A Flag is Born

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First edition cover

A Flag Is Born was a play promoting the creation of a Jewish State in the ancient land of Israel. It opened on Broadway on September 4, 1946. The cast included Paul Muni, Celia Adler and Marlon Brando. Hollywood’s most successful screenwriter, Ben Hecht, was the playwright; it was directed by Luther Adler with music by Kurt Weill. It was produced by the American League for a Free Palestine, an organization headed by Hillel Kook, known in America by the anglicized name Peter Bergson.[1]

The play[edit]

The play had three principal characters, though several other actors played bit roles.[2] Paul Muni and Celia Adler, major stars at the time, played Tevye and Zelda, survivors of the Treblinka death camp who are attempting to travel to the Land of Israel, and Marlon Brando, who played David, an angry young concentration camp survivor.

The play opens as the older couple halts for the night and Zelda lights Shabbat candles on a broken tombstone. Tevye recites the Shabbat prayers, then dreams of the town where he was born, as it was before it was destroyed by the Nazis. He then dreams of King Saul at the battle of Gilead, and has a dream conversation with King David after which, in his dream, he stands before the council of the United Nations, Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union, and pleads for the formation of a Jewish State. They ignore him.

When Tevye awakens, he finds that Zelda has died during the night. He recites a traditional Jewish memorial prayer, Kaddish, and welcomes the Angel of Death who has come for him. As the young hero, David, considers committing suicide, three Jewish soldiers appear and promise to take him with them to the Land of Israel to fight for Jewish independence. In the play's stirring finale, David delivers a moving Zionist speech and marches off to fight for Jewish freedom holding a Zionist flag made out of Tevye's prayer shawl.

Although Marlon Brando had already been voted "Broadway's Most Promising Actor" for his role as an anguished veteran in Truckline Café, the play was not a commercial success and Brando was still young, relatively unknown and impecunious. Nevertheless, he explained that he desperately believed that the survivors of the Holocaust deserved to have their own land where they could live free from oppression and the anti-Semitic tyranny of the outside world, and accepted only the Actor's Equity minimum payment, enabling the play’s proceeds to go to helping create the state of Israel.[1][3]

In promoting the play, the Bergson Group emphasized the parallels between the American and Jewish struggles for independence and the Jewish fighters in Israel to the heroes of the American Revolution. Ads portrayed Irgun fighters as "modern-day Nathan Hales," denounced London's policy of "taxation [in Palestine] without representation," quoted Thomas Jefferson's memorable phrase, "Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God," and used the motto, "It's 1776 in Palestine!" When Tevye speaks in his dream to the council of representatives of Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union, he compares Palestine in the 1940s with the American colonies in the 1770s. The cover of the program was sketch of three young Jews, one with a gun, one with a hoe, and one with a Zionist flag, and in the background the famous illustration of three figures from the American revolution playing drums and flute.[1]

"A Flag is Born" played in six North American cities and raised more than $400,000 for the ALFP, the largest block of funds it ever attained.

Historical context[edit]

At the end of World War II there were hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors living in Displaced Persons camps in Europe. The Jewish communities they came from had been destroyed by the Nazis; in most cases where their former homes and businesses survived, they were occupied by non-Jews, and across Poland and Ukraine, when survivors returned home they were being murdered in the anti-Jewish violence in Poland, 1944-1946 and parallel events in Ukraine.

The few countries that were willing to accept refugees had immigration restrictions and long waits for visas. The great majority of Displaced Persons wished to immigrate to the Land of Israel, but the British Mandatory government of Palestine was refusing to admit more than a tiny number of Jews.

The ALFP was entirely open about its motivations for producing this play; its publicity materials read: "'A Flag is Born' is not ordinary theatre. It was not written to amuse or beguile. 'A Flag is Born' was written to make money--to make money to provide ships to get Hebrews to Palestine ... and [to] arouse American public opinion to support the fight for freedom and independence now being waged by the resistance in Palestine." [1]

Reception and impact[edit]

The play was extremely popular, the Broadway run was extended and a tour was arranged. The sponsoring committee included many prominent people, including composer Leonard Bernstein, novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, New York City Mayor William O'Dwyer, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Following the Broadway run, “A Flag is Born" traveled to Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Boston. It was also scheduled to play at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. However, in an early action of the civil rights movement, Americans who opposed racial discrimination began a boycott to oppose the practice of barring blacks from attending Washington theaters, and the committee moved the play to the Maryland Theater in Baltimore. A special train brought members of Congress to the performance.[1] The American League for a Free Palestine and the NAACP cooperated to use the occasion to force the management of the Maryland Theater to abrogate its segregation policy (blacks restricted to the balcony) for the duration of the play’s run which, in the context of the times, was considered a victory for civil rights.[1]

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