Roy Khalil playing Khalil al-Sakakini and Elena Voce playing his daughter Sala.
Roy Khalil playing Khalil al-Sakakini and Elena Voce playing his daughter Sala. Photograph: Andrew Bailey

Back in my school days, history lessons seemed either to be about the World Wars or Henry VIII and his six wives.

So speaking to Brian Rotman about his new play A Land without People, a staging of the historical events that led to the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948, I have to admit to being on shaky ground.

“British people know nothing about this,” he says, to my awkward silence on the other end of the phone.

“They say: ‘Do you mean pre-Israel was in the hands of the Brits? And it was the way the Brits dealt with it that produced the historical narrative?”

It might be wise to do some cursory Wikipedia-ing before going to see Rotman’s play, which premieres at the Courtyard Theatre this month.

The play centres on three crucial episodes in the run-up to the declaration of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948, with the main characters all historical figures.

But Rotman, a retired university maths professor who lives between London and the United States, insists the play is driven by events not characters, with modern events in Israel the play’s inspiration.

Rotman returned to London last summer during the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip, which according to the UN resulted in 2251 (mostly Gazan) deaths.

“I realised immediately that my daily reading of the New York Times at breakfast had not served me well in terms of informing me what was going on,” says Rotman.

“So out of anger and being deeply disturbed at what this state was doing I started writing this play. And it became an historical play.”

Rotman grew up in a Jewish family during the 1940s and 50s. His parents owned a confectionary shop on Brick Lane where he spent his formative years.

“I had a traditional upbringing in a Jewish household and had a Bar Mitzvah, but I rebelled and just became secular English middle class.”

Researching the play made Rotman aware of campaigns groups such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JFJFP), which opposes the policy of Israel towards the Palestinian territories.

“Because of this play I discovered there was a split in the Jewish population caused by Israel, and that made me very interested in who would be sympathetic to my response.

“I feel that with this play I’m putting my shoulder to the wheel, saying this is the historical truth of how the country was founded. People can make of it what they want.”

A Land Without People is at The Courtyard, Bowling Green Walk, 40 Pitfield Street, N1 6EU
thecourtyard.org.uk
9 July – 1 August

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