Palestine: The Musical

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Beleaguered Palestinians may wonder why the world ignores their plight. While alleged use of chemical weapons and transgression of international law warrants Western air strikes against Assad, Israeli infractions go un-noticed.

While some blame AIPAC and an entrenched pro-Israel lobby, I have another theory: Palestine’s untapped potential as a setting for musical theatre.

Consider if you will that as Orthodox Easter unfolded uneasily in a troubled Palestine, Americans seemed more interested in discussing the merits of a production of Jesus Christ Superstar that premiered recently on NBC, rivalling the likes of 60 Minutes in ratings, than IDF snipers killing and wounding of hundreds of protestors in Gaza.

And while nothing can match the cheesy, rock opera glam of the 1973 Norman Jewison-directed film shot in the Judean desert, it might well be time for some enterprising producer to imagine a Palestinian version of the musical. At the very least it might compete for Americans’ distracted attention span as their government funds on-going Israeli occupation to the tune of $3 billion a year, and as visiting Democrats posed for friendly photo ops with Netanyahu days before IDF snipers killed dozens and injured hundreds of Palestinian protestors.

Watching the Jewison film again in light of current tragedies in Palestine, the surreal scenes when Judas (played brilliantly by Carl Anderson), who hopes to liberate his people from occupation, encounters/imagines tanks and fighter jets in 1st-century Palestine -- originally intended perhaps to reference the Vietnam War -- took on a whole new meaning. The fact that the film was released only seven weeks before the 1973 war, and faced charges of “anti-Semitism,” also offers some timely resonance.

Considering the casting choices in the recent NBC version -- with the likes of Alice Cooper playing King Herod -- there are many looming possibilities for transforming the rock opera into a Palestinian passion play. 

And while the musical’s dramatic focus is really more about Judas than Jesus per se, the big casting decision would of course be: who would play the Palestinian messiah?

Now, if an inspired director were to cast a more recent historical eye, they might enjoy a little Arafat/Abu Jihad play in the Judas/Jesus casting combo. Arafat -- like Cuba’s Fidel Castro -- was always the pragmatic politico compared to Abu Jihad and his Jesus-like/Che Guevara-ish revolutionary fervour -- and like Fidel did with Che, allegedly betrayed Abu Jihad to the Israelis. While the exact circumstances leading to Abu Jihad’s 1988 assassination by the Israelis in Tunis remain murky, some camps see both Fatah founders as martyred figures.

Fast-forward to today, and some might well cast Marwan Barghouti as Jesus and Mahmoud Abbas as Judas. This would depend of course on how conspiratorial a potential director might be -- or if as the Gnostic Christian Gospel of Barnabas and some Islamic texts claim -- Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross but Judas took on his likeness from the moment of the betrayal in Gethsemane and was crucified in his stead. Of course an Iranian director might well cast the Saudi Crown Prince as Judas and throw in a cameo for the returning Imam Mahdi

As a past resident of Jerusalem, who once lived in an old city convent and wrote for the first post-Oslo Accord optimistic joint Israeli/Palestinian magazine, ironically called the New Middle East, I have to admit that watching the 1973 Jewison film had its share of visual triggers. Certain scenes -- like Judas and the fighter jets, or a docu-drama-style shot of a Palestinian shepherd herding his sheep, or even the scenes in the garden of Gethsemane where I used to drink coffee with a young Armenian friend who was a “keeper of the tomb of Mary” -- fused the real and the historical in an often surreal way (not unlike the experience of actually living in the Biblical landscape.)

All the more reason perhaps to encourage a Palestinian version of JC Superstar in these strange new days. Especially if Ahed Tamimi, whose lawyer has charged her Israeli interrogators with sexual harassment -- were cast as Mary Magdalene. 

Although, in a millennial feminist version she could also play Jesus -- or even Simon the Zealot (who sings, in a rather enthusiastic dance number, of the “filth who rape our country and have terrorized our people for so long,” encouraging the Messiah to take Jerusalem). But then Nas Daily might also make an amusing choice as a zealous YouTube-fuelled Simon. 

I wonder if John Bolton would be free to play Pontius Pilate who hands Jesus back to Herod? The role of Roman client King Herod is such a plum one -- with his “walk across my swimming pool” routine -- I’d hate to waste it on someone as charisma-less as Abbas. I wonder if Harvey Weinstein could be pulled out of rehab for the occasion? Or even Trump in a pinch? Larry David, of course, would be a shoo-in. 

As for the Pharisees, it would be a toss-up between certain members of the Knesset and Fatah. The Roman soldiers could be played by former IDF and Palestinian Shin Bet employees.

I know what you’re thinking now -- call me a dreamer -- but transposing musicals to Palestine doesn’t have to stop at Andrew Lloyd Webber. Fiddler in Gaza anyone? Picture it -- the iconic Anatevka scene, as ethnically cleansed villagers lament leaving their homeland -- could be huge in Khan Yunis. And there’s no lack of casting possibilities for Cossacks. 

And I’ve always wanted to do a Palestinian version of Exodus with show tunes and kicky dance numbers, but from the perspective of a villager from Deir Yassin.

Meanwhile, as hundreds of Israelis protested in solidarity with besieged Gazans, B’Tselem urges the IDF to refrain from shooting protestors, and as Palestinians prepare for another week of protests, it may be too late for a hoped for Israeli/Palestinian co-production of JC Superstar. But still, “Could We Start Again Please” would make for a poignant anthem.

Photo: Ted Neeley in Jesus Christ Superstar.

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