During the recent Gaza conflict and in its aftermath, it has been open season on Israel across the globe. From a synagogue in Caracas to a Jewish member of my local community in London being set upon by anti-Semitic thugs, there has been a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment that goes beyond criticism of Israel’s military incursions. From the journalist Richard “I don’t read letters from people with Jewish-sounding names” Ingrams to Robert “Israel’s fifty years of shame” Fisk to Bruce “Israel, the serpent in the garden of Eden” Anderson, the Zionist enterprise has been the focus of considerable venom of late. In recent days Ingrams has predicted the demise of the Jewish state and Anderson has prognosticated in similar vein with the obligatory “ethnic cleansing” accusation against those pesky Jews occupying Arab lands.
Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children is described by the Royal Court Theatre as a “play for Gaza” and a “history of Israel.” The playwright herself, a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, has told the world, “Israel has done lots of terrible things in the past, but what happened in Gaza seemed particularly extreme.”
My esteemed colleague John Nathan in the Jewish Chronicle says this: “For the first time in my career as a critic, I am moved to say about a work at a major production house that this is an anti-Semitic play.” He is right, and here is my analysis:
This ten-minute piece features a dining room set inhabited by a nine-member Jewish family agonizing over the pros and cons of Zionism. Churchill uses “tell her” as the mechanism by which the evil of the Israeli experiment is revealed to the audience. Never once, of course, do we meet the family of an Arab sniper, suicide bomber, Hezbollah Katyusha rocket-launcher, Hamas missile-maker, or car-bomber whose mother, wives, sisters, and daughters might also have some thoughts about the deeds of their menfolk.
Donald Rumsfeld once referred to Israel as “trying to survive in a dangerous neighborhood — a tiny country you can see in its entirety from the top floor of your hotel in Tel Aviv.” What I found unnerving about this very short polemic was Churchill’s use of the accusations hurled most frequently at Jews around the world as Israel becomes an increasingly militaristic power in the region:
1. The land of Israel was stolen from under the feet of the Arabs and “she [the girl in Churchill’s play] doesn’t belong here” because “everyone was driven out.”
Sure, the War of Independence caused upheaval in the region, but one may refer to the narratives of Benny Morris to appreciate that Arab leaders were frightening the local population to take flight because they were told the rapacious Jews would murder them and violate their women. In reality the concept of a Jewish homeland had been simmering for over a century and came to a head with the Dreyfus trial and Emile Zola’s J’Accuse screed.
2. Every Israeli is living in a house that is actually the rightful property of a Palestinian.
This may be true in some neighborhoods but would anyone like to give me back the homes of the long list of relatives whose homes were taken away from them in centuries of Jewish history?
3. Israelis routinely kill babies and children but feel nothing, only “I’m glad it isn’t my child!”
Caryl Churchill obviously does not engage with the Jewish narrative. Anyone born after 1948 knows that Golda Meir said, “Peace will come when the Arabs start to love their children more than they hate us.”
4. Israelis regard Bedouin and other local residents as second-class citizens.
Every nation has racists in its borders, but if the Jews of Israel had been as ruthless and hateful as anti-Zionists like to portray them, would the one million-plus Muslims, Druse, and Beduin not have been driven out or massacred, Rwanda-style, long, long ago?
5. If the average Israeli knew how many Arabs had been killed in the nation’s history they would leave or not have emigrated there in the first place.
This ignores the fact that thousands of Israeli Jews, known as Sabras, have been there for centuries, for example in Piki’in, where the synagogue dates to the time of Jesus.
6. Jews in Israel expropriate Arab water to use for swimming pools.
Again, this is an accusation hurled at Israel by those who wish to demonize every permutation of its social fiber. Palestinians have their own swimming pools. It is not Israel’s practice to help itself to “Palestinian water.”
Dr. Alex Safian, an authority on this topic, says, “Israel obtains roughly 50 percent of its water from the Sea of Galilee and the Coastal Aquifer, both of which are entirely within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Another 30 percent comes from the Western and Northeastern Aquifers of the Mountain Aquifer system.”
7. There are people out there who do love Jews and Israel did turn the desert into an orchard, but they also destroy olive trees, bulldoze houses, maintain brutal checkpoints, shoot little boys because “they are animals” and “we kill far more of them.”
Again, Golda Meir: “We do not rejoice in victories. We rejoice when a new kind of cotton is grown and when strawberries bloom in Israel.”
8. Jerusalem is an emotive subject as it should not have any Israeli presence. Churchill does not articulate this but the subtext for Middle East-watchers is that “al-Quds” should be Judenrein, or Jew-free.
Since Israel gained sovereignty over Jerusalem in 1967 after 2,000 years of exile, the antiquities and holy sites have been revitalized. During the jurisdiction of Jordan pre-1967, the area went into rack, ruin, and squalor. In the 1948 war instigated by hostile Arab nations, the Jordanians expelled the Jewish residents of the Jewish Quarter. All of its synagogues were destroyed and the Jewish Quarter was bulldozed. The ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was desecrated and the tombstones there were used for construction and paving roads. Jordan also destroyed the Jewish villages of Atarot and Neve Yaakov just north of Jerusalem.
One wonders if Caryl Churchill has ever taken the time to study Jewish history. I suggest she read Pierre van Paassen’s Days of Our Years to discover the enlightenment brought to the region by European Jews and their Sabra hosts in the 1920s, only to be met with violence and anger by the Arabs living in their ninth-century circumstances.
9. The establishment of Israel after the Holocaust was wrongly called “a land without a people for a people without a land”; in other words, the greedy Jews knew (her words): “great, great, great, great lots of great granddads lived there. … Don’t tell her they were driven out.”
Again, a Golda quote: “When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”
10. Jews evince a sense of entitlement, hence the tragedy of the Palestinians.
Once more, a treasure of a Golda quote: “Let me tell you something that we Israelis have against Moses. He took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil!”
There are many who will read all this and say, “Yes, but Israel has been less than virtuous in its recent history.” Yes, Israel is not without fault. Agreed.
But my answer to Caryl Churchill is that every year there is a love parade and a gay pride march in Israel. Its Supreme Court judges will condemn Israeli officials for acts that infuriate its vociferous citizenry. Every national religion is represented in the Knesset and everyone in the state of Israel may worship as they please. Caryl, try taking a King James Bible into Saudi Arabia. Israel is happy for anyone to visit — they even let in shoe-bomber Richard Reid!
Caryl Churchill seems to feel she has a special insight into the souls and minds of Jewish girls, most particularly what they are told by family about the history of Israel. I am in a unique position to provide a “horse’s mouth” rendition of the “tell her” narrative of the playlet. Unlike Christian children born in the 1950s, I was given a cautionary tale by my own mother before venturing out into the world: a harrowing history of the religion into which I was born, starting with the Crusades, the blood libels, the York massacre, the Inquisition, the Chmielnicki massacre, the Jew riots, the Dreyfus trial, and the pogroms. Then came the Holocaust.
My late mother, after demobilization from the United States Army, processed concentration camp survivors for the United Service for New Americans. Their stories of torture and brutality made her tremble every day at her desk. In turn she told me these horrors, and Jews of my generation carry this with them every day of their lives.
In the bar after the performance an audience member with whom I took up a conversation wanted to know if I was — horror of horrors — “a Zionist.” I told her I lived in a parallel universe, having grown up in post-war America with a fierce pride about being of the same tribe as Einstein, Arthur Miller, Jonas Salk, and the plethora of Broadway musical writers. She snarled at me that the suffering of her tribe, the Scots, was just as bad throughout history as was that of the Jews, but the Scots did not set about “establishing a military power with American money and subjugating a neighboring populace.” I tried to explain that comparing the Holocaust to Scottish nationalism was a calumny, but I noticed that her companions were laughing at me. She kept saying the United States must stop sending aid to Israel and that it was American support for the Jewish state that was the biggest calumny of all. If many people feel the American taxpayer should not be supporting Israel, that is fine, but what struck me was this woman’s fury that one penny should go to helping any Jew. Where were her relatives when Wannsee unfolded and homes were refused for the six million who ended up in the crematoria?
The production features a cast with mostly Jewish-sounding names. This should be noted because the latest get-out clause for those who remonstrate about the evils of Israel is that “many Jews are appalled by Israel’s actions.” The play will thrill those audiences in Britain throughout its run who daily pray for the destruction of Israel.
What is urgently needed is a play about the Muslim children of the region who are taught to hate Christians and Jews, who are indoctrinated with radical agendas before reaching puberty, and whose countries haven’t a fraction of the press freedom or cultural and scientific dynamism that can be found in Israel.
If there is one thing that unites Jews of all political affiliations it is a misinformed attack from a non-Jew whose agenda is the elimination of the “Zionist entity.” The Stalinist Ilya Ehrenburg said he would always identify with Judaism because he shared the same blood that had been spilled for two millennia from Jewish veins. After Stalin’s death in 1953, as my late mother would remind me at least once a month every year of her life, he made this legendary comment: “As long as there is a single anti-Semite left in the world, I shall proudly call myself a Jew.”