Institutionalisation in Joshua Sobol's "Ghetto"

Essay, 2012

14 Pages


Institutionalisation in Joshua Sobol’s Ghetto

It has been argued by Freddie Rokem that Joshua Sobol’s play, Ghetto (1989) – a play which depicts the plight of Jewish people in the Vilna Ghetto during World War II – can be read as an allegory for the current political situation in Israel (45). His argument suggests that Israeli people are in danger of becoming what their earlier persecutors – the Nazis p had become during World War II, and that Sobol’s play carries the implied notion that the persecution of Palestinians in Israel mirrors the same plight that their persecutors suffered beforehand (Rokem 45-47). While such an interpretation can be placed upon this play, it becomes problematic when it is compared with the historical context upon which the play is based. For one thing, the Israeli people today live under very different circumstances to the ones in which the play itself is based, and are therefore not faced with the same dilemmas that Jewish people in World War II had to face. This in particular includes the members of the Jewish Ghetto Police force, who were faced with the difficult situation of choosing which of their people should die so that others might live under Nazi surveillance. Such a situation as this cannot be compared with the political situation in Israel, as the persecution of Palestinian people did not occur as a result of Israelis being pressured form a higher, more oppressive regime to carry out such persecution.

I argue that Rokem’s claim does have some validity, and my essay will demonstrate this through a re-reading of Ghetto in comparison with both historical contexts. I demonstrate through such a reading how oppressive institutions such as those set up by the Nazis in World War II, can force people into behaving in ways they would not normally behave, and make decisions that are difficult ot morally reconcile. Focusing on comparing the character portrayal of Gens in Ghetto with the real Jacob Gens – who wa the police chief of the Vilna Ghetto – I firstly consider how the play portrays the moral dilemmas faced by the Jewish Ghetto Police Force during that time, and secondly explain how Rokem’s interpretation can be applied to ap lay which at first appears to be a re-telling of the atrocities that occurred in Vilna. The results of this research reveal that living in strict, regulated institutions such as ghettos and concentration camps can have devastating psychological effects on future generations.

While it is impossible to cover the entire historical context upon which Rokem bases his claim, enough information is given here for the reader to understand the basic context form which Rokem bases his argument for the play’s implied interpretation. In particular, I concentrate on the origins and development of the Zionist movement, because I believe that Rokem was specifically referring to the radical ideologies of this particular group when he made this claim, and because of how the concept of Zionism has contributed to Israeli thought and attitudes towards Palestinian people.

Gregory Harms explains that the term “Zionism” was coined in the mid-1880s to describe the yearning for the establishment of a national Jewish homeland by whichi Jewish people from all over the world could go to become united (51, Finkelstein 101). The idea developed as a result of the increasing persecution throughout Europe against Jewish people (Harms 47 – 56). It became applied as a political concept when the journalist Theodor Herzl produced a pamphlet entitled The Jewish State (1896), which outlined that establishing a national homeland would be the means of guaranteeing emancipation from oppression for Jewish people (American-Israeli Corporate Enterprise n.p., Harms 54). This publication led to a congress meeting in Basel in 1897, in which a World Zionist Organization was formed based upon Herzl’s ideas and suggestions (Harms 55).

With the organisation established and its goals outlined, the decision had to be made as to where a Jewish state could be established, and the debate among Zionist Jews was whether to settle in Palestine – the ‘traditional’ homeland of their ancestors – or elsewhere (Harms 56). It was eventually agreed that ideally, Palestine should be the place of the settlement – “the land that was promised [to them] by God” (El-Hasan 97, 99, Harms 63) – and between 1904 and 1914, many Zionists migrated to Palestine, bringing with them their strong political ideals (Harms 62). What they did not consider, however, were the feelings of the native Arab, Jewish and non-Jewish population already occupying Palestine, who also claimed right to the land (Harms 59 – 60, Rodgers 109-10). In an effort to enforce their political ideals – as well as to encourage the idea that the establishment of only a ‘pure’ Jewish state would guarantee total Jewish emancipation – the Zionist Jews encouraged the removal of Palestinians from their homes by taking over their farming property and forcing Palestinians to move elsewhere (El Hasan 99, Harms 62 – 63, Milton-Edwards 16-20). Naturally, Palestinians began to rise up against this persecution, resulting in the ongoing wars which have occurred and continue to occur within the Palestine region (Harms 57 – 141, Rodgers 112 – 14). By the Second World War, this persecution and displacement of Palestinian people became increasingly justified based upon the argument that as a persecuted and displaced people themselves, Jewish people had the ‘historical right’ to claim the land of their ancestors as their own safe haven (Finkelstein 102, Malloy 12, Rodgers 110). This opinion was backed by a General Assembly Resolution organised by the United Nations in 1947, where it was proposed that a “60:40 split” between Israeli and Palestinian occupied territories be established – with the Israelis being given the larger portion (Rodgers 110). By the end of the first major Arab-Israeli conflict in 1949, Israel occupied a further 20 percent of the land, causing many more Palestinians to become homeless (Rodgers 110). This, of course, resulted in more violence caused by both parties (Harms 57 – 141), and it is this cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians which Rokem claims that Ghetto explores.

In Ghetto, the implied messages that the Israelis are becoming like their earlier persecutors, the Nazis, can be seen from the way in which Gens and his fellow police officers are portrayed. For example, in the argument between Gens and Kruk in Scene Eight, Gens distinguishes himself from other Jewish prisoners by saying, “I don’t belong to your party. I’m a Zionist” (Sobol 16). He then compels Kruk to become part of the audience for the Vilna Theatre’s premiere, and when Kruk refuses, Gens threatens him with a trip to Ponar if he does not comply (Sobol 16 – 17). The fact that the real Gens was a Zionist himself (Bauer 82, Kruk 113), and the fact that Sobol specifically mentions Gens’ political affiliations in this scene, could suggest that Gens’ forceful, threatening approach to keeping order in the Vilna Ghetto is similar to the kind of force that the Zionists pushed soon after their immigration to Palestine.

Another example is found towards the end of Scene Eleven, where Kittel approaches the actors who are rehearsing for their next performance and informs Gens that the “Fuehrer has forbidden any increase of the Jewish race;” he must decide out of every third father, mother and child who should like up for execution (Sobol 27-28). Gens counts systematically, “Father, mother, child” and separates them from the rest of the workers (Sobol 28). As in Scene Eight, this scene can represent how indifferent Israeli people were in displacing and driving out Palestinians from the land they felt belonged only to them. All of these examples demonstrate how Rokem’s interpretation of Sobol’s text fits in with his own theories as to what Sobol may have been implying in his play. It is here that I now briefly discuss the second context which can be placed upon the text, and explain how this context is problematic when discussed alongside Rokem’s theory.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Institutionalisation in Joshua Sobol's "Ghetto"
University of Queensland  (St. Lucia Campus)
DRAM3103 - Topics in Theatre Research
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This essay was awarded a HD (High Distinction).
Drama, Theatre, World War II, Nazis, Jewish, Palestinian, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Joshua Sobol, Ghetto, Plays, Performance, Institutionalisation, Psychology, Politics, Society
Quote paper
Raymond Teodo (Author), 2012, Institutionalisation in Joshua Sobol's "Ghetto", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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