Self-loathing on J Street

The lobby attempts to cover itself with a fig leaf of moral deniability.

seven jewish children play 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
seven jewish children play 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is something perverse and masochistic about a self-described "pro-Israel" group going out of its way to lend support to the airing of luridly anti-Semitic propaganda. But that's what happened last month when J Street - the "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby - endorsed the performance of Seven Jewish Children, an outrageous, 10-minute screed written by British playwright Caryl Churchill, originally performed in London and now being produced in cities across the US. Seven Jewish Children draws a direct line from Nazi Germany's mass-murder of European Jewry to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, an old trope in the quiver of rabid Israel-haters. Rushing through 60 years of history, it depicts a group of adults speaking in hushed tones about how they ought to address a Jewish girl who remains offstage. "Don't tell her they'll kill her," one of the characters says, presumably sometime in the 1940s. Minutes later, transported to modern-day Israel, the adults discuss what they should teach the child about Palestinians: "Tell her they're filth," "tell her they're animals living in rubble now" and so on. In Churchill's abbreviated history of the Jewish experience, the girl who begins as Anne Frank ends up as Baruch Goldstein-in-training. "The decision to feature Seven Jewish Children at Theater J," read a statement issued by J Street in the defense of its production by a Washington, DC, Jewish theater project, "should be judged not on the basis of the play's content but, rather, on its value in sparking a difficult but necessary conversation within our community. To preclude even the possibility of such a discussion does a disservice not only to public discourse, but also to the very values of rigorous intellectual engagement and civil debate on which our community prides itself." IT IS Seven Jewish Children, with its spreading the anti-Semitic blood libel, that "does a disservice to public discourse," not complaints over the propriety of its production (which, by the way, should not be confused with a call to ban it). Would J Street similarly support the production of a play depicting Palestinians as bloodthirsty murderers? Contrast J Street's support for the production of Seven Jewish Children with its stance on controversial Pastor John Hagee. Last year, the group launched a campaign criticizing Hagee and his affiliation with pro-Israel organizations. Hagee is indeed an incendiary man, and J Street spoke for many Jews (this one included) when it called his coziness with some Israel advocacy groups into question. But it says something about J Street's motives when it trips over itself to attack a politically conservative ally of Israel but rushes to defend a play comparing the Jewish state to Nazi Germany. J Street attempts to cover itself with a fig leaf of moral deniability by saying that it "takes no position on the content" of Seven Jewish Children but insists that its performance is a good thing nonetheless because it will encourage "a difficult but necessary conversation." If you don't understand this distinction between the play's anti-Semitic message and the desirability of putting it on, it's because there is no distinction. Just the opposite: To J Street, the inflammatory message of Seven Jewish Children is precisely what makes it worthy of production. INSTEAD of admitting this, J Street engages in a feeble and transparent attempt at having it both ways, distancing itself from the disgusting content of the play while encouraging the spectacle of pain that will follow in its wake. J Street says that Seven Jewish Children will contribute to debate about Israel. Which part of it contributes to what part of the debate? The part where the Jews celebrate the killing of Arab children? Or is it the part where they use the memory of the Holocaust to justify the wanton slaughter of Palestinians? Self-criticism is a much-cherished Jewish value. We pride ourselves on our collective introspection, our ability to ask honest questions about communal faults in a way that we presume other ethnic and religious groups don't. The Jewish state embodies this trait more than any other polity, certainly more than any of its neighbors. Every day, the pages of Israeli newspapers are filled with heated arguments about the morality of this or that military tactic, and Israelis criticize their leaders and the country's national psyche in the most unstinting terms. The creation last year of J Street was, at first glance, a laudable embodiment of this penchant. Unlike established pro-Israel organizations that see their role as supporting Israel in a hostile world, J Street has been forthright about its intention to criticize the Israeli government from a dovish perspective. That's fair and welcome. But in such perilous times for the Jewish state and world Jewry in general, it's appalling that an ostensibly "pro-Israel" organization like J Street would transmogrify the worthy Jewish tradition of self-criticism into a farce of self-loathing. The writer is an assistant editor of The New Republic and a contributing writer to The Advocate.