Playing role of mediator
Drama project stars conflicts between Israelis, Palestinians

06:53 PM CST on Friday, December 12, 2003

Associated Press

MONTREAL – On the stage, actors depict flirtatious Israeli soldiers delaying a Palestinian woman named Rania at a checkpoint.

Try again, says the real Rania, sitting in the audience. The humiliation and tedium of the checkpoint is not there. Show more rage. The actors now moan and crawl about, faces twisted in agony.

That, Rania says, shows what she feels.

The scene is from a drama program that is part of the “Peace and Conflict Resolution Series,” Concordia University’s attempt to cool campus tensions that have grown from the political divide over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Actors in a drama therapy session at Concordia University in Montreal portray the rage of Rania, a Palestinian woman delayed at a checkpoint by flirtatious Israeli soldiers.
Next up is the experience of Chaim Ronn, a Jewish man, who hears a shopkeeper speaking Arabic and offers the Arabic greeting, “Salam malekum” – “peace be upon you.” The shopkeeper, who is Palestinian, quickly sizes up Mr. Ronn as Jewish and retorts: “You threw us out of our country, I won’t forget it.”

Mr. Ronn tells the man his childhood memory of being rushed to the basement during an Arab attack. But the shopkeeper cuts him off, and Mr. Ronn walks away muttering about a missed opportunity for dialogue.

The moving force behind the program is Armand Volkas, a Jewish son of Holocaust survivors who is now a San Francisco-based psychotherapist specializing in conflict resolution.

Mr. Volkas previously used drama therapy to try to reconcile descendants of Holocaust survivors with children of the Third Reich. Now he has extended his work to an interactive concept called “Healing the Wounds of History.”

Under his direction, members of the Playback Theater company – three women and two men dressed in black – act out personal stories of people from communities torn by conflict.

Mr. Volkas and the local actors recently performed before more than 100 people at Concordia, a school with a multicultural student body of 26,000 where disagreements between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian factions have dominated campus life in recent years.

A pro-Palestinian faction won student government elections in 2001. That set off a chain of action and reaction that culminated in a violent protest in September 2002 against Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Israeli prime minister, who had to cancel a speech on campus.

Jewish students complain of being threatened and assaulted. The campus chapter of Hillel, a Jewish social organization, has gone to court to overturn a freeze of its funding and activities.

University officials turned to Mr. Volkas. His troupe acted out experiences and grievances brought by four Israelis and two Palestinians at the Oct. 26 program, then audience members offered comments. Few of those attending were students, however, and the six people who shared their experiences for the session were mostly involved in cultural bridge-building already.

Carmela Aigen, a Canadian Jew who promotes Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, recalled a tearful conversation with her son after he volunteered to drive a tank in the Israeli army.

The actors played out the scene, using Ms. Aigen’s words accompanied by piano, flute and chants to set a poignant tone.

“Drive carefully,” the actor playing Ms. Aigen sobbed. “Don’t forget to have mercy in your heart.”

Ms. Aigen said watching the portrayal of a piece of her life was “intense.”

“This is my first time, and it was so incredible,” she said. “It also gave me a feeling of empowering myself with courage and hope.”

Over a loudspeaker, Mr. Volkas kept up a meditative commentary throughout the event.

A large, balding man with a soothing baritone, he knows his technique can’t solve the world’s ills, but says it promotes dialogue.

“This is a very humble effort to create a path for others to follow,” Mr. Volkas said. “Otherwise we implode.”

Confronting the conflict while it still rages, instead of decades later as in the case of the Holocaust, contains benefits and pitfalls, he said.

“Are we going to need resolution and psychological distance in order to truly work through the conflict, or can we do it while it is inflamed?” he said. “It may need the distance. I don’t know that you can do it in a Palestinian refugee camp.”

The next step, he added, is up to audience members – “to go out into the world and take some action.”

“It’s not just about feeling better but doing some acts to counter this overwhelming force toward helplessness and despair,” he said. “That’s my hope, creating little ripples.”

Some ripples seemed evident after the Concordia session.

“It’s important for us to have a Muslim perspective,” said Deena Eliosoff, a Jewish woman in the audience. “We don’t realize their anger. We don’t always take that Arab rage seriously.”