Culturally attuned Jews are differing in their responses to Caryl Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza,” which opened last month at London’s Royal Court Theater and has since been imported to America.
The slender piece is composed of seven scenes, altogether totaling around ten minutes. Each purports to portray a group of Jewish elders trying to determine how they will explain a number of events, all having to do with the State of Israel, to a young daughter; every line begins with the words “tell her.” The culmination is a bloody, vitriolic speech, defending the Gaza war of this past winter. The intended effect is clearly alienation from the speaker: Churchill has allowed the play to be distributed freely, so long as money is gathered at performances for relief work in Gaza.
The play’s predictable reception demonstrates how anti-Semitism haunts efforts to find a productive way of responding to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jews often play the anti-Semitism card too quickly when criticism is leveled at Israeli policy. But critics often fail to recognize when their criticism fits into longstanding patterns of Western culture’s abuse of Jews.
Churchill’s play is motivated by earnest, if doctrinaire, anger and grief at the carnage created by the Israeli incursion, and the suffering endured under prolonged occupation. But, as a non-Jewish playwright expressing this grief through a series of appropriated and simplified Jewish voices, playing up the bloodthirst, and offering it to a London in which Jews feel increasingly embattled, she is open to charges of having crafted a contemporary Passion Play. (This does not seem to have been her conscious intention, however, and she has addressed the charges of anti-Semitism in an email to a Jewish-American director.)
The most interesting reaction, to my mind, is represented by those Jews who have chosen to court controversy by appropriating the appropriation, participating in staged readings of Churchill’s play in Jewish settings. The Jewish Community Center in DC held one such event last week. Playwright Tony Kushner, a champion of “Seven Jewish Children,” will moderate a reading with scholar Alisa Solomon at the New York Theater Workshop, to be attended by representatives of the Israeli and Palestinian communities.
The Jewish world, in light of the horrendously disproportionate body count of the last war, the number of victims who were women and children, and the latest allegations being voiced by soldiers returning home from the front, could do with some soul searching—even if for some the result will only be further ratification of Israeli policy.
If Churchill’s play serves as instigation for this inquiry, it will have served a worthwhile purpose. If it functions only to reaffirm what right-thinking people think they already know about Jewish cruelty—another objectification of those who reject the light, fit to be the warm-up act at Oberammergau—it will be fair to ask why Churchill did not just choose to express her grief through Palestinian voices, or in her own.