her focus was on the contemporary conditions of Israel-imposed curfews and checkpoints.
“I realized,” she explains, “I had no personal context to even understand what curfews or checkpoints were! Because I’m an experiential person, I decided to go to Palestine and see for myself, in order to figure out where I stood on this issue.”
What she first saw amounted to a ghost town of empty streets patrolled by Israeli tanks.
In 2002, Razowsky’s first visit to the occupied territories of Palestine was in the middle of Israel’s Operation Iron Shield, a nine-month lockdown of Gaza. The entire population was under house arrest for days on end, relieved by one or two hours outside to shop for food. Since Hamas was elected as the government in Gaza almost two years ago, Israel has imposed a blockade. Food, medicine, and fuel are kept from the 1.5 million Palestinians on the West Bank.
“From that first day, it was obvious to me what stand I had to take,” Razowsky declares. “Ever since that day, I’ve worked as a Jew against the occupation and in solidarity with the Palestinian people.” Razowsky became part of the International Solidarity Movement, witnessing at checkpoints at the crossings between Israel and Palestine. She met many Palestinians and recorded their stories.
“From that first day in Palestine, it was obvious to me what stand I had to take. Ever since that day, I’ve worked as a Jew against the occupation and in solidarity with the Palestinian people.”
Finding herself in demand by churches and activist groups to relate her first-hand knowledge of the situation in Palestine, Razowsky found it increasingly hard to be “a talking head telling these horrible things.” Writing Cafe Intifada was her response.
Razowsky’s play is at its most powerful when her alter ego speaks directly (from Razowsky’s journal) or at vividly real checkpoints guarded by Israeli soldiers. She’s invented an inspired way to draw the audience directly into glimpsing what occupation feels like. So as to not diminish the play’s impact, I won’t give away how she does this—but it really works. She also finds a way to re-create the wall that Israel is building to enclose the Palestinians. A radio journalist comes in with news bulletins that put the action into the context of actual events. Cafe Intifada has tension, suspense, and drama.
But I also hope Razowsky expands the script. At times, it feels like Razowsky is reluctant to share much about herself—thinking, perhaps, that would distract from her aim to expose the reality of Palestinian oppression. But knowing more about her Jewish protagonist would help our understanding of the situation Razowsky dramatizes.
Ghassan, a young Palestinian man who Razowsky obviously got to know well, is an important presence in the play. Hearing Ghassan speak for himself about his daily life under occupation and his obsession with a “tragic love” make stronger theater gives the audience an actual Palestinian individual to identify with.
Even as a work-in-progress, Cafe Intifada has the makings of crucial theater that asks an audience to face important truths.
“What we hear about Israel and the Palestinians is completely different or dramatically distorted from what’s happening on the ground,” says Razowsky. “An entire people are being locked inside a cage and being starved and murdered. When is the world community gong to force Israel to stop being this way?”
Lydia Howell (email@example.com), a winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism, is a Minneapolis independent journalist writing for various newspapers and online journals. She produces and hosts Catalyst: politics & culture on KFAI Radio on Fridays at 11 a.m.