At the height of the intifada, in 2002, more than 600 Israeli pilots and soldiers, many in elite units, refused to serve in what they considered the occupied Palestinian territories.
These were not pacifists or conscientious objectors to war in any form. Many had fought in Israel's past wars for survival, but they refused to bear arms in what they saw as an oppressive campaign.
In Israel, where service in the armed forces was long held sacrosanct, the stand of the new breed of "refuseniks" became a deeply divisive issue, triggering protests, counter-protests and threatening riots.
To Joshua Sobol, Israel's foremost playwright and a former paratrooper, the situation was agonizing. But rather than write about it directly, Sobol began to think about a case he had read about a decade earlier and then put aside.
The central figure in the incident was Franz Jaegerstaetter, an Austrian farmer who, in 1943, at the height of World War II, refused to serve in the German army. He was tried by a court martial and executed at the age of 36.
In the play "iWitness," opening April 19 at the Mark Taper Forum, in which all the characters are referred to by their first names, Franz is visited in his prison cell by family and friends the day before his execution.
His wife, boyhood pals, a former mistress, the jailer, a doctor, the prison chaplain, even one of the judges who sentenced him try to change Franz's decision. He is promised assignment to a hospital unit where he won't have to shoot at anybody, but he remains adamant. He will not wear a German uniform.
The heart of the play lies in Franz's patient attempts to explain the underlying reasons for his stand to puzzled friends -- jailers and judges alike -- especially since he had already served an earlier term in the German army before the war.
When the play was first performed in Tel Aviv in 2002, it was met by near riots, according to press reports. A few critics tried to "manipulate" the theme, said Sobol, by charging him with writing a defense brief, by analogy, for the Israeli refuseniks.
Sobol denies the allegation.
"What I hoped to do was start a discussion about basic questions of principle," he said in a phone call from Israel.
But principles are not absolute, neither in Germany nor in Israel. Just as one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, so one man's principle is another man's treason.
So we asked Sobol, one of Israel's most eloquent liberals, how he felt about the Israeli soldiers who refused to evacuate settlers from their Gaza Strip homes during the recent disengagement. The playwright evaded an answer, even as he acknowledged that there were no easy answers.
"A man, whether on the left or right, should not carry out an order against his conscience," he said. "But there is a difference between legal and illegal orders, and it may be difficult to determine which is which. It depends on the specific situation."
The play's Franz, a small-town farmer, is an impressively eloquent exponent of his principles, frequently putting the judges and chaplain on the defensive. In one scene, he justifies his resistance by arguing that Hitler "has broken all the rules of humanity established over thousands of years ... that whoever starts a war, breaks the rules. And when a leader allows himself to break the rules, it is the duty of every citizen to break the leader's rules."
In another scene, Franz turns on the prison chaplain, who argues for every German bystander who pretended not to know what was happening.
"You hear those trains passing by every night?" Franz asks. "You hear the human voices coming from the cattle cars? ... Listen to the voices bursting out of the sealed boxcars. God is talking to you in those voices. He's telling you, Father Tochmann, what you should do."
Sobol declines a suggestion that he painted an intellectual patina on a simple man. Although no transcript of Franz's trial has been found, Sobol has read his letters to his wife and was moved and impressed.
"Jaegerstaetter was a real roughneck in his youth, but when he married his wife, he became a deeply religious Catholic. During their honeymoon, they made a pilgrimage to Rome, and over time he became a self-taught philosopher."
During the past 35 years, Sobol has written 50 plays and two novels; he teaches at two Israeli universities, and at age 66 he appears more productive than ever.
"I am a compulsive writer and always have two or three themes in my head which I want to develop," he said.
Sobol frequently writes 10 hours at a stretch, fortified only by a cup of tea for breakfast. Last year, he completed two new plays, "Kol Nidrei" and "A Working Class Hero." He is obsessed by the "existential dilemma" of "What is a Jew?" noting that "this question has influenced the whole body of my work, directly or indirectly."
He has explored that theme most famously in two plays, "Ghetto," which has been translated into 20 languages, and "The Soul of a Jew," both of which were performed at the Mark Taper Forum in the 1980s.
Sobol is also an unsparing social critic of his country and his people, and to label him "controversial" is a gross understatement. Viewing his country at the present time, he is concerned less about threats from without than social dysfunction within, a subject at the center of "A Working Class Hero."
"Our middle class has been degraded and is declining toward poverty," he said. "More than 1.2 million people are living below the poverty line, including 700,000 children. We are creating a class of frustrated Israelis, and I am convinced that to reach a peaceful solution with the Palestinians, we must change the social and political situation inside Israel."
The director and co-translator of "iWitness" is Barry Edelstein, tackling his first major West Coast production. A New Jersey native and former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Edelstein, 40, won honors and critical acclaim as the artistic director of the off-Broadway Classical Stage Company from 1998 to 2003.
Recognized particularly for his fresh staging of Shakespearean plays, he moved to Los Angeles two years ago, teaches Shakespearean acting at USC, and is finishing his first movie, "My Lunch with Larry."
"I first read about 'iWitness' in an Israeli newspaper, was intrigued, and asked Sobol if he could send me his own English translation of the play," Edelstein said.
The two men got together and collaborated on a more colloquial translation from Sobol's original draft.
Still, we suggested to Edelstein, on a first, cold reading of the play's script, some of the characters tend to sound more like talking ideological viewpoints than three-dimensional humans.
Edelstein responded that "good actors bring life and humanity to the written word, and we have very good actors. Franz is a fully realized character, though some of the other roles are not quite so nuanced. That's by design, because they are viewed through Franz's eyes."
He made the further point that the Israeli theater in general, and Sobol in particular, are more in the European than the American mold, with the latter more likely to emphasize psychological complexities. Edelstein cited especially the influence of German playwright Bertoldt Brecht, "who was more interested in how something happens than why. He wanted the audience to take a step back, to view a play objectively rather than emotionally."
Like Sobol, Edelstein was deeply impressed on reading Franz's letters from the prison.
"The writing wasn't great prose, but it was remarkably sophisticated and showed a real depth of thinking," he said.
Anyhow, Edelstein asked, why shouldn't a farmer be able to write with great conviction and clarity?
After all, "Shakespeare had little education, he was the son of a glovemaker, and he did some pretty good writing."
The Mark Taper Forum will present "iWitness" from April 9 to May 21, with previews starting March 30. For ticket information, call (213) 628-2772 or visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
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