Remembering Victor Gordon, an award-winning playwright, artist, musician, community leader and strong literary advocate for Israel
By David E. Kaplan
It came as little surprise to hear on Sunday 11 July at the opening of the Zoom memorial service to Victor Gordon of Pretoria, South Africa, to hear his widow, Shirley reveal that she had been phoned that morning by Jonathan Pollard, today a free citizen of the State of Israel.
It had been an emotional yet profound conversation – about ones man’s too soon passing and another’s belated freedom. Their disparate lives were eternally linked by Victor’s poignant prose.
Jonathan Jay Pollard, a former intelligence analyst for the United States government, pleaded guilty in 1987, as part of a plea agreement, to spying for and providing top-secret classified information to Israel. He was sentenced to life in prison making him the ONLY American to receive a life sentence for passing classified information to an ally of the U.S.
Believing that Pollard was the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice, Victor wrote the play titled “Pollards’ Trial” which was translated into Hebrew opening shortly thereafter in 2011 at the famed Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv. Not only did it receive a five-star rating from the critics, but became the only play in the history of Israel to receive an invitation to mount a private performance at the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) before an invited audience of 350, hosted by the former President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, who was then Speaker of the Knesset. “Since Pollard’s conviction, the Berlin Wall came down but he is still surrounded by the walls of the federal prison,” Rivlin had said. “At first, we thought that if we could act behind the scenes, we could restore trust with the US and bring about a breakthrough that could bring about Pollard’s release. Too slow, we learned that acting quietly wouldn’t help and we needed to act openly to help him become free.”
Victor’s play did just that and ran on-and-off throughout Israel for over two years having a huge impact in galvanizing support for his eventual release.
The issues that Victor drew attention to in his play were troubling.
Set in Pollard’s jail cell, the accused presents his imagined case to the judge – something he was never actually permitted to do when he was sentenced to life. Exposing the American judicial process as ‘twisted’ and ‘double-dealing’ when it came to its treatment of the Jew – Pollard – it reveals how this accused was deprived of his most basic rights.
It was hard to believe that anyone at the time who saw this play could remain indifferent to Pollard.
One man who assuredly was not indifferent was Victor Gordon!
Neither was he on the many fundamental issues effecting the Jewish state. As a member of the South African Zionist Federation Media Team Israel committed to monitoring media bias against Israel and antisemitism, Victor’s articles – well researched and balanced, were a regular feature in the press both in South Africa and abroad. Speaking from Israel at the memorial service on Zoom, Lay of the Land’s Rolene Marks, who had worked closely with Victor as colleagues on the Media Team Israel since it had been formed 20 years earlier as well as representing Israel’s Truth be Told (TbT) committee, said:
“If you are lucky in life, you have the blessing and benefits of truly remarkable mentors. I have been doubly blessed to be able to count Victor as one of mine – both as a friend and as a mentor.”
Words were Victor’s stock-in-trade and Rabbi Gidon Fox, who moderated the Zoom memorial service tearfully wrestled with a conundrum :
“What words can one say about one of the world’s finest wordsmiths?”
Victor’s passion on spotlighting milestone events impacting the Jewish people – some forgotten as minor but in truth were monumental – was the plot of his 2009 play Harry and Ed.
So ordinary sounding – Harry and Ed – yet they were extraordinary men who pulled off the extraordinary.
This play reveals how a hometown friendship between a Jewish boy, Edward “Eddie” Jacobson born in New York’s Lower East Side in 1891 to impoverished Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and the future US President Harry Truman would shape the destiny of the Jewish People. Following their childhood friendship, they would go into business together – not terribly successfully – from running a canteen to opening a haberdashery but it was the “business” of creating the Jewish State that history would record as a resounding success!
Irritated by incessant Jewish lobbying for statehood, Truman had issued instructions that he did not want to meet any more intermediaries and so it was left to Ed – the most unlikely of diplomats – to urge the reluctant president to meet one more – Chaim Weizmann.
As a friend the President could not ignore, and with the weight of a future Jewish state on his aging, tired and stooped shoulders, Ed skillfully beseeched the President:
“Your hero is Andrew Jackson. I have a hero too. He’s the greatest Jew alive. I’m talking about Chaim Weizmann. He’s an old man and very sick, and he has traveled thousands of miles to see you. And now you’re putting him off. This isn’t like you, Harry.”
Truman agreed to meet with Weizmann and the rest is history.
The United States became the first nation to grant diplomatic recognition to the new state of Israel on May 14, 1948.
Although Victor did not live in Israel, he was finely tuned to its peculiar nuances which he explored in his play “You Will Not Play Wagner”. The play examines Israel’s unofficial ban on performing works by “Hitler’s favourite composer” and charts the fictional conflict between a young Israeli composer, Ya’akov, who wants to perform Wagner in the final concert of a prestigious musical competition in Tel Aviv, and an elderly Holocaust survivor, who is the event’s patron.
Set against a backdrop of impassioned protests over the years in Israel to attempts by musicians and composers to defy cultural mores and Shoah sensitivities, Victor expressed in deference to survivors, “I appreciate the fact that there is a place in the world where you won’t hear Wagner.”
Himself an accomplished clarinet and saxophone player, the playwright in Victor struggles to separate the man from his music through his character Ya’akov, who asks:
“How can music be antisemitic?”
Victor’s answer was:
“You have got one of the greatest composers that ever lived and one of the greatest antisemites that ever lived, and the two meet at the Third Reich. You can’t get worse than that.”
No you can’t.
While I corresponded with Victor on media and Israel related issues, I had never personally met him until 2016 when I was invited as an overseas speaker to the Limmud Conference in Johannesburg. How fascinating that when I sat down for lunch at the conference, on my right sat the late anti-Apartheid activist Denis Goldberg, hardly favourably disposed to Israel, although it was to Israel that he left for after his release from prison, and on my left, Victor Gordon, a strong advocate for the Jewish State. If the next day I was to moderate a debate with four fiery panelists on the then upcoming 2016 US election, this lunch provided some entertaining preparation as I had to deftly ‘moderate’ a riveting discussion on Israel and its policies between these two verbal pugilists holding diametrically opposing views.
It was a lunch that we all left the table with more than the food to chew on.
And in truth, although Victor has left the proverbial ‘table’, he leaves a lasting legacy and hence shall remain active by inspiring others.
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