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February 19, 2009

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Rob Weinert-Kendt

I also hate when people conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism to shut down debate, but I must wonder: If the play's focus is on Israel's crimes, why is it called "Seven Jewish Children," not "Seven Israeli Children"? I think Churchill is doing some conflating here, and by my lights it's fairly ugly. It may or may not be fair game, and it's probably not anti-Semitic; but it's ugly.

isaac

I think the title is dramaturgically sound. In the first scene, the adults are talking about the Holocaust. There is no State of Israel yet, the "child" being spoken of is Jewish, not Israeli.

Edward Einhorn

Yes, but she chooses to track her perceived history of Israel as if it were the history of the Jews. It is a thesis that seems to say the Jews were oppressed, and now they are the oppressors. As if every Jew is an Israeli, or even every Jewish Israeli believes in the policies of the Israeli government.

It IS dramaturgically sound to call the piece Seven Jewish Children. Which is one reason I have a problem with the play.

I'm sorry, I'm all for open debate on Israel. But I am also for open debate about theater, and if I feel like the debate is cut down with frivolous calls about censorship.

isaac

Isn't it however one of the arcs of our people that we went from stateless, oppressed wanderers to ultra-Nationalist oppressors? Is that not what's happened to some extent?

Edward Einhorn

Is that the universal story for the Jews as a people? This play seems to speak in the imagined voice for all Jews. The story of a people, any people, seems much more complex, no matter what your politics. Which is why I point to the fact that she chooses not to use specific characters, just non-specific "Jews"

I'm out for the rest of the day, by the way - sorry to blog and run without being able to continue the conversation further.

isaac

I don't see any evidence that the play does what you're saying it does in reading it, but perhaps I'm missing something. When you get back, enlighten me!

99

Wow. I'm glad I read that. And this thread. I do think that it is a bigger story than just "Israeli," though. There is a lot in it about complicity, and responsibility being shared by a group. If it were "Seven Israeli Children," it would be easier to distance oneself from it, I would think. And it strikes me as a great example of using the specific to illuminate the general, since she does seem to be covering generations of a single family. It'll be interesting to see this staged.

Ben TS

From what I understand, the title is essentially from the point of view of the Zionist narrators/characters/what have you. So "Jewish" would be appropriate since Zionism largely hinges on the conflation of Jewish and Israeli identity. Written explicitly in "mission statement" of the country is that Israel belongs to Jews the way that, say, Ireland belongs to Irish people. So "Jewish" children makes more sense than "Israeli" children, IMO.

Tony Bellario

"Nothing even remotely vaguely anti-Semitic "? Can you expand on that, please?

When Jews are depicted as "glad" (Churchill's word) at the spilled blood of non-Jewish children, that is an obvious glance at the medieval blood libel, the oldest anti-Semitic trope in the book. When the exceptionalist character of the Holocaust is delegitimized by being turned into a pretext for violent Jewish triumphalism, that is a glance at one of the newest anti-Semitic tropes in the book. And I could go on.
"Nothing even remotely vaguely anti-Semitic "? Maybe, maybe not. Let's debate it. Your door-slamming, conversation-ending certainty throws gasoline on an already raging fire, in much the way that Churchill's grenade of a play is calculated to do.

Read Howard Jacobson in the INDEPENDENT at the link below, then see if you can make your categorical pronouncements. In the context of the rising tide of Jew hatred emanating from the with-it left in the UK, I suspect you may wish to add a little nuance to your analysis.

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/howard-jacobson/howard-jacobson-let8217s-see-the-8216criticism8217-of-israel-for-what-it-really-is-1624827.html

-- Tony B.

99

At the risk of pouring more gasoline here, given that this thread has several responses, covering a range of opinions, it's hard to say that Isaac has slammed any doors or ended any conversations. In fact, that's largely the point, isn't it? I read the article and, frankly, from an American standpoint, the situation is completely reversed. I'm not English, I don't live in the U.K., so I don't know what the political atmosphere is over here, but let's remember, we're dicussing a play that could be produced at a theatre that pulled a previous play that attempted to sympathize with the Palestinians. The political discourse here may be very different than in England.

The blood libel is a fair point, and, hell, might even be intentional, in terms of illustrating how a people can become the worst things thought of them. I disagree about the "delegitimzing" of the Holocaust, pretty strongly. I think it's clear that there's a progression there, a starting point. It's not pretext, it's context.

But, hey, look. We're debating it. With some nuanced analysis. Go figure.

99

(Weird...I wrote a whole comment here and it seems to have gotten lost. I'll try to recreate.)

Not to throw gas on the fire here, but I gotta disagree with some of your point, Tony B. One, given that this thread has about ten comments, covering a range of opinions, it's pretty clear that Isaac didn't slam any door shut. In fact, he's opened it. Isn't that the point? We should be talking about these things, as openly as possible.

I read the Howard Jacobson piece and I hear his points, but here in the U.S., the conversation is quite a bit different. I'm not English (or Jewish, for that matter) and I haven't lived in the U.K., but here, the political atmosphere is basically the opposite of what he describes: there's little to no room for any kind of criticism of the actions of the Israeli government. In fact, the theatre at the heart of all of this pulled a play, not because it attacked the Israeli government, but because it was perceived as being too friendly to the Palestinians. It's a very different environment and I'd be interested to see how this play plays here.

On the play, the blood libel point is a fair one; I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that it might even be intentional. C.C. is a smart writer and it could be a point about hatred, anger and fear turning us into the things most feared. I can't say that for sure, obviously. But I don't think the play "delegitimizes" the Holocaust in any way. It's the beginning and the context (not pretext) for what follows. As I remember (and I might read it again, just to be sure) it's not even referenced directly in the last scene. But we know it's what happened.

Still and all...we're debating, right? And that's a good thing. We've even got some nuance and analysis.

99

Sorry for the double post...

Aaron

Why is it anti-Semitic if a Jewish character in a play happens to be an evil character? Or, which is more interestingly the case in this "play," happens to have SHADES of being evil--in this case, tragically so, for those strains have been created out of a desire to do good, and to protect (one's child). Is it anti-German to do a play in which all the German characters in a period piece from 1943 are depicted as being Nazis? Are we not allowed to depict a Muslim character as being a terrorist for fear that we somehow create an illusion that ALL Muslims are terrorists?

It's unfortunate that there are Americans out there who WILL get that impression, but THOSE Americans... they're not going to be seeing this play or reading it. Let's trust that we're all smart enough to experience and interpret art as we see fit and to recognize that perhaps one of the reasons she's called this a "play" and not a "history" or a "poem" is that she does NOT want to express opinion as fact?

Edward Einhorn

Hi - back again, briefly...

I agree with you Aaron, having a single Jewish character who happens to be unpleasant does not make a play anti-semitic.

However, Churchill doesn't really have characters in this play. It is deliberately abstracted into nameless Jews, spanning a period of history. Which is very different.

The example of a Muslim terrorist in a play is apropos. A Muslim terrorist in a play does not make the play anti-Muslim, per se. But As I mentioned on playgoer, if I wrote a play called "Seven Muslim Children," with a series of faceless Muslims progressing from the oppressed (Inquisition) to evil terrorist bombers, then attached a required fund raiser for the children of the victims of 9/11, it would appropriately be called hate mongering.

Alison Croggon

I'd suggest that nobody in the play is "evil". They/he/she (it's not clear) are parents attempting to hide their fears and protect their daughter. Which is a normal enough human behaviour. The aurrounding context is not so normal, and so this turns disturbingly. It begins in the Holocaust and turns horribly so the fear is projected onto other children. It isn't a "blood libel" (where are the overtones of Christian blasphemy?) It's a reflection of the "it's them or us, and I'd rather it was them" statement which was quoted again and again in the Israeli media during the Gaza offensive.

99

But there have been a ton of plays that have featured Muslim characters who either progress from moderation to extremism or are depicted as secretly being terrorists. Sixteen Wounded is one example as well as Cry Havoc, both produced in New York, post-9/11. And accusations of "hate-mongering" weren't hurled at anyone. In fact, they were lauded for showing understanding of how people make that journey. Which I think that Churchill's play does. The last scene is not the whole play. And while the character lack names, they are indeed actual characters, with human motivations. They're not slavering stereotypes.

Henry Akona

Hey Isaac,

I agree with you that "Seven Jewish Children" is not anti-Semitic, but it can be misinterpreted as such. Here's my take, for what it's worth.

The play does not assert a single point-of-view for all Jews (there is no such thing). The play is about what a particular group of Hard-Core-Zionists would like "all" Jews to tell their children. In that sense it IS about "all" Jews, but not in the way many suspect. The play is unusual in that it's written entirely in the second-person. There are multiple personae in the piece: the Speaker(s), the Pseudo-Audience, the Child/Children, and the Real-Audience. Thus:

The Speaker(s) are the Zionists;
The Pseudo-Audience is "all" Jews;
The Child/Children are the children of all Jews; and
The Real-Audience is us.

The point-of-view is obscure because, due to second-person grammar, many of the pronouns are implied. For example, the first line logically, if not textually, reads [We, the Zionists, want you, the Jews, to] Tell [your children] it’s a game.

Grammar is very important here. If the text were in the first-person, it would read: "We tell her it's a game."

With apologies to Ms. Churchill, I have rewritten the opening section to clarify my point.

Tell her it’s a game
Tell her it’s serious
But don’t frighten her
Don’t tell her they’ll kill her
Tell her they're terrorists
Tell her they have weapons of mass destruction
Tell her they are either with us or against us
But not both.

Ms. Churchill could have written such a text about the Iraq War. From this example, one can see that it is the voice of the Bush Administration addressing the American people, not the voice of the American people themselves.

"Seven Jewish Children" is a play about crafting an historical narrative. Churchill exhorts her audience to reflect upon all of the things we have been "told," by history books, by the media, by the government, by family and friends. When I read the text, I found myself thinking far more about what my own government has "told her" rather than about Israel or Gaza, but then again, I'm not Jewish.

Also, my mind kept drifting to a scene in a very different play: Richard III, Act IV, scene iv. In the famous "cursing scene," longtime rivals, Queen Margaret and Queen Elizabeth, meet as victims of the same man, Richard III:

QUEEN ELIZABETH
O thou well skill'd in curses, stay awhile,
And teach me how to curse mine enemies!

QUEEN MARGARET
Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days;
Compare dead happiness with living woe;
Think that thy babes were fairer than they were,
And he that slew them fouler than he is:
Bettering thy loss makes the bad causer worse:
Revolving this will teach thee how to curse.

QUEEN ELIZABETH
My words are dull; O, quicken them with thine!

QUEEN MARGARET
Thy woes will make them sharp, and pierce like mine.

Margaret and Elizabeth share legitimate grievances (and a brilliant couplet). Margaret, however, believes it is necessary to manipulate the historical narrative (Think that thy babes were fairer than they were, / And he that slew them fouler than he is), if only in her own mind. The danger is that the exaggeration dehumanizes both the victim and the perpetrator. Shakespeare, and I believe, Ms. Churchill, argues that this dehumanization, whatever its justification, is ultimately self-destructive.

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