Itamar Moses’s The Ally Is an Exercise in Liberal Ambivalence

Itamar Moses’s new play The Ally, about free speech and Israel, boldly broaches the topic of Palestine activism on US college campuses. But the play ultimately stays on the safe side, endorsing agnosticism and inaction in a time of massacres.

Josh Radnor, Madeline Weinstein, Cherise Boothe, and Michael Khalid Karadsheh in the world premiere production of The Ally, written by Itamar Moses and directed by Lila Neugebauer. (Joan Marcus / Public Theater)

Itamar Moses’s The Ally opened at the Public Theater in lower Manhattan on February 27. The venue is a nonprofit theater, the original home of Hamilton, and a prestigious sanctuary for progressive liberalism in the dramatic arts. The Ally is a play about Israel-Palestine and American campus activism. Moses is an excellent mimic of the speech patterns and thought processes of the archetypes on parade: the Zionist; the undergraduate Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) organizers; the fiery community organizer; the soft-progressive university administrator. He is an excellent writer, and the play is thoughtful and engaging, not to mention searingly topical. But however daring it is to put on a play on this controversial subject matter right in the heat of the moment, The Ally still manages to play it safe. Despite its many merits, The Ally is a more or less pure expression of anxious liberal agnosticism, spotted in the wild in one of that political tradition’s most natural habitats.

The Ally tells the story of Asaf Sternheim, an Israeli-American playwright who finds himself caught between his purported left-wing politics and his Jewish-Israeli heritage after getting embroiled in a political controversy at the college where he teaches as an adjunct professor. There is also a Palestinian student at the center of the play. Moses is a Tony Award–winning playwright, and the fact that such an accomplished figure has elected to put a Palestinian voice on stage in such a prestigious Manhattan theater is a testament to how far progressive liberals have come on this issue. In the recent past, it was uncommon to acknowledge the Palestinian perspective at all.

However, the play itself does little more than represent the voices of the powerless, showcasing but not seriously engaging with the Palestinian viewpoint. Some tensions are irresolvable: one can’t actually retain faith in Zionism while watching the fruits of that ideology play out in real time, in the form of mass slaughter and displacement. Moses takes a big leap forward by exposing theatergoers to a sympathetic campus Palestine activist. But in the end, he undermines that same viewpoint with a play that asserts the equal validity of all perspectives, and leaves it at that.

Moses’s protagonist Asaf teaches writing at an unnamed top-tier university. He has recently moved to a college town to support his university-administrator wife, Gwen. During Asaf’s office hours, a student, Baron, speaks to him about the murder-by-cop of his cousin, Deronte. Baron asks Asaf to sign onto an all-encompassing manifesto on building a new world, put forth by an activist group called Voice to Action. Baron argues the manifesto addresses reforms that could prevent what happened to Deronte from happening again.

The manifesto turns out to have been written by Asaf’s ex-girlfriend, Nakia Clark. Asaf reads the manifesto and ends up signing, even though he balks at a paragraph that calls for sanctions against Israel. While Asaf agrees with everything the manifesto says, it makes him uncomfortable. He is especially discomfited by the use of the words “apartheid” and “genocide” to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. He also wonders why Israel is getting singled out for mistreating Palestinians, when other examples of mistreatment abound worldwide. Witnessing his discomfort, his wife Gwen confesses she didn’t realize how defensive he is of Israel. Asaf, in one of the play’s best laugh lines, disagrees, “I’m just defensive of . . . internally consistent logic,” he says.

Eventually, Asaf’s signature on the manifesto brings him to the attention of campus activists, Rachel Klein and Farid El Masry. Rachel is a member of the Jewish Student Union, while Farid represents Students for Justice in Palestine. Rachel is a loquacious, uptalking Zoomer, while Farid is a mysteriously silent pillar by her side. Rachel tells Asaf that members of their college’s chapter of the Jewish Student Union had wanted to invite a speaker to campus who is critical of Israel. To their surprise, they discover that their overarching national organization will not allow this speaker to come, and in fact bans anti-Zionist speech in any form. Without the Jewish Student Union’s backing, Rachel must form another new student group to invite this speaker to the college. They want Asaf to be the group’s faculty sponsor, and he consents.

Shortly afterward, Asaf is visited by Reuven Fisher, a PhD student in Jewish history and a conservative Jew. Reuven gives a passionate and eloquent soliloquy on why antisemitism and anti-Zionism are the same. He excoriates Asaf for supporting anti-Israel speech on campus. When Asaf refuses to renege on his sponsorship, Reuven says, “We Jews do have a long history. A special tradition. It is of nodding sympathetically at the unhinged ravings of those who wish us dead. You’re a man of principle. And I respect that, I do. But I think you will find that you are being taken advantage of. By people who, in fact, hate you.”

Reuven sounds reasonable. In fact, all the characters sound relatively reasonable, which has the effect of compressing the issue into the space where one has no choice but to see the merits of each side. Moses creates a bubble universe of shrunken-down personalities and manageable ideologies so that they may coexist relatively peaceably. The leftists aren’t all that left, and the right-wing Zionist not all that right. Everyone gets heard out in full, and no truly extremist views are present. There isn’t a character who, for instance, believes that Hamas members are freedom fighters and regards any enemy of the West as a friend. There isn’t a character who looks forward to the extermination of all Palestinians.

There’s no fascist voice, no vulgar tankie — only different flavors of liberalism. While at first blush we can appreciate that Moses resists the common urge to caricature the conservative Zionist or the Palestine student activists, in truth the absence of any extreme ideology creates a safe enclosure around the debate. The Ally allows one to exit the theater assured of his or her own reasonableness — whereas, in real life, the extreme fringes of ideology force us to ruthlessly examine our own allegiances and boundaries.

Barely present in Moses’s shrunken political bubble is the university’s administration. Long before October 7, universities were cracking down on BDS organizing and pro-Palestine speech, and the Hamas attack only served to turbocharge that suppression. Each of Moses’s characters speak their viewpoints isolated from the structures of power that surround them. Each of them — even the Palestinian student Farid, who describes himself as “moving through the world as the threat of violence incarnate” — is essentially safe on the university campus. If he were real, Farid would be at great risk of harassment and punishment. If he were real, Asaf would be a nonunionized adjunct professor who could be fired at the whim of his department chair. He would likely balk at signing onto radical student action, not because of his personal politics but in fear for his job. In a real university, the Zionist student wouldn’t merely ask the professor to prevent an anti-Zionist lecturer from coming to campus: they would likely enlist national organizations to exert leverage to get that professor fired and the student activists disciplined.

Asaf recounts his activist past throughout the play: how he protested the result of the George W. Bush versus Al Gore recount, Bush’s stem cell research ban, and the war in Iraq. His lefty bona fides are solid, if a bit dated. He doesn’t mention Occupy, let alone Bernie Sanders’s campaigns for president, or the George Floyd protests. While the play centers a black student activist whose cousin is murdered by the campus police, the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t actually mentioned. Though its subject matter is quite current, the seeds of the play were planted during Obama’s presidency, and it seems to echo the liberal passion in those years for disagreeing without being disagreeable. Social media doesn’t enter into the picture at all. Watching The Ally, one gets the feeling that for all its topicality, the play is actually suspended somewhere pre-2016.

A charitable reading of the play’s politics might describe it as an individual’s journey through complex issues. Everyone gets heard out and no final judgment is made, encouraging the audience to think for themselves. One reader comment on the glowing New York Times review of The Ally praises the play’s “all sides have a point” approach, explaining that the reviewer has been looking for “alternatives to the standard positions, pro and con.” Asaf says he’s “never been, like, a ‘mob enthusiasm’ person.” Moses, like his protagonist Asaf, seems to take pride in remaining above the fray, seeing all sides, judging none, letting each side have their due.

As the actor playing Asaf, Josh Radnor (known for his role as Ted Mosby in How I Met Your Mother), told The New York Times, “Early in rehearsal, someone said, ‘The real tragedy of this is everyone’s right all the time’ . . . I trust the play more because of that, because it doesn’t feel like it has some ideological agenda. It’s letting people say what’s absolutely true for them, even when there are competing truths.” A beautiful sentiment if one were describing a marital squabble and not an eighty-year geopolitical disaster that has displaced or murdered Palestinians in their hundreds of thousands.

Ultimately Asaf is asked to choose sides and he refuses. Everyone makes such good points, and he can’t pick a single path to follow. In the closing scene he is sitting in temple, alone with his thoughts, weighing each side of the discourse against another. As he contemplates his choices, a march to protest Deronte’s murder-by-cop heaves noisily by outside. Asaf will sign his name on a petition, but he ultimately refuses to organize around BDS, or to participate in the march. Despite being excoriated by his wife, his activist ex, and the student organizers, he elects to do nothing. Instead he contemplates the various ethical quandaries privately, with great reverence for nuance — a refined, respectable paralysis.

What are we to make of the messageless message of this play? The Ally’s lesson in safe logic is a fascinating guide to liberal anxiety on Israel-Palestine since October 7. By presenting a main character who genuinely believes that peaceable discourse should be possible between genocidaires and their victims, alongside a cast of characters expressing political views that never cross over into the truly controversial, Moses establishes a platform for a new type of liberal piety that meets the needs of our unforgiving era. By play’s end the audience is asked not to act, organize, or even form coherent opinions, but to look ever inward and privately despair.