What to tell the children

Hannah Wolfe reviews the new play Seven Jewish Children and takes on the critiques of those who accuse it of "anti-Semitism."

A production of Seven Jewish Children by the Rude Guerilla theater company in Los AngelesA production of Seven Jewish Children by the Rude Guerilla theater company in Los Angeles

ACCUSATIONS OF "anti-Semitism" have long been the knee-jerk response by Zionists to critics of Israel. And woe unto the Jew who dares to criticize; they are clearly a self-hating masochist.

This is playing out once again in the barrage of vituperative criticism hurled at Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, a "minor playlet" as one detractor called it, penned and staged in response to Israel's most recent brutal massacre in Gaza. "Operation Cast Lead," Israel's carefully calculated and long-planned 22-day December 2008/January 2009 attack on Gaza, resulted in the deaths of 1,300 Gazans, the majority unarmed civilians, and left communities in shambles.

A major playwright in the tradition of Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett, Churchill has won several awards, including the Obie Sustained Achievement Award in 2001. She worked with the radical theater companies Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment during the 1970s and '80s, during which time she produced some of her best-known plays (Cloud Nine, Top Girls and Serious Money).

In 2001, a performance of her play Far Away, supported by the Royal Court, raised funds for two Palestinian theaters. Churchill has long been an outspoken feminist, anti-imperialist and member of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. Seven Jewish Children was by no means her first foray into political theater.

Review: Theater

Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, written by Caryl Churchill. Read the play online.

Written in seven short poetic sequences, each section of the play is set in a key period of the last 61 years of Israel's occupation of Palestine, and each consists of adults debating what to "tell her" (a Jewish child who is either asleep, elsewhere or maybe listening outside the door) about what is going on. Most of the litany of lines begins with "tell her" or "don't tell her."

The play/poem is seven pages long, and takes about 10 minutes to perform. The text includes enough specifics to make the time and place clear, yet is general enough that the current plight of Palestinians conjures the plight of Jews in the past, and vice versa.

The voices express familiar and universal debates that parents and other adults have about what to tell children: protect them from the truth; tell them a white lie; give them some portion of the truth; no, they need to know it all. The subtext of course is what the adults think about the events, which erupts in the final and most controversial sequence.

The language is simple, yet laden with the double and triple negatives that hypocrisy and conflict generate: "Don't tell her she can't play with the children."

As Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon point out in their gorgeous review in the April 13 issue of the Nation, it is

dense, beautiful, elusive and intentionally indeterminate. This is not to say that the play isn't also direct and incendiary. It is. It's disturbing, it's provocative, but appropriately so, given the magnitude of the calamity it enfolds in its pages.

Kushner and Solomon explain the nature of criticism from Zionist and liberal quarters: "The power of art to open us up to the subjectivities of others is especially threatening to those who insist on a single narrative." Referring to the squelching of Palestinian voices in arts/media, they are "grimly determined to maintain the invisibility of others." Further, the brevity and apparent simplicity of the play are an "implicit rejection of the idea that the situation in the Middle East is too complicated...to be explored at anything other than great length."

The lightning rod for criticism comes toward the end, the culmination of the only lengthy prose outburst in the piece set, we presume, during the current onslaught:

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/Don't tell her that/Tell her we love her/Don't frighten her.

There the play ends.

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CHURCHILL IS accused of giving new life to the medieval "blood libel," the myth that Jews relish drinking the blood of non-Jewish children. Theaters and actors performing the play have come under attack; two retaliatory Zionist "playlets" have already been written and performed.

Seven Other Children by British playwright Richard Stirling purports to show, in the words of the playwright, "the tragedy of the Palestinian child as a victim of a distorted education about Israel." What Strong Fences Make, by New York playwright Israel Horovitz, is set at an Israel Defense Forces checkpoint outside Ramallah. Countering Churchill's request for collections for Gazan children, Horovitz has requested money at performances go to aid children wounded in attacks on Israel.

Seven Jewish Children is a tribute to the power of political theater to humanize, and to provoke discussion and debate.

In one particularly bizarre published dialogue in the Atlantic between Jeffrey Goldberg and Ari Roth, who produced the Seven Jewish Children at the "pro-peace" Zionist Theatre J, Goldberg states: "I don't want to treat this as a serious piece of art worthy of argument." He goes on at length about the "complexity" of the Israel/Palestine situation, and how the "playlet" is "gross" in its oversimplification, "agitprop" and "polemic" at its worst. Churchill is a "smug playwright with pronounced animus toward Israel writing this drive-by polemic that's meant to demonize the Jewish state."

He accuses Churchill of "seduction" of the reader with her "shrewd" writing. Roth concludes that it is "unfortunately" well-written. One can't help but feel that he's suggesting that Churchill has lured the hapless masochistic Jew unwittingly to founder on the rocky shoals of anti-Semitism and perpetuation of the "blood libel" myth.

It is worth quoting Churchill at length as she defends the play, and herself:

Throughout the play, families try to protect their children. Finally [at the time the play was written, during the massacre in Gaza], one of the parents explodes, saying "No, stop preventing her from knowing what's on the TV news." His outburst is meant, in a small way, to shock during a shocking situation. Is it worse than a picture of Israelis dancing for joy as smoke rises over Gaza? Or the text of Rabbi Shloyo Aviner's booklet distributed to soldiers saying cruelty is sometimes a good attribute?

And as for the "blood libel" accusations, she responds:

I find it extraordinary that, because the play talks about the killing of children in Gaza, I am accused of reviving the medieval blood libel that Jews killed Christian children and consumed their blood. The character is not "rejoicing in the murder of little children." He sees dead children on TV and feels numb and defiant in his relief that his own child is safe. He believes that what has happened is justified as self-defense.

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AS THE Jewish parent of an 8-year-old, I imagine the "Seven Children" to be about the age of my own son--old enough to understand, but young enough that there are things you don't want them to have to understand. The play strikes the perfect chord of tension every parent experiences, shifting with events around us and of course with the child's age: how much do I tell them? How do I tell them? How do I protect them? How do I tell them enough to protect themselves?

This, as well as the moment of anger that often comes when you see your child has been threatened. Anger toward others, oneself and even the child. This is what seems to me to be the context of the penultimate "explosion."

The title of the play and its contents evoke a fairy tale. But this isn't the modern kind with a happy ending; rather the old Grimm Brothers' grisly morality tale that usually end with children eaten or transformed into gruesome creatures because they didn't do their parents' bidding. And, more importantly, it is real. Horrifyingly real.

Seven Jewish Children drives home that the Zionist colonial settler state can only be justified by the perpetration of the most venal form of racism, and demonstrates at the micro-level how this is achieved in the messages parents give their children: "Tell her they they're animals living in rubble now; Tell her I wouldn't care if we wiped them out."

The play is about how the founding of Israel seemed a fairy tale--the Promised Land, the Land of Milk and Honey--but was based on racist lies.

As Kushner writes, "The last line of the monologue is clearly a warning: you can't protect your children by being indifferent to the children of others." I would add, just as horrifying and damaging to a child as seeing other children killed, is witnessing their parents' indifference.