Randy's Corner Deli Library

19 February 2009

Is a Play About Gaza Anti-Semitic? Read the Script.

February 18, 2009, 2:00 pm

Is a Play About Gaza Anti-Semitic? Read the Script.

In Wednesday’s New York Times, Patrick Healy writes about the possibility that the New York Theater Workshop may present a production of a new play inspired by the recent war in Gaza. Some critics have charged that the 10-minute play, “Seven Jewish Children,” by British playwright Caryl Churchill, is anti-Semitic.

Ms. Churchill’s play is currently being performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre as a benefit for the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians. The Royal Court’s Web site allows readers to download the full text of the play and read it for themselves.

The headline of Jeffrey Goldberg’s blog post on the Atlantic’s Web site gives a pretty good idea of his take on the play: “The Royal Court Theatre’s Blood Libel.”

The Guardian’s theater critic, Michael Billington, thinks not.

Mr. Billington’s sympathetic review describes the context of the cryptic play and points to some of the lines from the script that have disturbed readers like Mr. Goldberg:

Caryl Churchill’s 10-minute play was written in response to the recent tragic events in Gaza. It not only confirms theatre’s ability to react more rapidly than any other art form to global politics, but also makes a fascinating counterpoise to Marius von Mayenburg’s The Stone, which precedes it at the Royal Court. Whereas The Stone shows how German children are often the victims of lies about family history, Churchill’s play suggests Israeli children are subject to a barrage of contradictory information about past and present.

The work consists of seven cryptic scenes in which parents, grandparents and relatives debate how much children should know and not know. It moves, implicitly, from the Holocaust to the foundation of the state of Israel through the sundry Middle East wars up to the invasion of Gaza. At first, the advice indicates the deep divisions within Israel (”Tell her they want to drive us into the sea” / “Tell her they don’t”); at the end, it becomes a ruthless justification for self-preservation (”Tell her we’re the iron fist now, tell her it’s the fog of war, tell her we won’t stop killing them till we’re safe”).

In The Times of London, Christopher Hart’s review of the play was far more critical:

A leaflet handed out before the show, inviting donations to Medical Aid for Palestinians, tells you how “brutal” Israel’s “invasion” of Gaza has been. “Bombardment”, “devastation”, “earthquake”: these are reassuring little signposts. Otherwise, you might worry that Churchill has written a play that considers both sides of the conflict. In seven one-minute acts, Israeli adults discuss what to “Tell her” — in each case, an imaginary young Israeli girl. About the Holocaust? Suicide bombings? About 1967? “Tell her not to be afraid” is a recurring and poignant refrain. This simple device could have been highly effective, but it’s ruined by the play’s ludicrous and utterly predictable lack of even-handedness.

We all agree, I think, that the scenes coming from Gaza are not good. But the enormously complex reasons for such horrors are not considered here. Instead, Churchill comes across like a very minor Old Testament prophet, bewailing the Wickedness of my people Israel (Jeremiah 7:12). And the final lines, delivered by an Israeli in full rant, about how the Palestinians are “animals”, how he wants to see their children “covered in blood”, are simply outrageous.

London’s Jewish Chronicle quoted Jonathan Hoffman, a vice chairman of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, who had seen the play and called it “a libelous and despicable demonisation of Israeli parents and grandparents which will only stoke the fires of anti-Semitism.” Mr. Hoffman also charged that the play “draws on several antisemitic stereotypes, from the blood libel through to the ‘chosen people’ trope.”

In The Saudi Gazette, Susannah Tarbush wrote that the play “succinctly dramatizes the tragedies and ironies of history for both sides” and builds to what she calls “a devastating final scene set during the Gaza onslaught.”

h/t to R'Menashe East

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