'Seven Jewish Children' provokes US debate - among Jews

'Play for Gaza' confronts Diaspora Jews with moral dilemmas long dealt with in Israel.

seven jewish children play 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
seven jewish children play 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The first audience member who spoke following a reading of Caryl Churchill's controversial play Seven Jewish Children at the New York Theatre Workshop on Thursday said its cadences reminded him of a heartbeat. "Tell her, don't tell her, systolic, diastolic," the man told the packed house, repeating the dominant trope of the play, which follows seven sets of adults from the time of the Holocaust to the present day arguing over how to explain harsh truths to a never-seen child. From its first staging last month at London's Royal Court Theatre, the 10-minute-long work - subtitled "A Play for Gaza" and written in response to Operation Cast Lead - has drawn charges of anti-Semitism, with critics fixing particularly on lines in which a Jewish, and presumably Israeli, character says she feels no remorse about the Palestinian dead. "Tell her I wouldn't care if we wiped them out, the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I don't care if the world hates us, tell her we're better haters, tell her we're chosen people, 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," runs the line. "Don't tell her that," comes the immediate next line. "Tell her we love her. Don't frighten her." About 60 members of Britain's Jewish community signed a letter protesting the demonization of Israelis as "inhuman triumphalists who care little about anything except their children's feelings and who teach them that Arabs are sub-human and must be hated." But in America, the play has so far been a cultural Rorschach blot, with the anger of those who view it as resurrection of the old blood libel matched by the relief of others - including some liberal Jews - who say they feel Churchill's play captures something essential about their frustration over the moral dilemmas presented by the conflict with the Palestinians. "One of the things that's extraordinary about the play is that, yes, it starts from anger, but it also has incredible tenderness and intimacy and insight and softness," the theatre critic Alisa Solomon, who moderated Thursday's debate at the New York Theatre Workshop with playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner, told The Jerusalem Post. "It's about people in a very dangerous situation making tough decisions about what to say and what not to say," Kushner told the audience Thursday night. He said he was struck that an outsider - "a non-Jew, a British woman" - had managed to reflect "certain aspects that go very deep into the Jewish experience," though in an "audacious" way. Kushner was challenged by Bret Stephens, formerly the Post's editor-in-chief and now a Wall Street Journal columnist and editorial board member, who criticized liberal Jews for being willing to air criticism of their own in a way that Israel's Hamas opponents would not. "Where do you feel more comfortable as a gay man, in Gaza City or in Tel Aviv?" Stephens said from the audience, after asking sarcastically when Kushner's career-making play about the AIDS epidemic, Angels in America, would be performed at the Islamic University of Gaza. Kushner deflected the question, saying he'd be happy to discuss the issue privately after the show. The three New York shows - performed as ad hoc readings, and, at Churchill's request, for free as an appeal for donations to the London-based Medical Aid for Palestinians - were done with the formal involvement of Jewish groups like the Jewish Community Relations Council and the American Jewish Committee, which invited members, including Stephens, to sit in the audience for the debate. Kenneth Stern, the director on anti-Semitism and extremism for the AJC, wrote in a note given to theatergoers that he objected to the anti-Semitic "canards" included in the last lines of the play. The audience also included invited guests from Road to Peace, as well as the Palestinian playwright Betty Shamieh and Columbia University Arab Studies professor Rashid Khalidi, who applauded Churchill for provoking public dialogue on both sides. "If you were offended, that's what [Churchill] was trying to do," Khalidi said from the audience, noting that the play effortlessly switched between a Nazi "they" and an Arab "they." He also speculated that Israelis would be far more open to engaging with the difficulties raised by the dialogue than Diaspora Jews. "All kinds of things are said in Israel to which people here have plugged their ears and everyone else's ears against," he said. The point was echoed by a man who identified himself as Israeli but who declined to give his name to the Post. He said from the audience that he heard echoes in the play of conversations he'd had himself with friends at countless dinner tables. "The unspoken storyline is from the Holocaust to Gaza... this is a subject which in Israel is addressed," the man said. "It's a bigger reflection on how the Jewish communities [in the Diaspora] have to start developing themselves outside their own bubble." In Washington, the play set off an equally spirited debate after the city's Jewish Community Center's Theater J agreed to stage it this week. Artistic director Ari Roth, who has said he found the play's script upsetting, defended his decision to put on a reading even if it offended his own constituents. "This is an elusive, evocative, wispy play that has mysteries in it, and we are trying to decode them in a public discussion," he said this week. In a heated debate with writer Jeffrey Goldberg, published on The Atlantic's Web site, Roth compared the play to Pablo Picasso's "Guernica," a painting designed to provoke a visceral reaction to the Fascists' war. "Come and debate this," Roth said. "I'm angry. I don't think this is a great work of art, but I think there's a great artist doing something interesting here." "You're the useful Jew," Goldberg retorted, arguing that anti-Semites and opponents of Israel could hide behind the fact that Jewish groups were staging Churchill's play. "To boycott this and to just turn away and say, 'We don't hear Caryl Churchill, we don't hear this criticism,' that's wrong," Roth responded. JTA contributed to this report.