Thursday 12 February 2009

Seven Jewish Children - Royal Court

Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children is pretty much as blunt as The Stone is sharp; substituting an hour of subtle moral inquiry for ten minutes of what could easily be read as simplistic moralising. This is probably unfair, although I guarantee that there’ll be a fair number of reviews that will advance this thesis. Against those will be ranged another few which applaud their perception of Churchill’s political position with nary a thought for what they might have actually witnessed in the theatre.

The structure of Seven Jewish Children is as follows: there are seven scenes; each alluding to a chapter in the history of the state of Israel (apart from the first, which is set in the Holocaust). Each contain a number of lines – not allotted in the text to specific speakers, á la Attempts on Her Life/4.48 Psychosis/pool (no water) – most beginning with the words “Tell her...” or “Don’t tell her...” – which nominally imagine Jewish or Israeli parents, grandparents or concerned friends discussing what to say to an unseen young-sounding daughter about the crisis through which they are currently living. It begins in the Holocaust with an Anne Frank-like hiding from the Nazis “Tell her it’s a game. / Tell her it’s important to be quiet.” and ends up in what we can only assume is Churchill’s take on the current Israeli/Palestinian conflict (or is it a ceasefire at the moment?) in Gaza.

It is this last scene which is most likely to draw criticism. It contains the only lengthy speech of the play and one which offers the least sympathetic imaginable characterisation of Israeli aggression (“Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army. [...] 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. Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them [...] Tell her they’re animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out...” – this isn’t especially selective quotation, it’s a pretty fair sample). As the piece draws on, the “her” in question starts to sound less like a child and more like Israel itself – as if the citizens are discussing what they can tell themselves about what they are doing. It moves from comforting a child to massaging news values.

Churchill does include some of Israel’s justifications for its actions, but never in a way that understands the psychology of how it must feel to live in a country surrounded by geographical neighbours who are on record saying they’d quite like to see the Jews driven into the sea; to live in a nation formed after the only attempt at wholesale mechanised genocide in history; a Holocaust routinely denied by their enemies.

It feels as if Churchill’s compassion has been blinded by her pacifism. Instead of walking a mile in the other man’s shoes (in this instance the other man being Israel), she has been profoundly upset by the use of massive military force. She sees Israel as a bully and an aggressor rather than as a very small state surrounded by political enemies, which is under constant threat of anihilation. This isn’t to say that the recent attacks on Gaza are desirable. However, in most other instances, liberalism (for want of a better, or indeed accurate, word) has made a virtue of at least seeking to understand even those for whom it has no sympathy. Count up the number of speculatively “understanding plays” about, say, the Moors Murderers, the children who killed Jamie Bulger, paedophiles, etc. and compare them with the number of plays that offer any speculative understanding of the Israeli position. It’s a bit of an embarrassment, isn’t it?

More worrying is the fact that the Court has unwittingly made a double bill of The Stone and Seven Jewish Children. Played in the same space, on the same set, with only a half-hour interval (and with the latter piece thrown in free), the Court has set itself up for unwonted accusations. Put baldly, following a play about the illegitimate dispossession of Jewish homeowners in Nazi Germany with a piece about the state of Israel sets up a disastrous set of inferences. It could – and I stress *could* - look like the theatrical equivalent of those flags waved around on anti-war marches which replace the Star of David on the Israeli flag with a swastika.

Nothing in Seven Jewish Children questions the right of the state of Israel to exist. It clearly wears its compassion on its sleeve and, I am sure, is a plea for moderation, tolerance, dialogue and peace on both sides. I have no doubt Caryl Churchill deplores the suicide-bombing of cafes and rocket attacks on civilian homes just as much as somewhat scattergun “surgical” strikes on Hamas strongholds inconveniently or cynically located in the heart of civilian populations.

I worry, however, that in staging only Jewish characters, both sympathetic and unsympathetic – excellently played by an entirely Jewish cast, it should probably be noted – that this addition to the vast and vexed conversation on the Israel/Palestine conflict leaves itself open to unwelcome and, as it turns out, unjustified accusations of casual left-wing anti-Semitism.

Like Churchill’s last play Drunk Enough To Say I Love You, the playwright’s politics are worn so baldly on the play’s sleeve, that the ersatz experimentalism of the piece’s form is lost in a mire of lecturing. We all get it. We’re not being made to work at complexity, we’re being told that something is bad. Ultimately, Seven... is a very quick theatrical trot through an opinion most of us have heard rehearsed a thousand times before. If Churchill really wanted to shake us up, she’d be putting the Israelis' point of view. In the current climate, that really would be revolutionary.
Photo by Keith Pattison


Anonymous said...

none of the cast is a practising jew. the cynic in me says they chose actors with jewish names because some idiot told them this could be used as a defence against the charge that the play is antisemitic. I have seen it and think is is antisemitic in parts eg the way it uses the 'chosen people' phrase. see this review:

Andrew Haydon said...

Do we know none of the cast is practising? We know that one is a holocaust survivor. One imagines that anyone who lived through such atrocities would be unwilling to involve themself with something designed to stir up hatred against Judaism.

I honestly don't think the intentions are anti-semitic. Your review is admirably thorough and, like you, I wish there had been more dramatisation of Israel's own internal opposition to the current military operation. ("Tell her we don't all agree with this" - perhaps). And yes, without this scene it does smack of demonisation. I remain sure it absolutely isn't, though - just badly worded pacifism.

"Chose actors with Jewish names" - um, forgive me, aren't they actually Jewish? Practising doesn't make a difference, surely. They'd have been Jewish enough for Hitler. Similarly, aren't there secular Jews who lead happy and fulfilling lives in Israel? I'm not arguing here, I'm genuinely interested in your perspective.

Anonymous said...

Without having seen the Churchill I'm flying on one wing here, but I don't quite get your point about its juxtaposition with The Stone. (By the way, I'm told that the Court's appallingly unhelpful schedule of press nights this week is partly because Churchill asked that Seven Jewish Children not be staged on the night The Stone opened as she didn't want to detract from the attention being paid to von Mayenburg, whom she likes and admires.) I don't think its account of the dispossession of Jewish families is in any way ambiguous or grey enough to be taken as forming an argument that's of a piece with Churchill's position; surely, if anything, it's a case of complementarity through contrast?

Anonymous said...

How does the anonymous poster know that they are not practising Jews? And how on earth does s/he know they only have Jewish sounding names and are not actually Jewish? The actors in the the show that I know certainly are Jewish (ethnically speaking) and given that Israel is a secular state anyway, the question of whether or not they are practising is utterly irrelevant.

I expect those actors agreed to do the play because they were outraged by the bombardment of Gaza. They are not the mindless pawns that this poster seems to so condescendingly assume that they are.

Still, I guess that kind of baseless argument makes it easier to hold the absurd belief that this play is racist (or a "ten minute blood libel" as the ever hysterical and frequently wrong Melanie Phillips described it).

This argument seems to imply that any 'real' Jew could not possibly disagree with what Israel is doing - and that view (which bunches a whole group of people together in one homogenous whole) is as potentially racist as any view they might accuse Churchill of holding.

Anonymous said...


I have it on good authority that none is practising. It is perfectly possible to have Jewish-sounding names and not be Jewish: eg Nick Cohen. Judaism runs through the mother so if a Jew called Cohen marries a Catholic, their child is called Cohen but is not Jewish.

Anonymous said...

John Nathan of the "Jewish Chronicle": "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 antisemitic play."

Anonymous said...

"This argument seems to imply that any 'real' Jew could not possibly disagree with what Israel is doing"

"theblue" - that is ridiculous. It is perfectly possible to criticise Israel without being antisemitic -- but this play fails the test.

Ramin Gray (the associate director of the Royal Court) that he would be reluctant to stage a play critical of Islam.

Just because Jews don't hold us all to ransom by "mobilising" 10000 into Sloane Square (pace the ignoble Lord Ahmed) does not give the Royal Court the right to put on an antisemitic play. It has as much as said it would not do a play 'critical' of Islam - let alone an Islamophobic one.

Or do you think they are being consistent?

Andrew Haydon said...

"Ramin Gray (the associate director of the Royal Court) said that he would be reluctant to stage a play critical of Islam."

Firstly, Seven Jewish Children is not a play critical of Judaism. It is a play which implies an authorial voice that is strongly critical of the state of Israel's recent actions in Gaza against Hamas. It is not an attack on the faith itself.

Secondly, currently showing in the theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court is Shades by Alia Bano - a play that contains plenty of criticism of Islam - or rather of the actions of certain traditions and sects within that faith. To be honest, I am surprised it *hasn't* generated more outrage, actually.

Ian, to get back to your earlier point, I was pointing out that by putting SJC after The Stone, the Court sets up the possibility of reading the pairing with unintended resonances. Specifically, showing a play which is about Israel directly after a play about how the Nazi party dispossessed Jews of their property in Germany in 1935 - well, it sets up the possibility for people to infer that the Royal Court intends some parallel between the Nazis stealing Jewish land and either Israel's occupation of bits of Palestine or, more worryingly, Israel's being drawn onto the map after WWII at all.

I don't believe the parallel is intended, but it wouldn't be hard for people to argue it was readable - hell, I noticed it and worried about it.

Anonymous said...

"Seven Jewish Children is not a play critical of Judaism."

Andrew you are wrong. It IS an antisemitic play.

It rings several antisemitic bells. Example 1: 'chosen people'. In the Bible this clearly implies a covenant - that the Jews are chosen as G-d's people in return for the obligations imposed on them. Churchill however uses the term to mean 'chosen for special favours'. That is a well known antisemitic device. Example 2: The blood libel. Medieval antisemites said that Jews drink children's blood. Lok at shat Churchill writes: "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"

If a Muslim told you that a play was Islamophobic, you would not try to argue it was not. So when you are told a play is antisemitic why do you say it is not? The JC critic John Nathan says it is antisemitic - and in a long career he has never said that about any other play.

I assure you, it is not a charge that is made without a lot of consideration -- despite those mischief makers who say "you are only saying it to stifle criticism of Israel"

Andrew Haydon said...

I agree. The one line that does trouble me is the invocation of "chosen people". I know plenty of Neo-cons and Zionists (both Jewish and otherwise) and I have never once heard or read any of them use that as a justification for their position. It is a device used by anti-semites - on the other hand, does Churchill's use of it - if she does not intend it to be read as such - automatically make it so.

On the other hand, I think the link you draw between the line "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" and the blood libel is more tenuous. It is clearly extreme. But expressing relief in a conflict situation that it is one of the enemy's children who is covered in blood and not one's own child is a natural-sounding enough reaction - even if it is one written with the apparent intention of making the speaker sound utterly heartless. I don't think it equates to suggesting Jews make Matzoh with the blood of Christian babies.

I believe you when you say that it is not a charge made without a lot of consideration. At least, I believe it of you and John Nathan. I think others may make the accusation more readily and on a more general level - without interogating the text as you have done.

Because I don't think Caryl Churchill is an anti-semite, and because of the involvement of Jewish actors (including a Holocaust survivor) - I really don't think "practicing" is relevant. I know secular Jews who support military action and practicing Jews who abhor it - I am taking a lot of convincing. I do agree that the line about "chosen people" does constitute a strong rationale for the view that the play *is* anti-semitic, but I'm sure it isn't the script's intention. But then, if the line is there, does intention go all the way to ensuring it isn't anti-semitic? Perhaps Churchill's intentions aren't enough. Perhaps she wasn't quite well enough informed and has slipped up.

I'd be interested to hear the opinions of the cast on the text, and of other Jewish people who don't think the play is anti-semitic.

"If a Muslim told you that a play was Islamophobic, you would not try to argue it was not. So when you are told a play is antisemitic why do you say it is not?"

Because I don't believe things simply because people tell me they are true. Especially when they are matters of opinion, which do better to be argued thoroughly. Yours is the first argument that has sounded convincing to me, because it has been put in a more calm and rational way, and has broadly refrained from making counter-claims and generalisations about Islam and/or Palestine or accusations about what people who don't agree with them also believe.

If a Muslim (or indeed a Christian, someone Jewish or an atheist) told me a play was Islamophobic I'd ask for exactly the same level of evidence.

Btw, you do yourself no favours to assume that I'm the stereotypical English leftie that blindly supports Hamas because they perceive Israel as the stronger nation and Hamas as the "little guy" who's been "driven into a corner". That is absolutely not my position. I deplore anti-semitism and I deplore Islamophobia. I also dislike lazy Christian-bashing and pretty much all other forms of prejudice.

Andrew Haydon said...

Have just read John Nathan's fine review:

"Does the Court’s artistic director, Dominic Cooke, not realise that a play that is critical of, and entirely populated by, characters from one community, can be defended only if it is written by a member of that community?

This is the wise rule of thumb by which Nicholas Hytner has judged that a play that is critical of, and populated by, Muslims, can only be staged at the National Theatre if it is written by a Muslim."

Except this one, of course. Not an attempt to dismiss his wider point, which I'm still thinking about, but worth pointing out nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Andre - How interesting that you mention "England People Very Nice". Look at the inconsistencies between Michael Billington's reviews:

(On “England People Very Nice” at the NT)

“Bean's new work ... leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Far from rejoicing in London's ethnic diversity, it manipulates a series of comic stereotypes like a misanthropic 1066 and All That.”

(On Seven Jewish Children)

“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.”

"Btw, you do yourself no favours to assume that I'm the stereotypical English leftie"

I wasn't aware that I did assume that. If I have given that impression I apologise but I don't see why you think I did. I try very hard not to stereotype - having been on the receiving end.

Anonymous said...

"I'd be interested to hear the opinions of the cast on the text, and of other Jewish people who don't think the play is anti-semitic."

You will find Jews who think it isn't antisemitic, of course you will. I doubt anyone in "Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods" would agree it was antisemitic.

I don't think it is in the same class as 'Perdition' for example.

But it does have at least one direct antisemitic reference - the 'chosen people one'. And because of what it leaves out and what it distorts, it has a negative impact on the assessment of Jews: It demonises Israelis by reinforcing false stereotypes - it portrays Israeli parents as inhuman triumphalists who care little about anything except their children’s feelings and who teach them that Arabs are subhuman and must be hated. It is historically inaccurate. Specifically, it omits all mention of Jewish history prior to the Holocaust and fails to say that the Six-Day War was a defensive war (against Arab States committed to Israel’s eradication), following which Israel offered to return virtually all the land it had gained, in return for peace. Moreover, it excises from history the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and ignores the sequel of more than 6000 rockets, launched with the sole aim of the indiscriminate killing of Israelis.

The number of antisemitic indidents in the UK is a record.

At such a time, to show a play that falsely deminises and stereotypes and factually distorts is the height of irresponsibilty.

Anonymous said...

By the way Andrew your own Review that introduces this thread is by far the most thoughtful review of this play that I have seen (with the exception of the one on Harrys Place but that's by a friend so I declare an interest).

Anonymous said...

I saw this last night. I am a secular Jew and I don't scream antisemitism at every criticism of Jews and Israel. Indeed I am highly critical of the Jewish state.

I have to say that in 50 years of UK theatre going I have never seen a more serious abuse of language with what to me appears as a clear intent to incite hatred against a whole people.

I felt bruised and sick and what is most interesting is that the audience of mostly white middle class non Jewish theatregoers did not applaud with any enthusiasm.

The sense of fairplay and desire to listen to a reasoned argument clearly rendered this play impotent in achieving the author's purpose; whether that purpose was to garner sympathy for the terrible suffering of the Palestinian people or the incite hatred against the Jewish people.

The review in the Sunday Times today expressed my own views very clearly.

This was a nasty brutish viscious piece of racist polemic.

Please go and see it as a warning to anyone who wants to see what can be done for harm in the theatre

Andrew Haydon said...

Apologies for not getting back yet on this, but the subject is too serious to be lightly skated over, and I don't have enough time to reply properly today.

Anonymous said...

Apols for unwieldy pasting - but see below useful/provocative round-up from journalist Tom Gross's global mailing list re Berkoff, Billington etc:


Commenting on the wave of invective directed against Israel in recent weeks, veteran British Jewish director and actor Steven Berkoff said: "England is not a great lover of its Jews. Never has been."

Berkoff, whose production of "On The Waterfront" opens this month at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, points out that journalists and academics are not the only intellectuals in Britain stirring up anti-Semitism, but some among the theatrical establishment too.

"There is an inbuilt dislike of Jews," he said. "Overt anti-Semitism goes against the British sense of fair play. It has to be covert and civilized. So certain playwrights and actors on the Left wing make themselves out to be stricken with conscience.

"They say: 'We hate Israel, we hate Zionism, we don't hate Jews.' But Zionism is the very essence of what a Jew is. Zionism is the act of seeking sanctuary after years and years of unspeakable outrages against Jews. As soon as Israel does anything over the top it's always the same old faces who come out to demonstrate. I don't see hordes of people marching down the street against Mugabe when tens of thousands are dying every month in Zimbabwe."


London's esteemed Royal Court theatre - the same theatre at which the notorious piece of agitprop "My name is Rachel Corrie"* was given its premiere - is again being accused of promoting anti-Semitism with its new 10 minute play about Gaza by Caryl Churchill called "Seven Jewish Children". (*

The website of The Spectator magazine has already termed it "a ten-minute blood-libel." The play is also said to be replete with historical inaccuracies about Israel and the Palestinians.

The play has even been compared to so-called "mystery plays" of the Middle Ages, which portrayed the Jews as Christ-killers and helped fuel pogroms against European Jews.

John Nathan, the mild-mannered theatre critic of the Jewish Chronicle (a paper which is often quite critical of Israel) writes:

"As if sensing this, Cooke [the director] has recruited Jews for his cast. Not, it appears, to bring Jewish insight to their roles but to provide crude cover against criticism. It won't work. 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."

Another objector, Jonathan Hoffman, said "It draws on several anti-Semitic stereotypes, from the blood libel through to the 'chosen people' trope. It is a grotesque parody of Jewish history."

The Guardian's theatre critic Michael Billington, who has been criticized before in his reviews for presenting Palestinian propaganda as it were fact, wrote: "Caryl Churchill's 10-minute play, Seven Jewish Children, typifies what the stage does best: address the world as it is right now... 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." (It is in fact the Palestinian education curriculum that is designed to show the otherness of Jews. The Israeli curriculum is more inclusive than almost any other school curriculum in the world. Billington doesn't know what he is talking about.)

Responding to accusations that Churchill's play was anti-Semitic, a spokeswoman for the Royal Court angered critics even more by saying: "The Stone, which is currently running before Seven Jewish Children, asks very difficult questions about the refusal of some modern Germans to accept their ancestors' complicity in Nazi atrocities."

Andrew Haydon said...

I quite agree about Billington. Sometimes he doesn't so much review plays as mark them according to his politics. But then I suppose I do the same to a point - it's just my politics are a) different to his, and b) more interested in being made to think than being presented with a *message* (not of course, that that isn't a message in itself).

Apologies for the assumption about your assumptions :-)

I guess my jumpiness comes from a similar place as yours does, in that one doesn't like being told what one thinks.

Another interesting report on the show by Carol Gould makes a really sound case for her opinions and backs up lots of her objections with specific real-life encounters.

That said, I disagree with her conclusion that: "What is urgently needed is a play about the Muslim children of the region who are taught to hate Christians and Jews, who are indoctrinated with radical agendas before reaching puberty and whose countries haven’t a fraction of the press freedom or cultural and scientific dynamism that can be found in Israel." - on a purely personal level, I'd rather see fewer plays which are little more than thinly disguised (if disguised at all) propaganda altogether. Ideally none at all. I think theatre is much better when not ramming a message down all our throats.

I absolutely agree with all your points about it being one-sided and badly timed. Beyond this, it turns into a far stickier debate. Yes, there is a real problem with anti-Semitism in Britain, now more than ever - certainly in terms of the levels of aggression. I wouldn't like to guess how much that kind of off-hand Virginia Woolf type of anti-Semitism goes on proportionately to the '30s. Nor would I like to suggest that “polite” anti-Semitism is any better. It is disgusting in all forms.

And, yes, Churchill's play is pretty much a compilation of negative images of *some* Jewish people, with very little, if any, counterbalance. Quite right too about the Six Day War, as far as my understanding of the facts goes – which I must confess, is relatively limited.

I'm uncomfortable with the idea that because idiots will use this play to justify totally unsophisticated, pre-existing, across-the-board hatred of Jews she shouldn't have written it, or the Court shouldn't have staged it.

You say that some Jews will not find the play anti-Semitic - an honest admission which I admire you for making. But at that point, if agreement can't be reached, should we wish that the play doesn't exist?

My problem here is that what we in Western Democracies pride ourselves on most, when comparing ourselves to repressive regimes like Iran, is our tolerance and our freedom of speech.

Yes, Churchill's play is difficult and has obviously caused great offence, but I would argue that banning it or not staging it would play into the hands of Israel's enemies. It would mean that they had successfully created such a climate of fear that a polemic such as this (whether anti-Semitic or not) should be censored or banned because we have become too frightened to have an open debate, no matter how harsh the terms.

I see your point of view in arguing that the play is "irresponsible". In other situations my stock response is to question whether art has a duty to be “responsible”. When it’s a situation as inflammatory as this, I hesitate to say it in quite the same way, but I think I ultimately believe exactly the same thing.

I can’t tell you how touched and pleased that you find my review thoughtful.

Later, and to two presumably different anonymouses (looks wrong, but let’s go with it):

“I felt bruised and sick and what is most interesting is that the audience of mostly white middle class non Jewish theatregoers did not applaud with any enthusiasm.”

I should probably say, for the record, that I didn’t clap at all. I was far too worried by the piece to feel that even saying “well done” to the actors was possible given the situation.

The Tom Gross stuff is very interesting. I find Berkoff’s claim that “England is not a great lover of its Jews. Never has been.” Ironically racist (ok, we’re not a race, we’re a country – so: Xenophobic, but...), but typically inflammatory Berkoff stuff. It also seems curious since “the English” have been lapping up the bloody man’s stuff for forty years (since Metamorphosis, 1969).

On the other hand, noting that Britain does seem to have a disproportionate number of critics of Israel and apparently fewer vocal critics of Palestine (Zimbabwe) does, on the face of it, seem fair.

The whole “underdog” question does seem to be at the heart of this debate.

On one hand, we have Muslims protesting at the way they are portrayed in Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice. At the same time, no Jewish people to my knowledge have complained about the stereotyping that their race receives at the hands of this play. Perhaps it is because the play has a Jewish director: that its intent is trusted to be benign as far as Judaism is concerned. Because Bean isn’t a Muslim, however, his attitude to Islam has been seriously questioned and attacked.

Yes, it is deeply worrying that the British press has not reported the deaths of any of the Rachels listed in Mr Gross’s article. By the same token, however, it is perhaps worth noting that neither has the British press made a cult out of a single Palestinian casualty. Yes, iconic – and sometimes faked – photographs crop up; especially in the “left-wing” press, but doesn’t this boil down as much to the fact that Rachel Corrie was an *American*. It is irresistibly reminiscent of the original title of Drop the Dead Donkey: Dead Belgians Don’t Count. I wonder if it has more to do with the general xenophobia of British news values than a specific take on the world. After all, isn’t it the British press that regularly publishes columns by Melanie Phillips?

Which brings me to my wider point about “underdogs”. Britons who “support Palestine” – for want of a more nuanced description – see “Palestine” (and see it with varying degrees of nuance – from those who deplore Hamas and its beliefs, to those who foolishly support it as a single entity) as “the underdog”. Those who support Israel see *it* as the underdog – surrounded by countries who would like to see it wiped off the map. The Palestinian lobby argue that Israel is backed by America, thus making it, again, the top-dog, while those against that opinion note that America sees itself as a kind of lone-gunman, wild west figure in the face of Russia and China, as well as South American, Middle Eastern and African rogue states.

It is, to put it mildly, bloody difficult.

This discussion has gone a long way to convincing me that the play contains at least one line that can legitimately be argued to be anti-Semitic, and is one which deals in things that can clearly be argued as anti-Semitic tropes. At the same time, I still don’t believe Caryl Churchill is an anti-Semite any more than Harold Pinter was.

Steven Berkoff’s argument that “Zionism is the very essence of what a Jew is” strikes me as mildly contentious to say the least – at least in the terms I understand it. I’m not sure I have a good working definition of what “Zionism” means, but I would argue it is more than simply believing that the state of Israel has a right to exist.

All this leaves me with a rather difficult problem – if I accept that some lines in the play are misjudged to the extent that they are effectively anti-Semitic, does that make this “an anti-Semitic play” if the intent is not such?

Anonymous said...

Andrew wrote

"All this leaves me with a rather difficult problem – if I accept that some lines in the play are misjudged to the extent that they are effectively anti-Semitic, does that make this “an anti-Semitic play” if the intent is not such?"

In my opinion "intent" is a crude description of underlying emotions. The playwright may claim and even have no intention but the unconscious is a merciless informer.

As for the Jewish director and actors; they are entitled to their views and I would not condemn nor prevent their actions.

Nor would I prevent this play because I believe in free speech and expression.

However, intellectually, you cannot use the chosen people concept or write such a one sided diatribe(the last child)without a deep at least unconscious hatred of Jews.

Now, I know that you can't make people like Jews any more than you could make me like pilchards but I want people who want to see this play to understand it for what it is:

A one sided mercifully short stilted polemic on a complex human tragedy written by a playwright with, at least unconscious antisemitic ideas.

If you like that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like.

Please go and see it and enjoy!!!

Andrew Haydon said...

"intellectually, you cannot use the chosen people concept... without a deep at least unconscious hatred of Jews."

Now this is fascinating to me. Until this discussion I had absolutely no idea about the "chosen people" trope in anti-semitism. That sounds hopelessly naive, don't it? I'm not really sure how it passed me by. After all, I have read round the subject a fair bit in my life and somehow this didn't crop up.

What's interesting about it to me is the way that it is taken as evidence of hate. Having read up on it a bit more, I see how it works.

Now, please bear with me through this bit, because I want to explain my thinking fully here: To me, unlike the blood libels and the obscene lies told about the Jewish people throughout history the "chosen people" trope seems slightly different.

Because, without the negative spin, without the wilful misunderstanding, it *is* actually in, well, in what I was introduced to as the "Old Testament". Fair enough, yes?

I suppose this is why it had never struck me that it might be used as an anti-semitic trope before.

Because unlike saying "Jews drink the blood of Christian children" or "Jews are responsible for killing the Son of God" etc. it is something about Judaism I happened to know: that God did indeed tell the children of Israel that they were his chosen people.

Being raised as a Christian (both my parents were left-wing, liberal, non-conformist, URC, ministers - not evangelical and mercifully not of the happy-clappy variety) this was just something in the Bible which I believed, as one does when one is little. Word of God, innit. Says so right there, so it must be true.

Beyond this, from that Christian perspective, once St Paul kicks in after Christ's death the whole bible takes a bit of a silly turn for the "we're all God's chosen people now!" kind of thing.

However, thanks to this slightly skewed understanding - either God was still happy with the Jews being the chosen people, but Christians also being included, or not, or something - I never saw it as a problematic term. Either I was one too, or it was God's will and so not really to be trifled with. I realise not all Christians see it this way, but that was pretty much my understanding.

As such, I do wonder if Churchill might have unwittingly used it, similarly unaware of the phrase's now terribly loaded effect.

No: I'm guessing in the context she is still using that phrase to connote that sort of damningness, whether she knows the history or not. Indeed, perhaps it's even worse if she can unwittingly stumble onto an anti-semitic trope without even knowing it is one.

"I want people who want to see this play to understand it for what it is"

I think you've actually done a brilliant job of explaining it. It's certainly given me some very useful critical apparatus for understanding where the offence is located. I also admire you for not wanting it banned.

Hope all that makes sense and I haven't offended everyone while trying to pick my way through it.

Anonymous said...

For recent examples of antisemitic discourse Andrew please see this

Andrew Haydon said...

Christ. That makes for a deeply depressing read.

Anonymous said...

Here's a reasonable explanation of 'chosen people'

Andrew Haydon said...

Thank you (are *you* the same *you* - all this anonymousness most confusing), again massively helpful.

I'm interested that the piece compares misunderstandings of the "chosen people" trope with Hitler's Germany. I don't know if you're familiar with it, but one of the most chilling conflations of the two ideas comes from George Steiner in the final monologue from Christopher Hampton's stage adaptation of his book "The Portage of A.H. (Adolf Hitler, not Andrew Haydon) to San Christobel", in which Hitler rages against the concept of a "chosen people". Dear God, it is frightening, but, in the hands of Steiner, terrifyingly lucid.

A. Goldstein said...

I have read the text of the play and agree that it is quite antisemitic. I find it convenient, and, frankly, pathetic that Mrs. Churchill chose an all-Jewish cast, which seems like little more than an effort to mask the antisemitism in the play. The fact that she puts hateful words into the mouths of Jews and displays them in front of audiences is ignorant, and must be considered antisemitic. I am appalled that this can be shown.

Anonymous said...

Howard Jacobson has a terrific piece in today's Independent

lorenzo said...

I have not seen Seven Jewish Children, so I really can’t defend the play or deal with its merits or lack of it. What resulted obvious is that the article written by Hart had nothing to do with the play as such and everything to do with his hostility to anything that smells of Palestinians and his probably Pan-European complex that compels him to take a stand for Israel even in the face of it worst atrocities, as it represents the living symbol of Europe’s guilty conscience after centuries of persecution to the Jews in Europe. Therefore I will only deal with Hart's views, not with Churchill's work.

Anonymous said...


"Nothing to do with the play"

I think you read the wrong article. The one I read said this:

"Seven Jewish Children isn’t art, it’s straitjacketed political orthodoxy. No surprises, no challenges, no risks. Only the enclosed, fetid, smug, self-congratulating and entirely irrelevant little world of contemporary political theatre. Fresh air is urgently needed. But I’m not holding my breath."

- Anonymous #1

Anonymous said...

This is good, thoughtful, thought-provoking stuff.
May I ask, not I hope disingenuously, why you are so sure Caryl Churchill isn't Anti-Semitic? You say so two or three times. Is there a reason or would you just rather not think so?

Andrew Haydon said...

Not disingenuous at all. Fair question. Your question also punches a neat hole in my rhetorical use of "sure". I guess here I'm using "to be sure" in the sense of "to boldly and hopefully assert or claim". Oops.

So, no, I'm not sure. I imagine that Churchill would be appalled to be described so. Would point to her number of Jewish friends and etc. Would point out that she's opposed to all forms of racism, prejudice and etc. cf. her play Cloud Nine.

On the other hand, the debate this week here and elsewhere has made me think that a person could quite easily nurse some conscious or unconscious anti-semitic prejudices and not even recognise them as such.

Because this issue often generates such heat I think a lot of basic information gets lost or ignored.

I've lost count of how many times this week I've read the old allegation that "accusations of anti-semitism are simply a smokescreen used by "Zionists"".

I think that charge is bandied around by some of those who disapprove of Israel's actions so much that they've stopped thinking about what actually constitutes anti-semitism.

I would also assert that when making that accusation also becomes a knee-jerk a response to anyone claiming something is anti-semitic then the person with the knee-jerk has become an anti-semite.

Anonymous said...

See letter in today's Telegraph: "Anti-Israeli stereotypes"

Anon #1

Alison Croggon said...

One of the utterly depressing aspects of Israel's recent attack on Gaza was stumbling over some disgusting anti-Semitism. It's as ugly and deadly and shocking as it ever was.

But I wonder, not having read or seen this play, whether Churchill's playlet is an example of it. I don't quite trust the rhetoric here. From the quotes Andrew has posted, Churchill's play says nothing more than things I have read from commentators (both members of the public and columnists) in Israeli newspapers or on television. Ie, comments such as "they did it to themselves. ...they want their children killed to make people sorry for them" &c are statements I have read from Israeli people, they have been said on camera, etc etc, are on the public record... and yes, I've found them as shocking as any other kind of racism. Is it really anti-Semitic to say so? And if so, how and why?

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Firstly, I'd like to applaud you for your reaction to the play; your careful, thoughtful unpicking of the text is nuanced and considered, and especially valuable in the maelstrom of vitriol that pervades elsewhere.

The issue of Israel is so emotive that it's become impossible to discuss it without the usual mud-slinging accusations being raised on either side - which is why, of course, it needs to be pursued vigorously, and at great length.

I have deep sympathy with your suggestion that the main problem of the play qua literature is that it provides too one-sided a view for it to encourage a complex appreciation of a difficult issue (in so far as any ten minute piece could accomplish this).

On the other hand, I'd like to think you might agree that the play's achievement is in how it sketches out the ways in which narratives sustain our sense of identity - and in particular how these narratives replicate.

We are all shaped by the narratives we're given, and at childhood are uniquely susceptible to being moulded to perceive the world in a particular way.

The narrative poetically sketched out by Churchill in Seven Jewish Children is profoundly unlikable and unsympathetic, especially to those of us living so far away from Israel, but, like it or not, it is representative of a certain kind of discourse that thrives in a country where citizenship depends on the absorption and co-option of a very particular exclusive - and exclusionary - narrative.

This is a notion that is deeply unfamiliar to those of us in Britain. While we worry that our national identity is disappearing, in Israel the opposite is true; one's identity and one's passport are inextricable to such an extent that extreme nationalistic values of patriotism are considered the norm; while liberal Israelis wring their hands about the adverse effects of patriotism, the mainstream marches on with its firmly militaristic viewpoint.

As the commenter before me points out, the rhetoric of the play is representative of this pervasive kind of discourse, and uses the language not of smooth-talking politicians, but of people ranging from hardened West Bank settlers to those who anonymously vent their vitriol in the comments sections of online Israeli newspapers.

Is the play extreme? Yes - the usage of the "chosen people" rhetoric, coupled with the intense vision of children bathed in blood understandably causes a sensitive viewer/reader to recoil. These are problematic images, which, as your commentators have pointed out, do have echoes of anti-Semitic rhetoric.

But here's the thing. However uncomfortable it makes some viewers, this play is no more anti-Semitic than a play about Hutus set in 1994 would be considered anti-Rwandan. If "Seven Hutu Children" premiered at the Royal Court tomorrow, featuring Hutu parents hectoring their children into believing an elaborate, self-perpetuating narrative that sketched the virtues of the Hutu clan, championed the historical superiority of the Hutu people, and demonised all Tutsis, we would appreciate that it was a play exploring the dangers of extremism set in a particular period, and that it explored the very same limitations of extremist thought - the lack of empathic understanding - that you rightly point out makes for disappointing literature. We might or might not consider "Seven Hutu Children" a great play, but it would provoke a debate about the inculcation of ideology, about the ways in which our identity is shaped by this narrative, by how our fear of "the other" continues to define all of us, whoever we are.

Would Hutu people get offended? Quite possibly. But without exploring extremist attitudes within the context of a particular group of people set in a particular time period, it would be impossible to explore the issue with any meaningful resonance; besides which, any thinking audience would understand that extremist viewpoints were the target, not Hutus, Rwandans, or even Africans.

In the case of Israel, things get more complex. Israel's amalgamation of ethnicity and statehood - the inverse of the American project - leads to the inevitable conclusion that the play's speakers are somehow supposed to be representative of all Jews. This is facilitated by Berkoff's brash assertion that to be Jewish is to be a Zionist - a reductive conflation that's profoundly unhelpful.

Let us agree now that what is obvious is also true: Gentile or Jew, people are people. They are individuals, capable of complex ideas, and conflicting narratives that lead to shifting political opinions - this is what makes us interesting, dynamic, human.

However, within this sea of multiplicity, individuals are often susceptible to a form of reductive thinking (received wisdom) that replicates, reduces spontaneous thought and encourages prejudice - the Greek chorus of ideology.

"Seven Jewish Children" is profoundly anti-ideology, but it is not racist or anti-Semitic. Yes, it depicts extremist Jewish viewpoints, but the reaction of commentators such as Melanie Phillips (who seeks to exculpate the extremism) and Howard Jacobson (who throws his hands up in despair at the ferocity of the attack) do nothing to eradicate the fact that such self-perpetuating extremist viewpoints are prevalent in Israel, and find their ultimate expression in bloodshed.

When Melanie Phillips resuscitates the old slogan "a land without a people for a people without a land" slogan - still (still!) quibbling over indefinite articles as though grammar were the issue and not uprooted human beings - her hysteria compounds the problem, adding another squawk to the echo-chamber of idiocy that drowns out thought, debate and progress.

It's this unthinking sloganeering and reliance on repetition that takes place in all walks of extremist thought that Churchill targets in the play, and upon which Israel's unthinking supporters - as opposed to those who question and debate the issue - are forced to rely.

You argue that the failure of the play is its total focus on extremist viewpoints to the exclusion of any other, but I would suggest that the play's power resides in the fact that it is an extremist play re-enacting an extremist mindset that has no taste empathic leaps of the imagination, for understanding of the other. Does this make it agit-prop? Perhaps - but exploration of this obdurate way of thinking requires no less.

Anonymous said...


Lots of fallacies in your post.

"It is representative of a certain kind of discourse"

But that is not what the play says. Churchill does not show the variety of Israelis that exist. She picks on the extreme and generalises from it.

"citizenship depends on the absorption and co-option of a very particular exclusive - and exclusionary - narrative."

Most countries have nationailty-based restictions on citizenship. Asa Jewish State agreed by a UN vote in 1947, Israel allows Jews to have automatic citizenship. Others can have it but it is not automatic. What on earth is wrong with that bearing mind tht many countries restrict citizenship?

"while liberal Israelis wring their hands about the adverse effects of patriotism, the mainstream marches on with its firmly militaristic viewpoint."

Complete tosh

" ... of people ranging from hardened West Bank settlers to those who anonymously vent their vitriol in the comments sections of online Israeli newspapers."

more tosh. The characterisation is not in te least "ranging", it is focussed on one type and draws false generalisations

"this play is no more anti-Semitic than a play about Hutus set in 1994 would be considered anti-Rwandan."

Come on! Hutus committed genocide. Israel has defended itself. That's ridiculous.

Anon #1

Anonymous said...


Please see how many countries have ethnicity as a criterion for citizenship.

But of course you ignore all the rest and only pick on Israel...

Anon #1

Anonymous said...

from Anon#1

This is fascinating – this commenter (on Jonathan Romain’s CIF article) first defends the play, then reads it (!) and agrees it’s antisemitic, apologising for his/her first comment

20 Feb 09, 11:58am (about 1 hour ago)

I agree with nickweb, Churchill's play has nothing to say about Judaism -- nor is it anti-Israel as such. It contains multiple voices with different views on the situation.

Does it contain criticism of Israel? Yes it does.

Is it opposed to Israel's actions in Gaza? Yes it is, very strongly so. But the very strong condemnation is put in the words of a particular character.

Churchill could have collected all of the views in her play from Israelis. As we are often reminded Israel is a democracy and thus is a place where we would expect different and conflicting views to flourish.

Yes, the emphasis is ultimately on criticism of Israel's actions.

Bezhti was a different situation altogether. I don't mean because it did directly address religion, although that is a difference, but because there was a particular issue at stake -- it wasn't about any criticism of Sikhism contained in the play.

And people should be able to stage plays that are critical of anything at all, I'm in agreement with that.

20 Feb 09, 12:44pm (28 minutes ago)

I've re-read the play and I've changed my opinion.

It obviously couldn't be called 'Seven Israeli Children' because it's about jews rather than Israelis.

But looking again I think I was wrong about the multiplicity of views: I read what I expected to read and in my memory it became a much more complex piece than I now think it is.

I also agree that it's more anti-semitic than anti-Israeli -- the emphasis is on jews rather than Israelis and it runs the risk of stereotyping jewish attitudes -- there are changes but they are more in the direction of emphasizing a stereotype.

I understand why this has caused such anger and I apologise for my earlier defence of the play's content.