Hearing echoes in 'Seven Jewish Children'

Caryl Churchill's play is a harsh portrayal of this nation, but a true one.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
After reading a lot of the pro and (mainly) con about Seven Jewish Children - a play for Gaza, I prepared to write a column saying that while it took an excessively critical view of Israel, it was not anti-Semitic, and that there was a big difference between the two. Being a responsible journalist, I then set aside 10 minutes to actually read the play, and I found that not only isn't it anti-Semitic, it isn't excessively critical of Israel, either. As far as I'm concerned, it's just critical enough - which is to say very, very critical. More precisely, this short play by Britain's Caryl Churchill expresses moral outrage at Israel - which is what I felt during the war in Gaza, and what lots of other Jews and gentiles who want the best for this country felt as well. I don't know what Churchill thinks would be best for this country, or for the Jewish people, and I don't know if I'd agree with her if I knew. But what she seems to be saying in this play is that the trauma to the Jews during the Holocaust has, over the years, been twisted into the aggression of the Jews in today's Israel. She's saying that while Jews saw Israel as a sanctuary after the Holocaust, the building of this sanctuary also meant the displacement of a lot of natives, specifically Beduin. She's saying the Six Day War turned us into conquerors, made us callous toward the Palestinians, and that our callousness reached a shocking new extreme during our onslaught in Gaza. She's saying Jewish victimhood has not been redemptive; that instead, it's fueled Israel's victimization of Palestinians and been used as an excuse for it. She doesn't portray Palestinians as pacifists, noting, in the words of her characters, that they're known to "set off bombs in cafes," that they include "Hamas fighters" and that "they're attacking with rockets." But her view in the play is that Israel exaggerates the Palestinian threat out of all proportion and gives many, many times better than it gets. Seven Jewish Children says this country has become hysterical with fear and aggression, that the more hell we inflict on innocent Palestinians, the more desperate we are to deny any wrongdoing and the more medals we pin on our chests. Churchill wrote the play in January, while the war was going on. It was a harsh portrayal of this nation, but, in my opinion, a true one. The play's spirit isn't filled with hatred; it's filled with moral outrage. There's a difference. You don't have to be an anti-Semite or even an anti-Zionist to be morally outraged at our treatment of Palestinians, especially during Operation Cast Lead. The charge has been made that the play compares Israelis to Nazis. I never thought that for one moment while reading it, rereading it or watching a staging of it on YouTube. The American journalist James Kirchick wrote that by the end of the play, the Jewish child being raised in Israel is a "Baruch-Goldstein-in-training." Not at all. None of the characters is a murderer or a proponent of murder. None is a sadist. What all of them are is callous about what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, and by turns worried or defiant about how to justify it. No Nazis here, no Baruch Goldsteins, but rather people who've suffered too much and caused too much suffering, and who have become severely coarsened in the process. Read the "worst" monologue, the climactic one: "Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army. Tell her about the family of dead girls, tell her the names, why not, tell her the whole world knows why shouldn't she know? 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 feel sorry for them, tell them I don't feel sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them, tell her we're the ones to be sorry for, tell her they can't talk suffering to us. Tell her we're the iron fist now, tell her it's the fog of war, tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen, tell her they're animals living in rubble now, 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." I heard comments similar to these from some of my relatives during the war. Going back through the 24 years I've lived here, I've heard comments like these from relatives, neighbors, fellow soldiers - I've heard it and read it all over the place. I've heard it from Diaspora Jews too. Who are we kidding? Does that monologue represent the voice of every Israeli and "pro-Israeli" Diaspora Jew? Of course not. But is it an authentic voice, a view of Palestinians held by many, many Jews here and abroad even if they don't express it publicly? Has that voice not gotten louder? And when push comes to shove with the Palestinians, as it did in Operation Cast Lead, does Seven Jewish Children not echo the inner (and often outer) voice of Israel at war? I think it does. And I agree - it's an awful echo to hear.