A Jew and an Arab Walk Into Norway…

Clinton, Rabin, and Arafat may have copped the photo-op, but the 1993 Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, or “Oslo I,” was largely due to the work of behind-the-scenes actors.  In a period of only nine months, Terje Rød-Larsen (Jefferson Mays) and his wife, Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), took advantage of Norwegian neutrality to broker the first official talks between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization.  Beginning with the nebbish economics professor Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes) and PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), the pair facilitated a seemingly-miraculous agreement between two peoples who viewed the other as latter-day Nazis.

In Oslo, playwright J.T. Rogers meticulously charts this fraught process while acknowledging the failures that followed in its wake.  This is docudrama of the first caliber, in which a large cast and even larger issues are expertly condensed into almost three hours of thrilling drama.  Mr. Rogers allows both sides to air their grievances, but what peeks through the mutual distrust is a belief in the ability of people to come together and view each other as human.  “You are my first Jew,” Ahmed tells Yair at the close of their first encounter.  “I hope I was not too stringy,” Yair replies.  The gamble of humor pays off.  “A bit,” Ahmed says, “But still better than fish.”

I’m not sure I share Mr. Rogers’ optimism.  The Second Intifada, the Israeli West Bank wall along the Green Line, the expansion of settlements, the stabbings in Israel, the race-baiting of Benjamin Netanyahu and the stop-and-start reconciliation process helmed by each successive American president all followed Oslo, and still there is no cohesive Palestinian state nor assurance of security for the Israelis.

Still, in the era of improvisational politics, I appreciate his dedication to painstaking diplomacy.  Much time is spent on what gets ignored by big-picture reporting, in particular Terje’s brilliant orchestration of minor details.  All Norwegians must speak English, a language accessible to both the Israelis and the Palestinians, to avoid the appearance of secret conversation.  During meals, the couches must face each other to maximize a sense of openness.  Everyone must address each other by the names they reserve for their friends.  And most importantly, an empty champagne glass must always be refilled.  When you have decades of conflict under your belt, the slightest symbolic misstep can cause everyone to lapse back into hatred.  Oslo I may have failed, and the toolbox available to us may be spare, but it is still the best we have got.  The theater, of course, will never resolve this conflict, but it can remind us of the only way forward.

Oslo runs through July 16th at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.  150 W. 65th Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 55 minutes.  One intermission.

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