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Play brings message of tolerance to Israel, against backdrop of escalating violence

Men try to remove shrapnel from a phone near a bus stop Wednesday in central Jerusalem. Palestinian militants were blamed for the first deadly bombing in Jerusalem in years. Israeli warplanes hit Hamas targets in Gaza early Thursday as tensions rose.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Men try to remove shrapnel from a phone near a bus stop Wednesday in central Jerusalem. Palestinian militants were blamed for the first deadly bombing in Jerusalem in years. Israeli warplanes hit Hamas targets in Gaza early Thursday as tensions rose.

JERUSALEM — Tuesday night, I sat in the second row of the packed Al Hakawati Theater in East Jerusalem and watched an ensemble cast of Americans and Palestinians perform the play Passages of Martin Luther King. At the end of the play, a Palestinian actor, speaking in Arabic, quotes one of Dr. King's sermons:

"Every time you set out to love, something keeps pulling on you, trying to get you to hate."

The applause suggested that the message of nonviolence resonated with the mostly Palestinian audience. That kind of reaction, of course, is what the U.S. Consulate had hoped for when it asked Stanford University professor Clayborne Carson, the play's author, to bring his work to Jerusalem and the West Bank.

For a week and half, the cast (which includes my wife, September), had rehearsed with Palestinian actors from the National Theater and interacted with Palestinian peace activists. The encounters sometimes moved the six American members of the cast to tears, as they absorbed the raw pain of the continuing disputes.

Wednesday afternoon, in the heart of Jerusalem, a bomb exploded. Ball bearings packed in a suitcase ripped through a crowd at the city's main bus depot, killing a 59-year-old woman and injuring some 31 others.

By 5 p.m., two hours before the curtain was set to go up on the second performance, I found myself standing at the scene of the explosion, interviewing the paramedic who had tended to the dying woman.

"She looked like a beautiful person," said Eli Beer of United Hatzalah, a volunteer organization. "She probably has a husband and children, and now they'll be attending a funeral only because of some sick human being."

As I spoke to some of the bystanders, I mentioned the play going on across town and its message of nonviolence. Their skepticism was evident.

"I don't believe there will be peace here," Yaakov Lepon told me. Lepon, 23, lives in the walled Old City area of Jerusalem.

"There's no way we can have peace with them," he said of the Palestinians. Though no group has yet claimed credit, Lepon has no doubt who placed the bomb.

Honestly, it all saddened me.

Over a week and a half, I have met some of the kindest people anyone would ever want to know. But I also have seen how painful the complex political, religious and civil disputes have become.

Wednesday night on the stage, I heard Georgina Asfour, who is playing Coretta Scott King in the play, speak words of tolerance that contrasted sharply with the violence of the afternoon: "All people are welcome in our country."

She also knows that even among people who have much to offer one another, each divisive moment only widens the gulf.

"It's a circle that has no beginning and has no end and we should deal with it," Asfour said to me after the show. That fatalism prevails here, I'm sad to say.

Play brings message of tolerance to Israel, against backdrop of escalating violence 03/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 10:13pm]
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