Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Caryl Churchill's Latest

is stirring up a controversy.

Garret Eisler and George Hunka are talking about the fallout on their blogs, and here is a link to a post in the Guardian.

But first, you can read the full text of the ten minute play here. However, in order to understand some of the arguments in the comments and the posts above, make sure you read the section about the performance rights.


Ian Thal said...

I'm going to have to look at the text of the play when it is not a few minutes after midnight, but that said, antisemitism does seem to have been on the rise in Britain in recent years both when one examines the increase of hate-crimes, and even when one looks at the supposed intelligensia of British society: academics and journalists, one sees an increased acceptance of antisemitism.

I certainly agree with Higgins' "view that it is possible to be critical of Israel without being antisemitic." However, there, sometimes a bluring of the line, where anti-Semitic tropes are reframed as "criticism of Israel." Higgins' own newspaper has been repeatedly charged with having crossed the line in recent years, both by former writers, and by the U.S. State Department. The problem is that British culture is so profoundly anti-Semitic, many liberal Britons may not be able to recognize antisemitism unless it comes dressed in jackboots and armbands.

I will read the play over breakfast.

Ian Thal said...

I've given Seven Jewish Children a read. The text on its own is too ambiguous to be deemed anti-Semitic-- it's certainly not Amri Baraka's Somebody Blew Up America. However, I find it hard to see how in the British context it would do anything more than reaffirm the anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli prejudices common in British society.

Churchill's knowledge of the Arab-Israeli conflict seems to be little more than what she's gleaned from the The Guardian and BBC-- both of whom have been criticized heavily for their one-sided presentation of the conflict and even for reporting false stories. She doesn't seem to grasp that the Jewish children being addressed in the latter sections are likely to have been personally touched by the conflict: i.e. they would know somebody who was killed or injured either in war or by terrorism. Churchill has the good fortune to live in Britain and she can live with the illusion that the UK's illegal invasion of Iraq doesn't effect her. Israelis don't have that luxury.

Churchill also ignores the fact that much of the Israeli population are Mizrahi Jews who were either already living on the land in 1948 or who were fleeing persecution in the Arab and Muslim nations where they had lived. Of course, who can blame her since that's not mentioned on either the BBC or Guardian websites?

I am convinced that it's poorly researched, and an unsubtle piece of writing. I'm not quite convinced that the work is anti-Semitic, but I see how its flaws lend it more easily to an anti-Semitic agenda than the agenda of peaceful co-existence.

George Hunka said...

I still don't understand the problem with the performance rights issue. If a company doesn't want to do the play under those strictures, then they don't have to do it at all. There's no law requiring theatres to produce the show, and the donation to the charity is voluntary on the part of audience members.

Are we, as a culture, turned into such an authoritarian collective that we feel that we deserve the right to tell playwrights under what conditions and with what caveats their plays can be produced?

Art said...

Hi George,

There is absolutely no problem with any playwright making such stipulations, but I merely mentioned it because people may read the text and then not understand the context some of the comments people are making.

However, I am a little confused as to what your a suggesting here.

Surely you can't be suggesting that, (while the performance rights are prominently attached to the text and Churchill has openly stated that the play is political,) that we should ignore these things? I don't think Churchill wants us to ignore them. In fact, I have such faith in Churchill's skill and vision that I can't believe she didn't anticipate just the kind of controversey that Garret Eisler is talking about on his blog. Right?

Ian Thal said...


You're correct to note that the stipulations the Churchill placed on the play (which I did ignore in my previous comments) provide a window to understanding Churchill's intentions, just as noting the context of contemporary British attitudes towards Jews and Israel should be incorporated into any interpretation.

The text isn't in and of itself anti-Semitic. However, Churchill's agenda which at the very least presents Palestinians as mostly passive victims and Israelis as mostly aggressors operating out PTSD and denial, and her willful ignorance of the issues she's discussing addressing certainly cause me to question whether or not she holds anti-Semitic sentiments.

George Hunka said...

I didn't suggest at all that we ignore them, Art; as you mentioned, they are part and parcel of the play as a theatrical and cultural event. The broader issue is whether or not Churchill has the right to stipulate such things as the author of the play, and I believe that she does. Some of the comments here seem to be questioning that right.

There's controversy and there's controversy, and I have no doubt that Churchill sought to throw a bit of a Molotov cocktail through the window of Western quietude over the suffering in Gaza. But the real controversy is that suffering, and not what requirements a playwright sets upon licensing of her work.

Ian Thal said...

"no doubt that Churchill sought to throw a bit of a Molotov cocktail through the window of Western quietude over the suffering in Gaza."

I'm not sure what this quietude is that you refer to, George. There were protests against Israeli action in every major city in the "Western" (i.e. Europe, the Americas, and Australia) world. It was Western quietude regarding rocket attacks and suicide bombings on Israel and condemnation of less invaisive tactics like the security wall, economic embargo, and blockade to prevent weapons smuggling that created this situation.

The question is not whether Churchill has the right to say what she wants, or to throw a metaphorical Molotov cocktail (so long as it's metaphorical), or place performance stipulations on her work. In both the U.S. and U.K. she has those rights, just as we have the right to ask questions like "how ought we interpret Seven Jewish Children as both a work of theatre and a political intervention?"

Thomas Garvey said...

I think the play's brilliant, obviously, as I posted it on my blog, but I also think it's flawed. I wish Churchill had developed further the sections which seem to correspond to the taking of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War. I see the piece as essentially a chronicle of a moral position, from victimhood to righteousness and then perhaps into self-righteousness. I think in performance it could be extremely compelling. I do think Churchill's own politics have perhaps led her to underplay the great moments of Israeli triumph - and I think this blunts or undermines the full arc of her idea, even if I agree with her politics, roughly. Whether the pressure to turn the piece into a political "intervention" further undermines its artistic credibility is probably a topic for debate. Still, it's quite a play.

Ian Thal said...


I think that because you have a more nuanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (as evidenced by your excellent series on My Name is Rachel Corrie) you are going to have a more nuanced interpretation of Seven Jewish Children. You might even have a more nuanced view than Churchill, herself.

As I mentioned earlier, I don't find the text itself to be anti-Semitic, I'm more inclined to question how we interpret that text as a political intervention in Britain, which, as a society, is far more tolerant of antisemitism than our own. i.e. An American or Israeli audience (or cast) is going to come to that text with a different body of common knowledge than a British audience (or cast.)

Thomas Garvey said...

I understand your concerns, Ian - incidents against British Jews spiked after the Gaza actions. Still, was that result of a rising generalized "anti-Semitism" or a more local reaction - however unjust - to those military decisions? And I find it hard to see Churchill's play as any incentive to violence against Jews. Short as it is, it's just too complicated politically and emotionally - although I agree there is a pointed critique in it of a specific Israeli attitude, it doesn't portray Jews or Israelis as oh, evil or greedy or cruel or anti-Christian or even generally anti-Arab, as anti-Semitic tracts have always been wont to do. I just wonder - can you imagine a play that is anti-Israeli-policy but not anti-Semitic? Because I can, just as I can imagine a play that criticizes gay behavior as not inherently homophobic, or a play that satirizes U.S. actions as not, basically, anti-American. I realize due to the horrifying history of anti-Semitism, I can't compare these cases directly - but then again, gays were once burned at the stake (that's why we're called "faggots"!), so maybe in some ways I can.

Ian Thal said...


Just to start off, I appear to be changing my views ever so slightly on this matter, it's because that's the nature of dialogue, and again, I appreciate not just the strength of your arguments but the fact that you're engaged in a genuine discussion (which is why I miss the comments section on your blog.)

Like you I can imagine a play that is critical of Israeli policy and not be anti-Semitic. As I stated earlier, I don't see anything particular about Churchill's text that flags it as anti-Semitic. I don't know what dwells within her soul but I don't see anti-Semitism in the text.

I do, however, see how a troupe could, if they were so inclined, easily create an anti-Semitic reading. I also see how an audience member with even a modicum of anti-Semitic sentiment could find it validated by the play. Whether this is a fault that can be placed on the author is a philosophical debate for another time.

Given the degree of antisemitism in the UK, however, I have to be concerned how British audiences are going to respond, and if British audiences are capable of recognizing the more subtle forms of antisemitism in their own society (the sort that subtly doesn't wear an armband or attend meetings of the BNP.)

While criminal acts targeting Jews and Jewish institutions have spiked in Britain following Operation Cast Lead, it is following several years of increased anti-Semitic hate crimes in Britain. But face it: Only an anti-Semite harasses, threatens, or attacks a Diaspora Jew because they dislike the policies of the Israeli government-- whatever Israel may have done, whether it is justifiable or not, in such incidents, Gaza is only this year's pretext for sentiment to become a criminal act.

And that's the complexity of Diaspora antisemitism-- anything that can be attributed to the Israeli government, even if it is justifiable, even if it's not true, can be a pretext for targeting the non-Israeli Jew.

That said, a.) there are criticisms of Israeli policy that are not anti-Semitic; b.) but there are criticisms that are anti-Semitic; and, c.) there are criticisms that not-antisemitic in and of themselves, but are motivated by an anti-Semitic animus. Sadly, I think that much of the British press and academia claim to be engaged in a.), when they are actually doing b.) or c.) and some of them sincerely believe they are engaged in a.) when they aren't.

Anyway, I appreciate your caution with your own analogy re: homophobia and antisemitism, but you were still right to make the analogy-- it's not the same, but the similarities are instructive. I certainly have noticed a lot of the homophobic rhetoric coming from the religious-right certainly do look like classic anti-Semitic tropes with the word "Jew" crossed out and replaced with "gay" or "lesbian" (though I think we discussed that on your blog at least once before!)

Thomas Garvey said...

I'm in a quandary on this anti-Israel vs. anti-Semitism question, because I've always been very interested in Judaism (and in many ways prefer it to my own lapsed Catholicism) and yet have often been very disappointed in Israel, so I rarely jump to conclusions about anti-Semitism when confronted with anti-Israeli statements (just as I would hardly take an attack on the current pope as "anti-Catholic"). Still, anti-Semitism is certainly a great (and recent) evil, and shouldn't we always be on the guard against it? The answer is yes, a thousand times yes.

And I'm sure you're right about rising hate crimes against Jews in Britain - but still, I'm going to hang onto an admittedly problematic argument as to its nature. I think to you, these crimes reveal a hidden, general anti-Semitism which uses Israel's actions as its pretext. I confess my gut feeling is that these crimes may be more completely explained by anger at Israel's actions than by any hidden hatred of Jews per se. I can't prove this, of course, but it seems at least as probable as your own explanation. And my own experience has always been that there is actually quite a bit more anti-Semitism on the Continent, even among supposedly sophisticated people, than there seems to be among the British.

Your concern that Churchill's play could lead to hate crimes against Jews could still hold true, however, regardless of the "deeper cause" of said crimes. I don't want to treat that risk lightly. But at the same time, I can't agree that Churchill's play actually foments such actions. Even at its most politically pointed, in its final "stanza," we hear a cacophony of Jewish voices arguing about their own actions and reactions; after the long, angry diatribe that runs:

Tell her they did it to themselves. Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them, tell her I’m not 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.

There still comes the response, from another Israeli:

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

Those are the last words of the piece: a rejection of hatred of the Arabs, and a plea for love and freedom from fear. In short, this is a complex statement about a complex conflict; or at least it's one of the most complex statements I've seen about the Israeli-Arab conflict on stage. It is, yes, designed as a criticism of Israel. But this does not necessarily make it invalid. And I think given a thoughtful reading, it could seem even more complex on stage than it does on the page. You fear a troupe "could easily create an anti-Semitic reading." But I doubt the Royal Court has, and certainly there are many, many more tracts more amenable to that purpose. I think instead it's far more likely to create a complicated human portrait while, yes, making a clear political point (that you may legitimately disagree with).

As usual, I appreciate our ongoing debate. Someday I may re-open the comments section on my own blog; till then, we will have to continue to rely on Art as our indulgent host!