Seven Jewish Children: not Mein Kampf; still problematic

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A local theatre group will be performing Caryl Churchill’s short piece Seven Jewish Children: a play for Gaza in Aberystwyth this week. After the performance, the group will show a recorded debate that followed a production in Melbourne, along with a panel and audience discussion in which I’ll be taking part.

The play comprises seven parts. Each portrays a family discussing what to tell a Jewish child at a particular point in Jewish – and, later, Israeli – history. The time and place of respective scenes are not identified, but appear to occur during the Holocaust (or another period of persecution); in the wake of the Holocaust; during an aliyah to Israel; after the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine; in the immediate wake of the June 1967 war; in a period of occupation and colonial expansion following the war; and during the massacre in Gaza in 2008-9. No parts are identified in the play, and different performers can assign lines as they wish.

Below are some thoughts on the play, and on the public response to it.

 

Hyperbole and hysteria: the Israel lobby respond to the play

Reactions to Seven Jewish Children display a degree of hyperbole and hysteria entirely characteristic of the Israel lobby when facing down critics of Israel. Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal calls it a “vile” work of “trite agitprop” that “manipulate[s] history … dishonestly” and “revives an ancient hatred”. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg claims it “reads like anti-Jewish agitprop”, “demonizes and endangers Jews”, engages in the “mainstreaming of the worst anti-Jewish stereotypes” and takes “a kind of gross, sometimes pornographic interest in proving Jewish immorality”. Melanie Phillips calls the play

“an open vilification of the Jewish people … demonstrably and openly drawing upon an atavistic hatred of the Jews. It is sickening and dreadful beyond measure that the Royal Court is staging this … open incitement to hatred.”

For pro-Israel lobby group the Board of Deputies of British Jews, most outrageous was a cordial invitation to view rehearsals of the play for themselves.

“Board spokesman Mark Frazer said: “We were astounded when we received the e-mail. When we read it, we thought there was something strange about it and realised this was a red herring. We responded by telling them we would have nothing to do with it.””

Goldberg discerns a “not-entirely veiled blood libel embedded in the text”, as does the Zionist Federation’s Jonathan Hoffman; Independent columnist Howard Jacobson claims that Churchill “repeat[s] in another form the medieval blood-libel of Jews rejoicing in the murder of little children”, delivering the message that “we Jews … slaughter babies” and “laugh at the destruction of the lives of Palestinian children”. Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust (CST) claims “the play … evoked, in contemporary terms, the medieval blood libel”, the “most vicious of antisemitic slurs”, because “it traces Israeli behaviour to an unbroken line of Jewish attitudes and behaviour stretching back before Israel even existed”, and features an ending “culminating in that noxious mixture of Jews, children, death and blood”. The play, Rich claims, “like Sir Hugh, or the Jew’s Daughter” – a classic medieval blood libel – “is based on the juxtaposition of Jewish and non-Jewish children, with the latter left covered in their own blood.”

Were that not enough, the play depicts Jews as liars. In Jacobson’s words, it is “skilfully contrived to suggest a people … forever covert and deceitful”. “The dishonesty and amorality of the adult voices in Seven Jewish Children is striking,” argue Dave Rich and Mark Gardner.

“Nowhere are right and wrong considered, when deciding how to answer their children’s questions. Never does an adult in the play consider whether their suggested answer is true or not, nor whether this should have any bearing on which answer is given. Their only thought is which answers will best shield Jewish children from difficult moral questions. It is as if Jewish children are brought up in a moral vacuum, with Jewish power and vulnerability the only things that matter.”

Jacobson likewise concludes the play depicts complete unanimity: “no orchestration of voices vexes or otherwise complicates its depiction”.

The play, we are told, uses the Holocaust only to depict the Jews as the new Nazis. According to Jacobson, it is part of a discourse “disinheriting them of pity” – “the latest species of Holocaust denial”, whose

“aim is a sort of retrospective retribution, cancelling out all debts of guilt and sorrow. It is as though, by a reversal of the usual laws of cause and effect, Jewish actions of today prove that Jews had it coming to them yesterday.”

Churchill, then, displays no compassion for the Nazis’ victims, their relatives or their descendants, using the Holocaust merely to attack them: the play

“begins with the Holocaust, partly to establish the playwright’s sympathetic bona fides (“Tell her not to come out even if she hears shouting”), partly to explain what has befallen Palestine, because no sooner are the Jews out of the hell of Hitler’s Europe than they are constructing a parallel hell for Palestinians.”

The Jewish Chronicle’s John Nathan states that the play “evokes the Holocaust and establishes a narrative arc that equates the suffering meted out by Nazis with that brought about by Jews (not Israelis) today.” According to Rich and Gardner, the play’s effect is “to slander Jews as being psychologically compelled to become the new Nazis”: a “deadly new libel for a new millennium.” Norman Geras claims that it links “broad themes of the Jews as victims of genocide and as putative perpetrators of it in their turn.”

Thus, by some bizarre imputed logic, emerges a climate favourable to or accepting of a new Holocaust. Churchill proposes a return to the lofty standards of the Nazi concentration camps, Wall Street Journal hack Bret Stephens avers, “adopting the brilliant trick of treating Jewish victimization as a moral ideal from which modern Israel has sadly deviated”. As Geras puts it:

“We now know … that should a new calamity ever befall the Jewish people, there will be, again, not only the direct architects and executants but also those who collaborate, who collude, who look away and find the words to go with doing so. Some of these, dismayingly, shamefully, will be of the left.”

Howard Jacobson goes further:

“And so it happens. Without one’s being aware of it, it happens. A gradual habituation to the language of loathing. Passed from the culpable to the unwary and back again. And soon, before you know it …

“Not here, though. Not in cosy old lazy old easy-come easy-go England.”

 

The reality

It is difficult to describe the insanity of this discourse, but let’s try. First, does the play depict a unanimous Jewish community? No playwright could build a functioning drama on such foundations, and this should make us immediately wary of any such claim – which does indeed prove baseless. Every scene portrays contending voices in sharp disagreement. Part two, for instance, offers strikingly ambivalent perspectives on the world’s attitudes to Jews, and even unsettles Jewish identity:

Tell her there are still people who hate Jews

Tell her there are people who love Jews

Don’t tell her to think Jews or not Jews

Part three portrays a disagreement over the basis of the Jewish claim to Palestine:

Tell her it’s the land God gave us

Don’t tell her religion

Part four conveys deep-seated guilt and regret about the colonisation of Palestine, along with hope, disagreement and doubt about the prospect of peace:

Don’t tell her I wouldn’t have come if I’d known.

Tell her maybe we can share.

Don’t tell her that.

Part six features a debate on how to frame the conflict for the child:

Don’t tell her they throw stones

Tell her they’re not much good against tanks

Don’t tell her that.

Tell her they want to drive us into the sea

Tell her they don’t

Tell her they want to drive us into the sea.

Tell her we kill far more of them

Don’t tell her that

Part seven, which portrays the growth in Israel of a new, poisonous far-right discourse, makes explicit reference to escalating contentions and disagreements: “Don’t tell her her cousin refused to serve in the army.” Is this “pornographic interest in Jewish immorality”?

Indeed the very line in part seven that elicits the most intense hysteria about “blood libel” is the following:

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.

Yet this very line is immediately contradicted:

Don’t tell her that.

This goes conveniently unmentioned by Israel’s apologists – a fact that drew sharp criticism from Ari Roth when debating Goldberg:

“the way to discuss this play is not to lift lines from the last page and a half of it. That is not how to fully experience and understand the meaning of any drama. … That is not a sophisticated way to regard art, by picking out a sentence here and then going apeshit over it!

Does the play depict Israel as inflicting a new Holocaust on Palestine? Note that this in itself would not make the play anti-Semitic. But in fact the play neither depicts nor references anything of the sort. Crimes and atrocities occur off-stage, referenced only obliquely: “Don’t tell her the boy was shot”; “Don’t tell her about the bulldozer”; “Don’t tell her about the queues at the checkpoint”; “Don’t tell her about the olive trees”; “Tell her we kill far more of them”; “Don’t tell her how many of them have been killed”; “Don’t tell her about the family of dead girls”; “Tell her we killed the babies by mistake”. What the play portrays is a descent – not unchallenged – into genocidal far-right discourse:

Tell her they’re filth …

… tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen, tell her they’re animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out …

Whether or not this likens Israelis to Nazis, it closely resembles the tone of much public conversation in contemporary Israel, where fascism is unambiguously on the rise.

For Jacobson, Churchill’s use of the Holocaust shows no trace of empathy or pity; it merely affects it. Its sole dramatic function is to prepare us for the forthcoming Holocaust against Palestinians. The more humane and empathic Churchill’s portrayal of the Jewish catastrophe, then, the more successfully she deceives us. This self-evidently paranoid and deranged reading (to credit Jacobson – generously – with good faith) not only fabricates a spurious “parallel” Holocaust out of whole cloth, but, by claiming access to Caryl Churchill’s inmost thoughts and motives, effects a demonisation every bit as crude as the one Jacobson imputes to the play.

Does Churchill portray Jews as liars? First, any calculated dissimulation discussed in the play is proposed only in the context of cautious and protective adults raising children. Why else does part two include the line “Tell her more when she’s older”? Would a play portraying English people using careful evasions to protect children from harsh truths demonstrate racism? Would it depict English people as unremitting liars?

Indeed it is above all part seven’s outpouring of far-right zealotry that urges the family to disclose ugly and shocking realities. In the context, the will to expose every detail of the slaughter appears far more appalling and disturbed than the softer, more sensitive imprecations to euphemise or keep quiet. It exposes an inner brutalisation: the speaker has lost, or represses, their own child-like capacity for empathy, and shows no desire to protect or nurture that capacity in the child herself; she too must be brutalised.

Tell her we killed the babies by mistake

Don’t tell her anything about the army

Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army. Tell her about the family of dead girls, tell her their names why not, tell her the whole world knows why shouldn’t she know? Tell her there’s dead babies, did she see babies? tell her she’s got nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves.

But in any case, to claim that honesty motivates none of the play’s lines is plainly false. Part seven includes the line “Tell her they’re attacking with rockets”. Part six includes the exchange:

Don’t tell her they throw stones

Tell her they’re not much good against tanks

Don’t tell her that.

Don’t tell her they set off bombs in cafés

Tell her, tell her they set off bombs in cafés

It includes this exchange:

Tell her they want to drive us into the sea

Tell her they don’t

Tell her they want to drive us into the sea.

Tell her we kill far more of them

Don’t tell her that

Tell her that

Scene two features this exchange:

Tell her more when she’s older.

Tell her there were people who hated Jews

Tell her there are still people who hate Jews

Tell her there are people who love Jews

Whether or not Israel’s partisans acknowledge them, calls for honest revelation recur constantly.

What of “blood libel”? In fact, as the BBC’s Hugh Levinson points out – in a piece Rich himself cites – blood libel has nothing to do with the “juxtaposition of Jewish and non-Jewish children”. It refers specifically to a medieval myth deployed to incite anti-Semitic hatred: that Jews sacrifice Christian children, drain their blood and use it for ritual purposes, specifically in preparing unleavened bread for the Pesach meal. The idea is not so much as referenced in Churchill’s play – paranoid or contrived inferences to the contrary notwithstanding. Nor, despite Jacobson’s casual references, does any line “rejoice” or “laugh” at the murder of children. Rather, the closing lines of the play display callous indifference, apologism and brutal denial of responsibility, in forms entirely familiar to observers of recent Israeli politics.

 

Criticism of Israel as “anti-Semitism”

For most of these critics, Churchill’s greatest crime is not to attack not Jews, but to criticise Israel and Israel’s political culture. Thus, in a letter to the Telegraph, prominent British Jews attack the play only for “demonis[ing] Israelis” and failing to whitewash Israeli history. The Zionist Federation’s Hoffman harps on Churchill’s “libellous and despicable demonisation of Israeli parents and grandparents”, “Israeli fathers” and “Israeli mothers”. Howard Jacobson refers to “toxi[c]”, “poison[ous]” “hatred of Israel … When it comes to Israel we hear no good, see no good, speak no good.” The Board of Deputies of British Jews state that “the title Seven Jewish Children is the least of what pushes it beyond the boundaries of reasonable political discourse”; it is “horrifically anti-Israel.” The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens attacks its “obsessive criticism of Israel”. Norman Geras deems it racist that “Israel today is fair game for being hated”, declaring a poem anti-Semitic because it “imputed to Israel … a genocidal ambition against the Iranian people.” (Not racist the other way round, of course.) Jeffrey Goldberg obsesses over and over on Churchill’s affront to Israel: she is “this smug playwright with pronounced animus towards Israel writing this drive-by polemic that’s meant to demonize the Jewish state” and “lower Israel’s stature in the world”, “to increase people’s hostility toward Israel”, that “comes out of a particular theater subculture in Great Britain that demonizes Israel.”(1) He even participates in this vicious little exchange:

Ari Roth: Do you think I’m helping to hurt Israel?

Jeffrey Goldberg: You’re the useful Jew. You’ve made yourself into the useful Jew.

“The useful Jew” – a vicious and unacceptable phrase to sling around if one is concerned about anti-Semitism, but Goldberg is not so concerned: he wishes to deliver a rhetorical slap across the face as punishment for Roth’s treason against the holy state.

The CST’s Dave Rich and Mark Gardner, moreover, adduce anti-Semitism via a very particular logic:

“People sometimes ask when does anti-Zionism become antisemitism. Here is a rule of thumb: when people describe Israel with the same language and imagery that antisemites use to talk about Jews, the difference between the two disappears.

Thus, anti-Semites say “Jews kill children”; the United Nations and Amnesty International point out that “Israel kills children”; therefore the UN and Amnesty are anti-Semitic.

But Israel lobbyists cannot seem to agree on whether the play concerns Jews or Israelis. The impressively obtuse Rich and Gardner state not only that “Seven Jewish Children is not a play about Israel”, but

“It is not even possible to discuss whether or where this play crosses a line from criticism of Israel into antisemitism, because the play does not present us with a specific criticism of an Israeli policy or action.

Right-wing extremist Toby Young takes exactly the same line for precisely the opposite reason:

“… had [Lib Dem MP David] Ward expressed himself more delicately and confined his remarks to Israel rather than “the Jews”, I doubt his career would be in any danger. The truth is that many people on the liberal Left believe there’s something morally abhorrent about the state of Israel and often draw parallels between Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews.

“A case in point is the Left-wing playwright Caryl Churchill … this play makes a direct analogy between the systematic and deliberate murder of hundreds of thousands of Jewish children by the Nazis and the accidental [sic] death of Palestinian children at the hands of the Israeli Defence Force.”

Ultimately, though, for these critics the distinction barely matters. As Goldberg puts it, the play’s “motivation is to demonize the Jewish people. Or at least the Israeli branch of the Jewish people.

 

Is Seven Jewish Children anti-Semitic?

Despite all the disingenuous hysteria surrounding the play, is there any kernel of truth to the accusation of anti-Semitism? To adapt and simplify Stuart Hall’s “encoding/decoding” model, we can think of meaning as lying variously in the intention of its author(s); in the “preferred meaning” embedded in the text; and in the interpretations of audiences and readers. We have already identified various spurious, ideologically interested misreadings; and Churchill surely deserves the benefit of the doubt in asserting no anti-Semitic intent. But does the play’s text incorporate anti-Semitic assumptions, or invite an anti-Semitic interpretation? A recent post on the progressive blog This Is Not Jewish, “How to Criticize Israel Without Being Anti-Semitic”, offers some useful pointers.(2) Here are two:

Don’t say “the Jews” when you mean Israel.  I think this should be pretty clear.  The people in power in Israel are Jews, but not all Jews are Israelis (let alone Israeli leaders).

Don’t use the phrase “the chosen people” to deride or as proof of Jewish racism.  When Jews say we are the chosen people, we don’t mean that we are biologically superior to others or that God loves us more than other groups.  Judaism in fact teaches that everyone is capable of being a righteous, Godly person, that Jews have obligations to be ethical and decent to “the stranger in our midst,” and that non-Jews don’t get sent to some kind of damnation for believing in another faith.  When we say we’re the chosen people, we mean that, according to our faith, God gave us extra responsibilities and codes of behavior that other groups aren’t burdened with, in the form of the Torah.  That’s all it means.

Clearly, the title “Seven Jewish Children” unhelpfully elides Jews and Israelis. Granted, as the excellent Jews Sans Frontieres notes, in three of seven parts the characters are not Israelis; but in the majority they are, and the discussion clearly intends to mirror the contours of debate within Israeli society. Churchill claims it represents “individual Israelis” and “some – not all Israelis”, but this seems disingenuous: these scenes can possess little power or purpose unless they represent some wider phenomenon. In this context, the play’s casual conflation of “Israelis” with “Jews” invites an anti-Semitic reading that recognises no distinction between the two. This is particularly unfortunate when, as Norman Finkelstein and others observe, Israeli public opinion steers towards the far-right, while US Jews assimilate and cleave to the liberal left. In Finkelstein’s words:

“[US] Jews tend to be highly literate. They’re tapped into the circuits of liberal culture in the United States. And they now know a lot more. And so, it’s much more difficult, if not impossible, for American Jews to reconcile their liberal beliefs, their liberal creed, with the way Israel carries on. …

“You know, Mubarak commits horrendous crimes, he gets overthrown. But ’til the last moment, and even afterwards, Netanyahu was attacking the American government for being too soft on the demonstrators. “Why did you let Mubarak go?” Young American Jews don’t want to hear that. They identify with the Twitter revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, with the Facebook revolutionaries. And most of young American Jews, they’re idealists. They’re liberal. And now you have the head of state of Israel saying the U.S. should have been tougher to keep Mubarak in. American Jews don’t want to defend that.”

In part seven, Churchill deploys the rhetoric of “chosenness” (“tell her we’re chosen people”), portrayed as a problematic ideology mandating Jewish supremacy. As the family prepare to make the aliyah, part three’s penultimate line offers a strong hint in this direction: “Tell her she’s a special girl”. As Churchill wrote in the Independent,

“Some people are now uncomfortable with a phrase that can seem to suggest racial superiority. But George W Bush, speaking to the Knesset on the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel, talked about “the homeland of the chosen people” without anyone suggesting he was accusing Israelis of racism or was anti-Semitic. Some supporters of Israel still use it with enthusiasm.”

Religious concepts like “chosen people” always invite diverse interpretations. In and of itself, however, it implies no special qualities, or even special rewards: it bestows on Jews a particular mission or purpose, requiring certain ethical-spiritual duties and obligations. Projecting chauvinistic ideological properties onto a particular tenet of the Jewish faith, as Churchill does, can, I think, reasonably be called anti-Semitic.

This is not to justify the hysteria, hyperbole or misrepresentation leveled at Churchill by fanatical apologists for mass murder. The anti-Semitism in Seven Jewish Children is not deep-seated or hateful: it is casual and unintended. Nevertheless, we should recognise it for what it is. In other respects, Churchill has created a fine work. But by conflating Jews and Israelis, and by abusing the motif of the “chosen people”, she fails to maintain her own high standards.

 

Notes

1. All emphases mine.

2. There is nevertheless a lot to criticise in this post. It condemns the application of blood imagery or the word “bloodthirsty” to Israeli actions as anti-Semitic, for instance, though such images and words are applied to all states, and there is no reason to exempt Israel; and condemns references to the Holocaust, though these are perfectly legitimate for the same reason, and exploited especially promiscuously by the Israel lobby. The imprecise use of the term “Zionism” is neither as offensive as the blog suggests, nor racist; and not all accusations of anti-Semitism deserve a hearing, as the blog implies: some exhibit bad faith, and deserve not only dismissal but vigorous condemnation.

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