Netanyahu Seeks “A Happy End”

Physician-playwright Iddo Netanyahu. Photo by Ariel Jerozolimski.
Physician-playwright Iddo Netanyahu. Photo by Ariel Jerozolimski.
Iddo Netanyahu. Photo by Ariel Jerozolimski.

It must be a curious experience when a close relative is the leader of a nation. Stumping through Iowa this week, Jeb Bush, if he were to pause for a moment of honesty amidst his presidential campaign, could probably tell you all about it.

It must be more curious, surreal even, when a close relative leads a nation that is one of the most besieged, beleaguered, beloved, controversial and divisive on the planet. We are talking about Israel, of course, not Mauritius or Iceland or Madagascar. And while it’s not unusual for the press to cover the lives and loves of relatives of international political leaders, one would be hard-pressed to think of a more fraught interviewee than Iddo Netanyahu, younger brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Curzon Dobell and Carmit Levite in A Happy End. Photo by Kim T. Sharp.

The job of the press is the job of the press, so perhaps imagining what it’s like to be in the shoes of Netanyahu, who is a physician and playwright, is more the station of biographers and psychologists than reporters and editors. Still, it reads like a dramatic plot: Benjamin Netanyahu, in a tough campaign to win a fourth shot at leading Israel, accepts an invitation by the Speaker of the House of Representatives to deliver a powerful but highly partisan, globally eyebrow-raising speech before a monumentally divided Congress for the express purpose of rebuking the foreign policy of President of the United States, warning of existential threats to the Jewish State from Iran — the nation with which the President is negotiating a nuclear deal. Meanwhile, in New York, Iddo Netanyahu, younger brother of Benjamin, has a play prepping to open in New York, which he wrote in 2007, concerning a Jewish family in Germany in 1932 that must debate mortal questions of their own existence as the Nazis rise to power.

The play is called A Happy End, and Abingdon Theatre’s Off-Broadway production will open at the June Havoc Theatre (312 W. 36th St., 866-811-4111) on March 11. Directed by Alex Dmitriev, press materials for the play feature a quote from Iddo Netanyahu that adds to the overall sense of high-stakes coincidence. It leaves you to wonder whether there isn’t at least a hint of cultural collusion between A Happy End and the Benjamin Netanyahu’s impassioned effort this week to paint Barack Obama in the dark colors of Neville Chamberlain:

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A Happy End is not exclusively a World War II or Holocaust story… It is about how we perceive events around us, how we truly judge them and what role self-delusion might play in our most important decisions. The play is set in the shadow of the Holocaust so I could be sure the audience knows what choice the family should be making. I imagine that all playwrights, when they write about the past, are really writing about today

If one believes in the integrity of the playwright’s vision — of the writer’s right to form and push ideas into the world — one must grant Iddo Netanyahu the respect of a hearing. Which is why we thought long and hard of the questions we ought to ask him. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Benjamin Netanyahu’s position on a nuclear deal with Iran, or whether he made himself a tool of the Republican Party to gain votes back home, or cleaved a fissure between Israel and the U.S. so deep it will yield unwelcome geopolitical consequences, has nothing to do with Iddo Netanyahu and the fictional play he wrote.

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Readers of the CFR’s 5 Questions series know we begin with the same three questions:

  • What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
  • What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
  • What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

Then we tailor another few questions to the subject, always with a sixth or “bonus” question added.

In total, Iddo Netanyahu entertained just four of the six questions we submitted. We feel an obligation to you, then, to tell you which questions he omitted. The first was the “weird” question. Well, what could be weirder than to be the younger brother of Benjamin Netanyahu at this moment in historical time — or to have a play opening in New York that presages the Holocaust just as virulent ant-Semitic attacks spike in Europe and ISIS goes on the march? But as playwright Netanyahu cannot be expected to speak for politician Netanyahu, we aimed to appeal to the playwright’s inner creative compass:

God asks you to take a playwriting class in which will you be observed but not judged. There is one assignment: write a two-act, one-set play featuring these characters: your brother, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; the Dalai Lama; former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; U.S. President Barack Obama; former U.S. President George W. Bush; and David Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli Prime Minister, who mystically hovers over the play. Describe the play. What would you ask of God if you could not write it?

If it’s Netanyahu’s right to demur on the question, we feel it’s our right pose it. We wonder if the playwright, for reasons personal to him, could not avail himself to dream such a scene. Could he not imagine a play in which God forces man to find a just, lasting peace between ancient peoples of faith? Or a play in which Israel — the homeland prayed for by diasporic Jews across the millennia — could live in peace with its neighbors? Or a play in which regional or world war, to say nothing of nuclear annihilation, is all but singularly inevitable? We don’t know. Perhaps Netanyahu doesn’t know. What we do know is that the glory of the creative mind lies in its ability to imagine such scenarios, even if they seem improbable and unachievable. We can only hope that in A Happy End, Iddo Netanyahu’s dreams, whatever they are, come true.

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A Happy End runs through March 29 at the June Havoc Theatre. For tickets, click here.

And now, four of the 5 (or six) Questions that Iddo Netanyahu has never been asked:

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Phil Gillen and Allison Siko. Photo Kim T. Sharp.
Phil Gillen and Allison Siko. Photo Kim T. Sharp.

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
Usually the most perceptive ones come from the actors — at least when it comes to the characters I’ve created. Because once an actor is fully into his role, he gains a unique understanding of it, sees in it things that may have escaped the writer. True, I created the character in the first place, built him from scratch, but do I fully understand him? So an actor may all of a sudden say in the middle of rehearsals: “Don’t you think I should be saying this instead of that?” And if you have at least half an open mind and are not obsessed with the notion that every word you wrote is sacred, you may reply “Yes, you’re right!” and change it. And so a bad line is discarded and a wonderfully perceptive one is inserted into the play, to become yours forever. Little does anyone then know that you stole it from some actor.

What is the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
The most idiotic? So hard to decide. The Russians have a saying: “There is no limit to perfection.”

Press materials for A Happy End quote you as saying that when playwrights write of the past, they “are really writing about today.” Do you believe Jews should leave Europe now? Should they go to Israel?
I don’t presume to tell anyone what to do. To each his own. I can only say that as for me, I prefer to live in a country where I, as a Jew, determine my own future and am able to fight for my survival when necessary. But the play’s relevance, I think, goes well beyond the Jewish question. Just today I received a text message from this amazing director from a theatre in Tashkent where A Happy End is showing. He is a Muslim, living in a Muslim country, and this is what he writes me during the middle of the performance: “A Happy End is going on right now. It’s unbelievable how many words in the play are getting more and more actual because of what’s happening in the world!”

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I believe it’s relevant because the play revolves around the question: To what extent do we understand reality around us, to what degree does wishful thinking often cause us to misperceive the dangers threatening us? That’s a universal question and a very current one to say the least. It’s certainly not only a Jewish one.

What insights and challenges does being a physician bring to the art and craft of playwriting that other playwrights couldn’t understand?
Because writing is such an individual process, and because the range of human thinking is so vast and therefore the process of creation so difficult to pin down, it’s hard for me to give an analysis and determine how exactly my background as a physician influenced me or has given me certain creative insights. Obviously it did, just as my writing was influenced by various events in my childhood, my military service, my marriage, etc. But I truly cannot say in what way I would be writing differently had I been a dock worker instead of a physician. That this would have been the case is a certainty, I’m just not sure how.