On February 10, 2009, the play “Seven Jewish Children” debuted at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Now the play is opening in New York at the Brecht Forum. The script, which was inspired by the 2008-2009 Gaza War, was the brainchild of playwright Caryl Churchill, who must have begun writing it while the gun barrels were still warm.
The play depicts seven Jewish parents discussing what to tell their children about life in a series of monologues that begin with “tell her…” The first two characters discuss what to tell their daughter about the Holocaust, while the other five characters deal with issues like immigrating to Israel, Palestinians, war, the security fence and the Gaza war. The comparison of the fate of Jews in the Holocaust to the Gaza conflict is not coincidental.
The play opened just after the staging of “The Stone,” which is about a German family living in a formerly Jewish house and “asks very difficult questions about the refusal of some modern Germans to accept their ancestors' complicity in Nazi atrocities,” according to the Jewish Chronicle. In “Seven Jewish Children,” the Nazi parallel is applied to Jews accused of living on Palestinian land, and the play’s third monologue says “don’t tell her he [the Palestinian] was driven out…don’t tell her she doesn’t belong here,” while the fourth monologue declares; “Tell her this wasn’t their [Arab] home.”
The Royal Court Theater attracted a great deal of coverage over the play, which was labeled anti-Semitic and in bad taste by numerous writers like The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. In its defense, the Royal Court insisted that the play wasn’t anti-Jewish, just anti-Israel. “Some concerns have been raised that the Royal Court's production of Seven Jewish Children, by Caryl Churchill is anti-Semitic,” the theater explained, adding that while the play “is undoubtedly critical of the policies of the state of Israel, there is no suggestion that this should be read as a criticism of Jewish people.... In keeping with its philosophy, the Royal Court Theatre presents a multiplicity of viewpoints.”
“Seven Jewish Children,” however, presents only one view. Caryl Churchill wants to dramatize the narrative, first popularized by historian Arnold Toynbee, of Holocaust survivors becoming perpetrators of genocide against the Palestinians. To make that case, Churchill excluded any Jewish voice that does not fit her carefully crafted history of Israel. Nowhere in the play is there an expression of pride in Israel’s past. There is no voice from the Old Yishuv of the Hasidim, no voice from the 19th century Zionist settlers. Nowhere in the play will one learn how welcoming the Jewish state has been of outsiders throughout its history. There is no voice from the Yemenite Jews who came to Israel on Operation Magic Carpet. And there is no room for an Ethiopian who came on Operation Moses.
Instead, there is dark insinuation about alleged Israeli injustices. “Don’t tell her Arabs used to sleep in her bedroom,” one actor says. “Tell her we’ve got new lands [after 1967],” viewers hear later. “Don’t tell her the trouble about the swimming pool…tell her it’s our water, we have the right.” What swimming pools?
The Caryl Churchills of the world have an in mind an Israel that is a dark fantasy. It is the Israel they need to exist in order to the worst about it. They need the Palestinians to be the poorest most wretched family living in metal shacks next to concrete slabs. They need each Palestinian man with a Khaffiya and every woman with a long black hijab. They need every Jew to look like a European and be in a uniform. This makes for some especially embarrassing casting. At a recent showing of the play at the Lewisham town hall in Catford in the U.K., three of the actresses were blond. Can anyone imagine Roots, the famous drama about an African slave family’s journey to freedom in the Antebellum South, with white actors playing Africans?
Seven blond Europeans may want to act out the history of Israel and imagine themselves in the shoes of the Jewish people, telling their children “tell her they’re [Palestinians] animals…tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out.” But that’s an imaginary history, created by people who need Israel to be something it is not.