Caryl Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children”: My Small Addition to the Conversation

And what a conversation, it has become.  Caryl Churchill, famed English playwright and outspoken anti-Israeli activisit, has written a 7 part, 8 minute play, entitled “Seven Jewish Children: a Play for Gaza”.  If you have not read the script (now available on-line virtually everywhere), I will explain that in each of the seven scenes, a young girl is being discussed.  The question is what should she be told, and what should she not be told.  The goal is to protect the child, presumably.  The people involved in each scene have very different ideas on how to bring about this security.  Presumably, each scene takes place at a different time in modern Jewish history.  The last scene takes place during the Gaza operation, and ends with a relatively long and vicious statement by one of the adults, who no longer is speaking to the child, but to his own bitter feelings towards the Palestineans; he could care less if they live or die.  In fact, he may prefer their death.

The play was first performed in London at a function to raise funds for assistance to Gazans.  It quickly became a matter of great concern in much of the Jewish community.  This concern was magnified when Theater J (the DC Jewish Community Center theater) in conjunction with the Forum Theatre decided to do a series of staged readings of the play, with Theater J accompanying the reading with the performance of three equally short pieces written in response.

If you go to the Theater J blog (the link is on the right), you will see the controversy that has been stirred up.  It is extraordinary.  And, unlike many controversies, I believe it is very healthy.

The first reading (which I did not attend) was reviewed this morning by Peter Marks in the Washington Post.  It is not my intention to discuss Marks’ review at length, only to note that it was very complimentary of the production, very complimentary of the Theater J staff, and rather dismissive of the play itself, which he felt was clever agitprop, and (I think I am paraphrasing) an easy and cheap shot.  I don’t agree with his final conclusion; I think the play is profound (and I am not always a Churchill fan), but that is unimportant.

I did attend the 10 p.m. reading at Theater J last night.  My guess is that there were more than 150 people there.  The JCC community center room (as opposed to the theater) was SRO.  The readings were moving, and the discussion moderated by artistic director Ari Roth equally so.  As Peter Marks’ said, the audience and the discussion became a part of the theatrical evening.  Not the usual post-production tag-on, but a theatrical experience in and of itself.

Churchill is obviously (maybe not so obviously) not Jewish, but each of her adult voices is.  I have heard them all.  (Of course, the voices on the Palestinian side are, I am sure, equally confused and diverse, and we all know the vituperative nature of most Palestinian public pronouncements.)

So, what can I add?

A couple of things, perhaps.

First, less than a year ago, I was sitting in on a forum held in Beer Sheva, in the Negev, where the topic of discussion was Sderot.  This was before the Gaza incursion, but during the time that Sderot was beset daily with Kassam rockets being launced from Gaza.  Casualties were few for a variety of reasons, but fear and life-disruption was endemic.  Schools were closed, sirens blared seconds before rockets fell, the town’s economy was shattered.  The discussion participants included a social worker and a Ben Gurion University instructor, both of whom lived in Sderot, and many others whose lived touched on Sderot in a number of ways.  The question was: what should the Israeli government do to stop rockets being launched across the border?  And the opinions varied, just like the opinions in the Churchill play vary.

But I remember a man sitting in the back row of the discussion room.  In his 40s, I would guess, he was a large, muscular looking individual, with a close cut, military hair cut.  He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt; he face was angular and determined looking.  He introduced himself as a member of the IDF reserves, who was (or had been, I am not sure which) high in the ranks of the IDF southern command.  He stated his opinion forcefully.  The government was putting the residents of Sderot in a danger which could be avoided.  Again paraphrasing, he said:  “They should let us go in.  They should turn us loose.  We could resolve this problem.  It would be done quickly.  We know what weapons there are (and they have more than just Kassams) and we know where they are.  If they let us loose, we would destroy the weapons; the problem would be behind us.  They are simply cowards.”

I am sure he believed everything he said.  Eventually, the government did turn the IDF loose.  At the time, I believed it was not the wrong thing to do.  I never anticipated attacking Gaza City (bombs had not come from there), or a large ground assault.  I don’t know whether the man in the back row anticipated this or not.  But once again, the Israelis proved that they can start a war easier than they can end a war.  How much has been accomplished?  And at what costs.

My second contribution comes from friends in Israel, and particular our friends’ two oldest sons, now I think 15 and 13.  They were against the war.  Their family members are all what are considered “Lefties” in Israeli terms (another “L” word).  I read their Facebook reports of their experiences as the fighting continued.  In their public schools in Modiin, a new community between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (on the site of the town where the Maccabees lived), they told of the difficulties that they had in school as “lefties”.  Their 13 and 15 year old classmates were by and large speaking exactly as Caryl Churchill’s last character spoke.  And, from what I have read elsewhere, this is not atypical for Israeli schoolchildren today.

Thirdly, I would like to address the one Palestinian-American in the audience last night.  He spoke in a not unfriendly tone, but wanted the audience to be aware that it was not only Gaza that caused the problem, but also the West Bank and Lebanon, and on and on.  I agree with that.

But there is another side to this, as well.  There were armed attacks in 1948 and 1967 and 1973 and on and on.  There are suicide bombers.  There are the Kassams.  There is the extraordinarily vile language spoken too often not only by the Arab man in the street in the Middle East, but by governmental officials and by government supported press, and taught in government/religious schools.

I thought that the Churchill play was in fact rather sympathetic to the Jewish adults trying to figure out what to tell to the unseen daughter(s).  And, as I said, I think it fairly accurate.  I wonder if an equally accurate play depicting Palestinian adults deciding what to tell their children would not sound even more horrific.

Before the reading of “Seven Jewish Children”, there was a full performance of Motti Lerner’s play, “Benedictus”, a 70 minute one-act drama, about an impending United States attack on Iran, perhaps with nuclear weapons, in order to avoid Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, and the reactions of three individuals, an Israeli arms dealer born in Tehran, a powerful but currently out office Iranian politician who was a boyhood friend and co-revolutionary with the arms dealer, and an American ambassador.  They are each trying to avert the war (or are they?), and developing ways to do this (or are they developing ways to make sure that they will fail to avert the war?).  Somewhat (but only somewhat) farfetched, to be sure, but with extraordinary dialogue.  Every position that is stated is turned on its head by the listener, over and over again.  There is no trust, or rather each thinks that they can understand when and how to read the positions of the others and turn it to their advantage.  They fail abysmally.

But they aren’t major players.  They may be trying to avert the war, they may be simply playing out their own issues (they each have grievences against each other from years gone by), who knows.  But they aren’t going to stop the war, even assuming that it is the one thing that they want to do.

So it is with the characters in “Seven Jewish Children”.  They can’t stop a war, either.  All they can do is get angry, and bitter, and sad, and frustrated, and confused.  And that is what happens.

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