Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Caryl Churchill Responds to Criticism of "Seven Jewish Children"

I blogged about "Seven Jewish Children", written by Caryl Churchill in response to the Gaza crisis, when it opened. Perhaps predictably she has been attacked for the play and accused of anti-Jewish sentiment for her criticism of Israel. In a February 18, 2009 editorial in the UK Independent British comic novelist, Howard Jacobson (often described as "the British Phillip Roth") writes,

"Caryl Churchill will argue that her play is about Israelis not Jews, but once you venture on to 'chosen people' territory – feeding all the ancient prejudice against that miscomprehended phrase – once you repeat in another form the medieval blood-libel of Jews rejoicing in the murder of little children, you have crossed over. This is the old stuff. Jew-hating pure and simple – Jew-hating which the haters don’t even recognise in themselves, so acculturated is it – the Jew-hating which many of us have always suspected was the only explanation for the disgust that contorts and disfigures faces when the mere word Israel crops up in conversation. So for that we are grateful. At last that mystery is solved and that lie finally nailed. No, you don’t have to be an anti-Semite to criticise Israel. It just so happens that you are."

Jacobson writes a weekly column for the Independent and often contributes op-ed pieces in defense of Israel. To read Jacobson's entire editorial click here.

Churchill responded to Jacobson via the Independents' letters page on February 21, 2009. Her letter is reprinted below.

Caryl Churchill: My play is not anti-Semitic

Howard Jacobson (Opinion, 18 February) writes as if there’s something new about describing critics of Israel as anti-Semitic. But it’s the usual tactic. We are not going to agree about politics. Where he sees the benevolent withdrawal of Israel from Gaza, I see more than 1,000 Palestinians killed by Israel since the withdrawal, before the recent attacks. But we should be able to disagree without accusations of anti-Semitism, which lead to a pantomime of, “Oh yes you are”, “Oh no I’m not”, to distract attention from Israel.

My play, Seven Jewish Children, to which Howard Jacobson referred, shows the difficulty of explaining violence to children. In the early scenes, it is violence against Jewish people; by the end, it is the violence in Gaza.

It covers many years in 10 minutes and is, of course, an incomplete history. It leaves out a great deal that is favourable to Israel and a great deal that is unfavourable. It shows people being persecuted, some of them going to a homeland (where others have been displaced) and the defensiveness of their threatened position, leading to further violence.

Howard Jacobson seems to see the play from a very particular perspective so that everything is twisted. The characters are “covert and deceitful”, they are constructing a “parallel hell” to Hitler’s Europe, they are “monsters who kill babies by design”. I don’t recognise the play from that description.

Throughout the play, families try to protect children. Finally, one of the parents explodes, saying, “No, stop preventing her from knowing what’s on the TV news”. His outburst is meant, in a small way, to shock during a shocking situation. Is it worse than a picture of Israelis dancing for joy as smoke rises over Gaza? Or the text of Rabbi Shloyo Aviner’s booklet distributed to soldiers saying cruelty is sometimes a good attribute?

Then we have “chosen people”. 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.

Finally, the blood libel. 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 that Jews killed Christian children and consumed their blood. 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-defence. Howard Jacobson may agree. I don’t, but it doesn’t make either of them a monster, or me anti-Semitic.

If one of the main pieces of evidence for the rise of anti-Semitism is this play, I don’t think there’s much to worry about. If it’s really on the increase, then we should all stand up against it. But calling political opponents anti-Semitic just confuses the issue.

When people attack English Jews in the street saying, “This is for Gaza”, they are making a terrible mistake, confusing the people who bombed Gaza with Jews in general. When Howard Jacobson confuses those who criticise Israel with anti-Semites, he is making the same mistake. Unless he’s doing it on purpose.

Caryl Churchill

Royal Court Theatre, London SW1

...This pointed exchange between two artists highlights the difficulty in addressing the human rights crisis in Israel. Given their history, Jewish suspicions about criticism of Israel are perfectly understandable, at least to me. However, the need to have a frank conversation about the occupation of Palestine is pressing: The violent excesses of the Israeli government cannot be allowed to pass without comment by people of good conscience. It is predictable then, that conflicts such as the one modeled by Churchill and Jacobson will continue. What interests me is what happens after this name calling stops? (Assuming that it ever stops.) Is there a way to be sensitive to Jewish concerns without surrendering the discourse entirely?


  1. "Is there a way to be sensitive to Jewish concerns without surrendering the discourse entirely?"
    Yes. Unfortunately I think it is a discussion that often dissolves into heated digging in of the trenches very quickly. Especially, when anyone who looks critically at Israel runs the risk of being called anti-semitic. Including the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers) which is group which denounces violence on all sides. I think there is a way to have open dialogue that is both critical of and stmpathetic to Israel, but I think so few people are willing to fully hear the other side without getting very defensive.

  2. I hadn't heard that about the AFSC..when I was a kid I went to Quaker schools and I volunteered there.I think we packed up clothes to go to Central America. Actually, I give them a lot of credit for my eventual political awakening. Anyway, I am not surprised by their support for Palestine or that they have been attacked for it.

  3. To me, this play is not anti-semitic, but an example of the sort of world envisioned by George Orwell in his novel, 1984. It is a world where euphemisms and "double speak" are employed to mask brutal truths both from ourselves and our offspring.

    We are all being introduced to the language of contradiction or euphemisms paraded as normal discourse and the destruction of life and livelihoods as mere rebuke. It is in trying to communicate this hypocrisy to the innocent - in this play, the children, that we may understand what the future might hold for us.