Watch this video, and tell me if you think it’s anti-Semitic.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
When I started to hear whispers of outrage about brilliant British playwright Caryl Churchill’s new work Seven Jewish Children, I was impressed. It’s not every day that a playwright crosses the blood-brain barrier between the arts and the news. I didn’t realize that it was all because of a myth.
Churchill, who has for more than 40 years created radically political plays for London’s Royal Court Theater, doesn’t always make a splash. Many of her plays are nearly unstageable, as I learned in the late ‘90s when I directed her impossible 1986 Mouthful of Birds as my college senior thesis play. And some are so steeped in their time and place that they look dated when you try to revive them, like her 1982 feminist fantasia Top Girls.
Churchill wrote Seven Jewish Children in response to the December 2008 Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, in which a highly disputed number of Gazans, many civilians, were killed; it was first performed in Britain on February 6th. In seven short scenes, adults (the number and gender of the cast is left up to each director) argue over how to explain the violence going on around them to an unseen “Jewish child.” It begins with World War II and the Holocaust, and the foundation of Israel, going through the 1948 and 1968 wars to the 2008 war over Gaza. Though it does not actually equate Holocaust victims with Gaza civilians, nor Israeli Zionists with Nazis, the mere association of the two events was enough to rattle both critics and audiences.
Churchill released the text widely and offered the play royalty-free to any group who would collect donations for the British charity Medical Aid for Palestinians at the performance. She had to know this would cause a stir. But she does not seem to have anticipated just how quickly the public debate would turn to accusations of pure anti-Semitism.
Just two days after the first production, in The Spectator, British conservative commentator Melanie Phillips bluntly referred to the play as a “ten-minute blood libel,” equating it directly with the medieval anti-Semitic myth that Jews kill Christian babies, and drink their blood. Seven Jewish Children was “repeatedly perpetrating incendiary lies about Israel” and “demonstrably and openly drawing upon an atavistic hatred of the Jews.” And along with other signs Phillips sees of growing British anti-Semitism, Churchill’s play could be an “open incitement to hatred.” (Read the rest here.)
What set her off? Part of the seventh and final scene of the play, which takes place just after the Gaza attacks. Go and watch that video, it won’t take long!) Not watching the video? Here’s the quote:
“..tell her we won’t stop killing them till we’re safe, tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policeman, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out, the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I don’t care if the world hates us, tell her we’re better haters, tell her we’re chosen people, tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? Tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.”
Pretty rough stuff. Here’s where mythography gets tricky. My Jewish grandmother came to the U. S. in 1906, escaping the Russian pogroms. So of course I don’t want to play into anything that encourages hatred for Jews just because they’re Jews. The baby-killing myth has gone beyond myth status. That’s why it’s called “blood libel.” The truth value of the statement is not the point. The point is: there was a time in history when enough people believe it was true that they enacted violent revenge on Jews just in case. Myths can hurt just like facts.
But on the other hand: it’s not true, it was never true. So why is Melanie Phillips even bringing it up? Doesn’t she prolong its life just by mentioning it? Once Phillips opened the floodgates, Jewish and non-Jewish critics felt free to label the play “hate-mongering” or “propaganda” and dismiss it entirely.
Churchill stayed out of the public debate until a couple weeks later, when Howard Jacobson in the Independent called the work “wantonly inflammatory.” In a letter published on February 21st, she responded: “I find it extraordinary that, because the play talks about the killing of children in Gaza, I am accused of reviving the medieval blood libel. . .The character is not “rejoicing in the murder of little children.” He sees dead children on television and feels numb and defiant in his relief that his own child is safe. He believes that what has happened is justified as self-defense. Howard Jacobson may agree. I don’t, but it doesn’t make either of them a monster, or me anti-Semitic.”
“We should,” she wrote, “be able to disagree without accusations of antisemitism, which lead to a pantomime of ‘Oh yes you are’, ‘Oh no I’m not’, to distract attention from Israel.”She’s right, we should be able to have a discussion about Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians without it turning into a tired and useless dialectic over who is or isn’t anti-Semitic. But can we?
Consider the 2006 firestorm now known as “the Rachel Corrie affair”: a British play based on the diaries of a young American activist serving in Palestinian territory who was killed by an Israeli tank, was scheduled for production at the New York Theatre Workshop, but after protests, the theater postponed their production indefinitely.
The New York Theater Workshop also happens to be the theater where Churchill’s productions often have their U. S. debut. So when Seven Jewish Children came along, they were prepared. The theater sponsored three readings of the play, with different configurations of actors, and different post-show discussion leaders each time, including playwright Tony Kushner and theater critic Alisa Solomon—both Jewish, both politically progressive, who subsequently wrote a measured, cautious defense of the play in The Nation. They pointed out that this was a PLAY, not an op-ed piece, and theater does not have the same responsibility to be even-handed that journalism does.
But they were the exception. When Ari Roth, director of the Washington D. C. Jewish theater company Theater J, decided to stage Seven Jewish Children as a forum for discussion, along with two “artistic responses” (Seven Palestinian Children by Deb Margolin, and The Eighth Child by Israeli Robin Gringras), he got brutalized by friends and critics alike.
In the interests of open discussion, Roth successfully persuaded Churchill herself to license the play without the prescribed collection for Medical Aid to Palestinian; the evening was free of charge. Despite his best efforts to be diplomatic and open-minded, Roth was called a “useful Jew”—that is, an “uncle Tom”, a “betrayer of the race”—by his (former?) friend the writer Jeffrey Goldberg. Goldberg refused to appear at the event itself, but he did invite Roth to a spirited exchange on his Atlantic magazine blog afterwards.
Since then, new productions and new controversies have sprung up all over the place. Protestors called for boycotts in Montreal. An Australian actress was un-invited from a Jewish fundraiser after performing the play because it was thought her presence might offend the Holocaust survivors at the event. Cynically speaking, all of this can be said to play directly into Churchill’s hands, winning her attention and notoriety. But she has state sponsorship; she doesn’t need money or fame. She appears sincere in her attempt to interest people in the Palestinian cause.
But really the controversy is more useful and revealing to the Jewish community. More conservative Jewish critics seem threatened by the possibility of difficult discussions or eloquent dissent, so they throw up a hastily-built shield of anti-Semitism. Once the shield is up, they know all kinds of mainstream, pro-Israel Jews will fall behind them. Those unwilling to hide behind the shield are painted as dangerously naive traitors. The knee-jerk reaction is disappointing for anyone who’s trying to make room for anti-Zionism that’s not anti-Semitism, let alone for anyone who believes that free discussion and debate should be the pride of a democracy.