Last Year in Jerusalem

David Hare’s visit to Israel in 1997, for the staging of one of his plays, was his first trip to the Middle East. He is married to a daughter of Holocaust survivors, and had been prepped by the Israeli novelist David Grossman, though Hare isn’t himself Jewish. Not to worry. By the time he got to the Dome of the Rock – after Tel Aviv and Ramallah, after the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, after mad chats with theater and movie people, lawyers and politicians, nervous consular officials and intransigent settlers – he was just as crazed as everybody else by what the guidebooks call the “Jerusalem Syndrome.” This is a nonsectarian disorder, a prophetic seizure, perhaps best explained by the psychiatrist in Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate: “Which is coming here and God gives you a mission.” In hallucinatory space-time, the western walls, the fairy-tale mosques and the bloody sepulchers, the hermetic cults and the siege mentalities, the catacombs and citadels and the donkeys and the desert – all dream, in salt and chalk and stone, of Second Comings and Third Temples and fiery signs.

What Hare brought back from this season of dreaming in the Jewish state that looks on a map “like a small brown anchovy” is Via Dolorosa (Wednesday, August 30; 9:30 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13), a one-person play in which the playwright this time stars himself instead of, say, Meryl Streep or Judi Dench or Nicole Kidman, in, for instance, Plenty, Amy’s View, or The Blue Room. These are his personal stations of the Cross, as he travels among what his friend Grossman has elsewhere called “the impresarios of history.” Grossman, too, had talked to settlers, in The Yellow Wind: “These are historical people,” he said, “and historical people become – at certain moments – hollow and allow history to stuff them, and then they are dangerous and deadly.”

In fact, much of the argument in Via Dolorosa will be familiar to any reader of Grossman’s journalism, like The Yellow Wind and Sleeping on a Wire, and his novels, especially The Smile of the Lamb and The Book of Intimate Grammar. Or of the Amos Oz who wrote In the Land of Israel, The Slopes of Lebanon, and Fima. Somehow, in 1967, everything changed. Jews had conquered territory. The oppressed were all of a sudden an Occupation. According to Oz, Israel after the Six-Day War was “crude, smug, and arrogant, power drunk, bursting with messianic rhetoric, ethnocentric, ‘redemptionist,’ apocalyptic – quite simply, inhuman. And un-Jewish. The Arab human beings under our dominion might never have been.” According to an increasingly agitated Hare, land is now the issue, instead of lives; stones, instead of ideas. The Old Testament is a deed in perpetuity, archaeology is a proof of ownership, and politics are Bronze Age.

To be sure, David Hare found generosity and idealism, as well as grandiosity and paranoia, in Israel in 1997. And to be equally sure, some of the characters in his cast have changed since his return to “sleeping England” (a weird Orwellian echo right out of Homage to Catalonia), with Likkud out and Labor in – although Sharon is busy undermining Barak; and Arafat still abides in all his princely corruption; and the children of the intifada who brought this stubble back from Tunis have grown up to a despair hardly to be distinguished from that of the demoralized human-rights worker who is so abrupt with the playwright and then calls up afterward to apologize. But the playwright seems to have been genuinely traumatized by his sojourn among settlers who are positive that, even if Rabin hadn’t been a traitor, then certainly his assassination was a put-up job to smear the cause of a Greater Jewish Hebron. Besides which, these reborn Maccabeans tell him under their Zohar stars, doesn’t his own assimilated wife have a lot to answer for?

So Hare is made to take the Middle East personally. That’s what gives Via Dolorosa such a powerful edge. In this no-frills filming of a performance at the Booth Theatre on Broadway, he is watching himself as well as mimicking those he talked to. He’s skeptical about his right to throw stones – “Hebron and Nablus will not be ours,” said Amos Oz in The Slopes of Lebanon, “whether or not the prophets once walked there, whether or not the stones our ancestors liked to throw at the prophets still lie scattered there” – but also rattled, heartsick, and indignant. When at last he arrives at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a site less of holiness than of squabble, he is not any nearer to anyplace like home: “Sects and the Single Church,” he says, drawing a laugh from the audience. And must have known he would. And yet then plunges on as if embarrassed, to end up at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, where he insists on facts instead of sculpture, and where the Hall of Names appears to brand him.

It’s almost insulting to say that Via Dolorosa is remarkable theater. It is 90 minutes of exacerbation and unraveling, of a mind at the end of its tether.

None of which is intended to suggest that Palestinian behavior has been peachy. While it is possible to sympathize with the intifada, it is morally degrading to excuse terrorism such as Black September’s at the 1972 Olympic Games. Finally, after its surprise win at this year’s Oscars for Best Documentary Feature, One Day in September (Monday, September 11; 8 to 9:30 p.m.; HBO) can be flinched at by a general audience. Producer Arthur Cohn (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Central Station, and The Sky Above, the Mud Below) spent two and a half years collecting every scrap of film pertaining to the massacre of the eleven Israeli athletes in Munich and tracking down not only family and friends willing to sit still for an interview but also everybody who failed to save them, everyone in a position to criticize, and the only one of the killers still alive, in unapologetic hiding in Africa. Director Kevin Macdonald turns this material into a nonfiction thriller the more appalling for its resonance with the tape in our own heads. Isn’t that Jim McKay, called upon to transcend ABC’s Wide World of Sports? And Peter Jennings, unseen but unmistakable? And Mark Spitz, leaving town in a hurry with all his swimming medals; Golda Meir, refusing to negotiate; Moshe Dayan, with his jaunty eye patch; and the Septembrists themselves, in balaclava hoods and yellow jerseys, with submachine guns in their sporty duffels?

That this botched hostage-taking should have happened in West Germany is the cheapest of ironies; it could have happened anywhere. Beyond irony to the point of retching is that the police were incompetent to handle it; and the Olympic Committee reluctant to suspend the games; and the terrorists, more amateurish than the athletes, unprepared for any glitch; and the media, when they weren’t getting the story wrong (reporting that all the hostages had survived the shootout at the airport), actually doing damage (piping cop activity directly into the hotel rooms where the kidnappers were watching live TV). So all these young men, bound and gagged, were gunned down or blown up with a grenade. There is no excuse, no mitigation, no honor, no martyrdom, not even a transient political dividend, only Bronze Age thuggishness. Masada redux.

Last Year in Jerusalem