The war of words that has erupted during the past week over the new 10-minute play “Seven Jewish Children”, written by one of Britain’s most renowned playwrights, has revealed the deep rifts that the war on Gaza has caused in British society.
Many of Israel’s supporters are enraged by the play, which was written by Caryl Churchill in response to the Gaza war. Churchill, now 70, is one of Britain’s leading politically-engaged dramatists and is a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).
Mark Frazier, spokesman of the Board of Deputies of British Jews , told the Jewish Chronicle: “We knew the play was going to be horrifically anti-Israel because Caryl Churchill is a patron of the PSC; the title ‘Seven Jewish Children’ is the least of what pushes it beyond the boundaries of reasonable political discourse.”
The co-vice chairman of the Zionist Federation, Jonathan Hoffman, alleged that the play was “a libelous and despicable demonization of Israeli parents and grandparents which will only stoke the fires of anti-Semitism.” He said it drew on “several anti-Semitic stereotypes, from the blood libel to the ‘chosen people’ trope.”
But Churchill’s defenders strongly deny all charges of anti-Semitism and insist that a distinction must be drawn between legitimate criticism of Israel, and anti-Semitism. A Royal Court spokeswoman urged people to see the play before judging it. “It is possible to criticize the actions of Israel without being anti-Semitic,” she said.
The set of the play takes the form of a blue-painted room containing a table and chairs. Between scenes the actors rearrange themselves and the chairs in a new configuration. It seems that most, if not all, the actors are Jewish.
Each of the play’s seven scenes represents a different phase of Jewish and Israeli history, from the Nazi era, through the Holocaust, establishment of the state of Israel and 1967 war, up to the Gaza war. No children actually appear in the play. The script notes that the speakers are the parents “and if you like other relations of the children.” The actors refer to a girl who is never named or seen, as they debate what she should and should not be told.
The momentum of the play builds to a devastating final scene set during the Gaza onslaught. The adults shout out sentences such as: “Don’t tell her about the family of the dead girls.” “Tell her you can’t believe what you see on television”. “Tell her we killed the babies by mistake.” Towards the end an actor delivers a monologue which includes the passage: “tell her she’s got nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves. Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them, tell her I’m not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them...”
The play succinctly dramatizes the tragedies and ironies of history for both sides. It packs an extraordinary amount into 10 minutes and is directed with tautness by Dominic Cooke, artistic director of the Royal Court. Entry is free, and the script can be downloaded from the Royal Court’s website. Churchill has stipulated that any number of people anywhere can read or perform the play without needing to acquire the rights, as long as they take a collection for Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) after each performance.
“Seven Jewish Children” is one of three loosely related plays currently being staged at the Royal Court. In refuting the charges of anti-Semitism with relation to Churchill’s play, the Royal Court spokeswoman said: “In keeping with its philosophy, the Royal Court Theater presents a multiplicity of viewpoints.”
She pointed to the viewpoints presented by the two other plays running at the theater. “The Stone” by Marius von Mayenburg – which is performed each evening before “Seven Jewish Children” – takes place in Germany in scenes set at various times between 1935 and 1993.”It asks very difficult questions about the refusal of some modern Germans to accept their ancestors’ complicity in Nazi atrocities.”
The play “Shades”, written by young Muslim woman Alia Bano and staged in the Royal Court’s small studio theater, explores issues of tolerance in London’s Muslim community.
By the end of the first week’s run of “Seven Jewish Children”, only one newspaper critic – John Nathan of the Jewish Chronicle – had described it as anti-Semitic. Nathan wrote: “In dramatic terms, there is no doubting the power of Churchill’s message. But this is one of those occasions when the merits of a play are eclipsed by its politics.” He concluded with a damning verdict: “For the first time in my career as a critic, I am moved to say about a work at a major production house that this is an anti-Semitic play.” But the Guardian’s long-serving theater critic (since 1971) Michael Billington awarded the play four stars out of five, as did Dominic Maxwell of The Times. The reviewers of the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard were less impressed, each awarding it two stars.
Billington said of Churchill: “What she captures, in remarkably condensed poetic form, is the transition that has overtaken Israel, to the point where security has become the pretext for indiscriminate slaughter.” While the play solves nothing, it “shows theater’s power to heighten consciousness and articulate moral outrage.”
He praised the Royal Court for “connecting through the big issues” through “Seven Jewish Children” and the other two plays it is staging.
He added that “Churchill’s play reminds us that, in any conflict, children are always prime victims. Literally so in the case of Gaza, where 410 died during the 23-day bombing. But Churchill also shows us how Jewish children are bred to believe in the ‘otherness’ of Palestinians and how, for generations to come, they stand to reap the bitter harvest of the military assault on Hamas.”
After his review was published, Billington was subjected to a campaign of vilification on message boards and blogs. Some hostile commentators leapt on his choice of the word “bred”, and hinted that this showed his anti-Semitism.
Perhaps they should try Goolging “bred” plus “Palestinians”, and see all the thousands of postings casually alleging that Palestinians are “bred” to be suicide bombers and terrorists, and have a “culture of death”. – SG