Iddo Netanyahu: Is there “A Happy End” for our troubled world?
By John Moore
- When tropical storm Isaac promised to a score a direct hit on Haiti last week, thousands of earthquake victims chose to ride it out in exposed, shanty tents. At least eight people have died.
- It turns out the Aurora theater gunman made threats months before the July massacre that went unaddressed.
- When Adolf Hitler became German dictator in 1934, it did not spark an immediate exodus of Jews.
That’s the flawed goodness of human nature, says Iddo Netanyahu. We ignore warning signs — often to our own peril.
“If people tell us there might be some impending disaster, our natural tendency is not to believe it,” said Netanyahu, a doctor, historian, soldier, playwright … and, yes, brother of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.He’s in Denver to stage the U.S. premiere of his ironically titled new play “A Happy End,” the story of a Jewish German couple facing the decision whether to leave Germany in 1932 amid the imminent rise of the Nazi Party. The mother of Netanyahu’s wife did. The minute Hitler took power, Jewish children were no longer allowed to go to school in Germany, so her family left for Switzerland.
But virtually no one else did. And a dozen years layer, the Nazis were responsible for 6 million deaths.
“The fact is that even up to 1939 — we’re talking six years after Hitler was elected — only 50 percent of the Jews decided to leave Germany,” Netanyahu said. “They were deluded. They were in love with their lives. They were in love with German society. Remember, this was the first country that had given the Jews full rights. And they could not bear to think, after hundreds of years there, that this country would want not only to expel them, but to liquidate them.”
“A Happy End” might be set 80 years ago, but Netanyahu had no interest in writing a historical play. “I think any playwright’s interest, including Shakespeare, is in his own times,” he said. So it may be impossible for anyone watching Netanyahu’s story not to hear the ominous drumbeats currently percussing around the world. The U.S. economy still teeters on a cliff. A nuclear Iran is threatening to erase Israel from the map. Netanyahu’s brother has warned in response: “Time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out.”
The idea that we live in a safe world is becoming more and more absurd by the day. We hope for the best, and yet we do nothing.
Who’s missing the signs in 2012? That’s up to individual playgoers, Netanyahu said. When “A Happy End” was performed in Israel, he said, “two of the actors were thinking the danger was from the leader of a certain right-wing party … and it’s not my brother.” To Americans, it might be the economy fully collapsing. To Netanyahu, there is no question. “In Israel, the danger is the Iranian bomb,” he said. “Are you going to wait until they have a bomb or are you going to bomb them and take the chance that you might not succeed? That is an unbelievably hard decision to make. Thank God it has to be made not by me. It has to be made by other people.”
Meaning his brother.
It can be intimidating to meet a Netanyahu. Especially when you are an actor who is asked to audition long-distance via Skype. And he will be your scene partner. Oh, and he’s playing your female lover.
“That was my first conversation with the brother of a world leader,” joked “A Happy End” actor James O’Hagan-Murphy, who plays a man having an extramarital affair with the wife of a celebrated German atomic physicist in “A Happy End,” opening Sept. 1 at the Buntport Theater in Denver. But Netanyahu made him feel at ease.
“He’s very down to earth and has a great sense of humor,” O’Hagan-Murphy said. “The other night we discussed ‘Angels in America.’ He wasn’t familiar with the plot, and I described my character as a closeted, married gay Mormon lawyer. He replied, ‘Oh, and then he runs for president against Obama?’ ”
Netanyahu says he lives a surprisingly ordinary life divided between Israel and the United States, where he is a radiologist when he wants to be, and a playwright when he needs to be.
Netanyahu spent his final year of high school here and graduated from Denver South while his father was a history professor at Denver University. “I had spent the previous two years on my own in Israel, but for my final year of high school, I decided to be with my parents,” he said.
Being the brother of Benjamin Netanyahu, who was Israel’s prime minister from 1996-99 and again starting in 2009, “strangely doesn’t affect me very much,” he said. “It might affect me more as an artist in terms of whether people want to read what I have written or not because of who I am.”
He submitted “A Happy End” to a major theater company in Tel Aviv anonymously. “They accepted it without knowing who wrote it,” he said, “and to their credit, when they found out who did, they went ahead and staged it.”
Unlike his brother, Iddo is listed in the Israeli phone book, and he takes a phone call or two each month from random people complaining or wanting certain things. He spends time with his brother, he said, “but, look: He’s basically a prisoner with bodyguards,” and he has been ever since the 1995 assassination of Benjamin’s predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin.
“Every year it becomes worse and worse. Obviously you can’t go out on the town. So we sit, and we talk … and that’s about it.”
There was one other Netanyahu brother … Yonatan, or Yoni. He was the eldest son of Zila and Benzion Netanyahu, who was a prominent Israeli historian and taught at Cornell University, where Iddo and Benjamin attended. Yoni was a celebrated poet and soldier who died a national hero during Operation Entebbe, the 1976 counter-hostage rescue mission that freed more than 100 Israeli and Jewish passengers of an Air France flight overtaken by a Palestinian terrorist group.
Yoni (Jonathan) led the 29-man assault on the terminal where the hostages were being held, and he was the only Israeli soldier killed in action.
Military service is compulsory in Israel, and the Netanyahus were no exceptions. Benjamin fought on the front lines in the Yom Kippur War. Iddo left Cornell to fight in the same war in 1973. He was a member of a special commando unit that was dispatched to rescue a group of paratroopers who became stranded on a high, snowy mountain peak on what is now the border between Syria and Israel.
“We knew how to navigate in the snow, and we knew the terrain, so we were sent to rescue them,” Netanyahu said. “But believe it or not, on the way, one of us froze to death.” Netanyahu’s first short story was a cathartic attempt to come to grips with that trauma.
His first book was an attempt to answer lingering, troubling questions about brother Yoni’s death at Entebbe. Yoni, 30, already had become a local legend because of a book of poems and personal letters he had written late at night by candlelight while serving in the military. Author Herman Wouk (“War and Remembrance”) called Yoni’s writings “one of the great documents of our time.” Yoni’s funeral was televised, sealing his eternal place as a national symbol of Israel.
According to the official account of the operation, Yoni was accidentally shot by an airport sniper. “That was based on the testimony that a single officer gave, and it was pure fiction,” Netanyahu said. In 1976, the very idea that either an enemy or friendly bullet could have torn the young heart of one of Israel’s finest sons was simply unacceptable. So a lie was constructed. Ten years later, Iddo started to hear things that did not fit with the official version of events, and he set out to learn the truth. Why?
“Because it’s a philosophical question,” he said. “There is truth, and there is objective truth. I’m not a believer in postmodernism. Bereaved people always want to know the exact truth. They don’t want to hide from it. When you have a brother that you loved who died, whether for good or for bad, you want to know what happened.”
But is there a difference between wanting to know the truth, and wanting the truth to be known?
“Look, you might find it strange coming from a brother but … it was not a matter of, ‘Is he a hero?’ ‘Is he not a hero?’ I was old enough to understand this famous Americans saying : ‘You can’t beat a dead hero.’ ”
Netanyahu soon discovered that, in the years following Yoni’s death, no other members of the secret unit his brother led that day had talked openly about the raid. And no one from the media, military or government had come asking.
“No one,” he said.
Netanyahu did, setting off an avalanche of new information – and controversy. He published 800 pages of testimonies taken over 10 years that easily disproved the sniper theory. He offers instead full arguments for both enemy and friendly fire. But does it really matter?
“No, that’s not the issue to me,” he said. “The issue to me was documenting what really transpired during the raid. Being in medical school for six years, you come to appreciate trying to sort out facts from fiction. My goal was to describe the facts as well as you can. Raise conjectures. Did it do me good, this kind of analysis? I think so. I think so.”
Playwright and director Ami Dayan, who grew up on a secular kibbutz in Israel and found his way to Boulder pretty much through yoga, admits, “it was odd at first to envision a substantial artistic collaboration” with Iddo Netanyahu, given that Dayan is from the far left of the Israeli political spectrum. “But when we met,” Dayan said, “common tastes and artistic preferences quickly came to the forefront.”
Together they have staged “A Happy End” in Italy, Germany, Tel Aviv, and soon in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. In Denver, the play will star acclaimed Czech actress Zuzana Stivínová and veteran Denver actor Kevin Hart.
Netanyahu could have chosen a dozen times and places in history to set his story, but he chose the Holocaust “because everybody in the world knows what their choice should be,” he said. “We are all sitting there in the audience rooting for them to make the choice of leaving Germany — otherwise they will find themselves in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.”
None of us can predict the future, but sometimes the obvious thing should be obvious, and you have to look reality in the face, Netanyahu said.
“But sometimes what is obvious is not so easy to decipher. We really are captives of our beliefs. We have a hard time accepting reality when they clash.”
The married couple in his play are not foreigners. They grew up in Berlin, and they are Jewish. Should they have known better? “A lot of this play has to do with how Jews see their place in society — and how do they want society to look at them?” Netanyahu said.
But he adds flatly, “A Happy End” is not a story for Jewish audiences alone.
“If I wrote a play that is only for Jewish people, then I failed as a playwright,” Netanyahu said. He believes it is a story for anyone facing an uncertain future.
“The world is in turmoil, and you don’t know where it’s going,” he said. “American power is in decline, and other economic forces are emerging. There are times when you dread to think what will happen. We all like to think that the world is getting better, and we’re advancing. We like to think that the world is a calm place, basically, and we like to think that life, as it is, will last forever. Well, it won’t.
“But you cannot live without hope. You have to live with a certain amount of delusion. And that’s the great paradox of human existence. That’s what I’m showing in the play.”
Benjamin Netanyahu has read “A Happy End,” but he has not seen it in any of its live iterations. “As the prime minister of Israel — no, he can’t attend public performances,” Iddo said. “It’s just not doable.”
Well, he could come and safely see it here in Denver.
“Maybe,” Netanyahu said with a laugh. “Who knows? Maybe he will.”
Contact John Moore at 303-953-9907 or firstname.lastname@example.org
“A Happy End”
- Sept. 1-16 (previews Aug. 30-31)
- At Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan St., Denver.
- 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays.
- Tickets: $25 ($18 Aug. 30-31); seniors and students $15.
- 720-289-6451 or ahappyend.com
- Zuzana Stivinova
- Kevin Hart
- James O’Hagan-Murphy
- Mary Cates
- Evan Duggan
- Heather Taylor