Hannah on Seven Jewish Children

Hello Theater J blog readers.
Ari invited me to post on here an email I shared with him yesterday. It took me all day to remember the password and login for the blog that I created. I feel so distant from Theater J up in New York but at the same time I feel so closely connected. With the performances of Seven Jewish Children and the discussions surrounding them I feel so proud of both Theater J and of Forum Theatre where I remain a company member. The email below was written to Jeffery Goldberg after reading his continued postings and anger towards the piece and Ari’s choice to produce it.

Hi Jeffery –

I feel compelled to write after reading your continued posts on the controversy surrounding Theater J’s production of Seven Jewish Children.

I have to say that I find your vehement attitude towards Caryl Churchill’s play wrong. I understand that it can ruffle feathers but when I hear you say blood libel and propaganda I have to say I don’t see it at all. I first read the play when it was being produced at the Royal Court. I was nervous reading it after hearing the reports of antisemitism. I should also say that I am in general a huge fan of Churchill’s work, and I was afraid that I would be disappointed and angry at one of my favorite writers (and I am disappointed that she has chosen to boycott Israeli theater). What I found instead stunned me but not for the reasons I had worried. I was extremely moved by the piece. The preciseness of language that she uses, the simplicity of structure and the openness of character hit me on a very profound level. In only 7 pages she was able to make me cry, and I consider that a great feat.

As Ari said in the interview you did with him, Churchill was very deftly able to capture a language I was familiar with; these characters are Jewish. They are not British stereotypes of Jews. Even though they were never named and lines were never assigned the voices struck me as true. I trusted her writing. When I reached those lines upon which the controversy is all based I was not reading them as if they were coming from a British playwright, but from people trapped in a terrible situation unsure how to describe it. The words used are horrible, unsettling and do not speak for everyone. It isn’t that everyone on stage holds those opinions, it’s that some do. And the disappointing reality is that some people do hold those opinions, not just in Israel but in any war time situation the world over. I realize that part of what she is saying is that the oppressed are now the oppressor – but she isn’t the only one to hold that opinion. It’s a valid comment, it’s a little too black and white for my taste, but when looking at facts there is some truth. Yes, Jews who were oppressed came to Israel and formed the country, yes, some of their progeny have been involved in morally complicated and at times repulsive actions in Gaza. That’s not saying everyone is and it’s not saying that the types of oppression are the same – who can really classify oppression? But this is the reality of the world we are living in and it makes Churchill angry and frankly it makes me angry as well, but I didn’t write a play about it, perhaps I should have. If the play had been written by a Jewish author would you have had the same complaints? If it had been longer and the characters further developed so that the motivations behind their lines were clearer would you have had the same reaction?

After I read it I wondered if perhaps I was glossing over what others might find offensive because of my own biased love of Churchill’s writing. I sent it immediately to my family, who I know are going to be in Theater J’s audience tonight. I got responses from both of them right away saying that they really liked it and were not offended. Even my father who visits Israel almost every year, and hates every Caryl Churchill play I have ever told him to go see, found it challenging, interesting, provocative and moving.

I think it’s a shame that it wasn’t written by a Jewish author and I think it’s a shame that few Jewish playwrights are reacting to the situation in Israel artistically. There is work being done in Israel but it unfortunately isn’t being seen on a wider scale. If it was perhaps Churchill would realize how silly her boycott is. American Jewish playwrights especially are cautious of controversy, of showing their own emotional reactions to what is happening in the same way that Churchill did. An exception being perhaps the ambitious Ariel Sharon Hovers Between Life and Death and Dreams of Theodore Herzl by David Zellnik that Theater J has helped develop.

I am extremely proud of Theater J for investigating and exploring work that is uncomfortable. I am extremely proud of them for having what I see as the most Jewish reaction to something unsettling: they are looking at it, questioning it and coming up with hundreds of opinions. I am sorry that I can’t be there this week to be a part of the conversations and I hope that the experience is a positive one that allows them to continue taking these types of chances.

I am also sorry that you were not able to see in the play what I saw; something that challenges me and I think in the end, I think, makes me a better artist and a better Jew.

-Hannah Hessel

10 thoughts on “Hannah on Seven Jewish Children

  1. I find it extraordinary that this site only posts comments favorable to what many surely view as your abject decision to stage this play. I find it hard to believe that you have only heard from people who agree with you. Funny how you invoke a committment to airing diverse viewpoints to justify your actions, but censor those who disagree with your actions in this matter.

  2. I have not seen Ms. Churchill’s play…yet; I hope time and money will allow me to do so. But reviewing Ms Hessels comments I see problems that might have disrupted a calm theatre for some jewish audience members like Mr. Goldberg.

    After all, as Ms. Hessel says, Caryl Churchill is not Jewish and she has boycotted Israeli academics. As someone working to change the dynamic between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and palestinians..I somersault forward whenever I hear about “pieaceniks” or people working for a real peace who refuse to negotiate with those they have deemed to be on their opposing side.

    Having been in the peacemaking camp for longer than I care to admit, I see absolutely no validity for believing in a military or a political solution that doesn’t involve people delving into the more complicated situations. In fact, one cannot understand how many skins enclose the herat of the onion until one begins to unravel. From that perspective, it is difficult for me to come to the point of Ms. Churchill’s play. But if I do have the chance to go, I may then find the words and ideas to talk with her in a language that will open her heart to the experiences crowding around her historically, which, without her open dialogue, she is doomed to miss and lack understanding of…forever.

  3. J-Street gives politicians who don’t care about Israel great cover for anti-Israel policies and opinions.

    J-Street’s main thrust is that it’s a group of American Jews who create an org. whose proud mission is solely to pressure American elected officials to pressure Israel into making more concessions. By doing so, J-Street members feel their liberal, anti-Israel friends and business colleagues can get off J-Street members’ backs about how “horrible” Israel is because it has the nerve to defend itself against Arab atrocities.

    Many J-Street members are in Oslo fantasy-land, or would prefer Israel curl up and die rather than these timid American Jews having to have the courage to stand up for Israel. Instead, J-Street is just another “not in my name” group of anti-Israel cowards eroding support for Israel while trying to claw ahead personally. Sad….and dangerous.

    J-Street and J-Theatre should invite David Duke to make a presentation that will provoke “discussion”

    I hope American Jewry (and Israel for that matter) is not depending on J-Street and J Theatre types for it’s survival.
    They will sell Israel into the ground faster than it takes to say “I’m guilty because I’m Jewish”

  4. Howard Jacobson, described by some as one of Britain’s last two comic novelists (Martin Amis being the other), wrote several times about this play. This is what he wrote in response to English professor Jacqueline Rose’s defence of it, here:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/feb/23/howard-jacobson-antisemitism-caryl-churchill

    This play has been widely discussed in the UK and most Jewish commentators think the play is antisemitic, for many of the reasons Jacobson sites, including that it misrepresents the Israeli-Zionist Jewish side of things while purporting to portray it faithfully. Caryl Churchill is a patron of the UK Palestine Solidarity Campaign. With which there is nothing wrong.

    However, for the Prosecution to stage the Case for the Defence on its behalf is disingenuous, and intended to poison discussion and debate before it can even begin. It assumes the Defence has no case to make and, to quote Edward W. Said’s quotation of Karl Marx:

    “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented”

    Why Jacqueline Rose is not right

    Caryl Churchill’s play is not just bad art, but part of a toxic discourse that masquerades Jew-hatred as denunciation of Israel
    Comments (…)

    Jacqueline Rose takes me to task for misreading Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children. Jacqueline Rose teaches English literature; I once did the same. So the issue is bound to be about the way we read a text – whether that text is a piece of political propaganda purporting to be a play, or a selective anthology of quotations wrenched out of context purporting to be history.

    I have described Seven Jewish Children as an antisemitic work. This is not an accusation I routinely level. It is a joke among Jews that we find antisemitism anywhere – think Woody Allen in Annie Hall, hearing “D’you eat?” as “D’Jew eat?” So I make a practice of finding it in as few places as possible, and of not minding it too much when I do. A person can hate Jews if he or she pleases. Many Jews hate Jews: we can’t keep everything to ourselves. And as for works of art, they march to a different tune, the marvellous thing about art being that whatever its intention, it usually subverts it. That’s drama, for you.

    The problem with Seven Jewish Children is that it isn’t drama. Jacqueline Rose praises it for being “precised and focused in its criticisms of Israeli policy”. I agree. And that’s what makes it not art. Art would be imprecise and free-flowing, open to the corrections of what will not stay still, attentive to voices that unsettle certainty. The difference between art and propaganda is that the latter closes its mind to the appeals and surprises of otherness. Seven Jewish Children is imaginatively starved; no orchestration of voices vexes or otherwise complicates its depiction of a Jewish people fulfilling the logic of its own intolerant theology, boastful and separatist, deaf to reason and humanity, knee-high in blood and revelling in it. A theatrical as well as a racial crudity, which any number of critics, by no means all Jewish, have remarked on.

    Jacqueline Rose omits to mention in her defence of this indefensible work that she is in some way – actual or spiritual – affiliated to it. The castlist expresses gratitude to her, though it is not clear whether that’s for mothering the play intellectually, or for acting as Caryl Churchill’s Jewish midwife in its delivery – advising her in such arcane Jewish matters, say, as the pleasure we take in the murder of non-Jewish babies.

    But the play owes her a debt all right, particular in its unquestioning espousal of her theory that the Holocaust traumatised the Jews into visiting back upon the Palestinians what the Nazis had visited on them – a theory of dazzling psychological simplicity that turns Zionism (and never mind that Zionism long predates the Holocaust) into a nervous breakdown, and all subsequent events into the playing out of the Jews’ psychic instability. By this reasoning, neither the Palestinians nor the Arab countries who have helped or hindered them are relevant. Jacqueline Rose spirits them away from the scene of the crime. They are redundant to the working of her theory, of no significance (whatever they have done), since the narrative of the Middle East is nothing but the narrative of the Jewish mind disintegrating.

    What Jacqueline Rose seems not to have noticed is that this theory is a perfect illustration of the very Jewish arrogance she decries, assuming to itself responsibility for every deed.

    In an attempt to normalise her position, she cites Primo Levi’s calling the Palestinians the Jews of the Jews – “Everybody is somebody’s Jew, and today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis.” This is the polemic equivalent to arming a nuclear warhead. Whoever Primo Levi sides with must be right. But this is a dishonest misappropriation of his words. Primo Levi inveighed against Israeli militarism, right enough, but he was a long way from saying that there is an ineluctable progress of Jewish mental collapse linking what the Nazis did to the Jews to what the Jews are doing to the Palestinians – a progress which turns the Jews into Nazis themselves. When La Repubblica tried to get Primo Levi to say precisely that, he made a distinction of the profoundest importance, and he made it sharply: “There is no policy to exterminate the Palestinians.”

    I don’t expect Jacqueline Rose to learn from me. But since she values his word, I would wish her to learn from Primo Levi. Cruelty is one thing, but “There is no policy to exterminate the Palestinians.” And there’s an end of the trauma-for-trauma, Nazi analogy.

    Jacqueline Rose accuses me of fuelling antisemitism – as though antisemitism has ever run low on gas – by not acknowledging the “flagrant violations” of another people’s rights. I acknowledge them. I always have acknowledged them. I would tear the settlements down with my own hands had I power enough in them. Short of pursuing means bound to end in Israel’s dissolution – which could be a proviso we stumble over – there might be very little that Jacqueline Rose would do that I wouldn’t. And there is no reason for her to suppose that the dead of Gaza distress her any more than they distress me. Not being a Jew in a Caryl Churchill play, I do not laugh at the destruction of the lives of Palestinian children. The expression of violently anti-Israel sentiments does not give anyone a monopoly on outrage or compassion. Or indeed, on everyday unpitying respect. In my narrative, I honour Palestinians with an influential presence.

    Most English Jews of my acquaintance would welcome the opportunity to take issue with some, if not with all, Israeli policies, to express their own unease, and sometimes their own rage and horror, if only it were possible to do so in an atmosphere of even-handedness, without having to ally oneself with historians who think Israel began with Hitler, with supporters of Hamas and Hezbollah who call for an end to Israel and death to Jews, or with theoreticians of Jewish malignancy – where there is at least a glimmer of comprehension, in short, of the complex existential threats Israel has faced and goes on facing.

    Jacqueline Rose tells me I am out of step with Israel’s “most revered writers”. Who? Yehoshua, the great novelist, peace campaigner and Zionist – yes, such complexities are possible – who believes all Jews belong in Israel, not out of it? Amos Oz, who spoke in London the other day of the necessity for sharp criticism of his country’s policies – as sharp as we dare “without finger-wagging” – but for fellow feeling and “solidarity” with Israel as well, if we want it to survive? What sort of solidarity is it that paints Israeli Jews as Nazified race-supremacists and child murderers, glorying in destruction?

    Of the disorders that she believes to be the consequence of the Holocaust – and I use her language, not mine – here is one that Jacqueline Rose might not have considered: an irresistible, traumatised compulsion to speak ill of your own.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/feb/26/carylchurchill-antisemitism-jacqueline-rose

  5. “Yes, Jews who were oppressed came to Israel and formed the country, yes, some of their progeny have been involved in morally complicated and at times repulsive actions in Gaza.”

    Meaning what, there are over a dozen conflicts in the world today in which even more morally repulsive actions have taken place from Chechnya and the Sudan to Tibet and Sri Lanka. Yet no one has been writing plays about it and no one has tired to delegitimize the existence of those countries. Why is the Jewish State being judged by a different and higher moral standard?

    The idea that Jews should be perfect or else that have no right to a State of their own is morally reprehensible.

  6. I disagree Alain with your comments. I think that there should be and there are, plays being written about atrocities the world over. It is not just the situation in Gaza that has inspired artists. And how can you see no one as tried to ‘delegitimize the existence of those countries?’ isn’t that exactly what has happened to Tibet under Chinese rule?
    Israel is held to different standards because there are enough people who get angry one way or another when these discussions happen. If only we could get angry about every atrocity to make it all first page news. I hold Jews to a high standard because I am one. I hold America to a high standard because it is my country and I want it to be better. I hold everyone to a high standard because I want the world to be a better place.

  7. “Israel is held to different standards because there are enough people who get angry one way or another when these discussions happen.”

    Yes and many of these people are certified Jew haters like David Duke. Can’t lose sight of that, hanvnah!

    “If only we could get angry about every atrocity to make it all first page news.”

    Well, it’s not happening. What does happen is that many people for different reasons get angy at Jews and only at Jews. The fact that some Jews do to doesn’t change the fact that these reactions are often unthinking and antisemitic.

    ” I hold Jews to a high standard because I am one.”

    This is an excuse for scapegoating Jews. I hope you realize that.

    Holding multiple standards is also another way of claiming superiority to other people. Non Jews want thank you for that, believe me. They will read it as just another sign of ‘Jewish arrogance” or ‘Choseness.”

    “I hold America to a high standard because it is my country and I want it to be better.”

    I as an American don’t think of higher standards. I mostly want people and government to enforce its laws fairly. I can say this because I am an American. If I were French I would want the same there, but I am not.

    “I hold everyone to a high standard because I want the world to be a better place.”

    You can’t hold everyone to a higher standard, hnvnah, this is double talk.

    In any case, do you hold Hamas to a higher standard or to any standard at all? Have you read their covenant?

  8. J Street’s view of the play is solipsistic in as much as it believes that Jews, especially Zionists are the real obstacle to peace between Jews and Arabs.

    We can talk about this antisemitic play till we turn blue and nothing will change.

    We can blame ourselves about Hamas and nothing will change. We can abandon Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and antisemitism won’t change. In fact it will get as strong and as virulent as it was before 1948.

    Take Hamas (a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) for example. How many J Streeters have read their covenant?

    Here is what Shlomo Avinery the Israeli leftist philosopher has to say about them in Haaretz:

    “What to speak with Hamas about”
    By Shlomo Avineri

    “Recently, more and more voices have been heard saying that the only way to reach an Israeli-Palestinian accord is by talking to Hamas. These voices are not only in Europe but also in the United States. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, for example, and Brent Sowcroft, who was national security adviser to the first president Bush, have said that without a dialogue with Hamas there will be no peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And if Israel refuses to do so, the Europeans or the Americans should begin a dialogue with Hamas. …

    I believe they are right, but not for the reasons they cite. The question is what to talk to Hamas about. It is clear we have to talk with them – and Israel indeed does speak with them indirectly – about freeing kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit and achieving calm.

    I believe we must talk to Hamas about other things too, like about what is written in their founding covenant. Most Israelis, as well as the Europeans and Americans, know that Hamas espouses the destruction of Israel. What most of them do not know is that Hamas’ founding document includes a much more comprehensive attitude, not merely to Israel and Zionism, but to the Jews.

    The prologue to the covenant states that Hamas’ aim is a war – not against Israel or Zionism but against the Jewish people at large, since the Jews, and not merely Israel and Zionism, are the enemies of Islam.

    And in order to remove any doubt, the entire chapter 22 is devoted to detailing the iniquities of the Jews.

    According to Hamas, the Jews are responsible for all the ills of modern society – the French Revolution; the Communist revolution; the establishment of secret associations (Freemasons, Rotary and Lions clubs, B’nai B’rith) designed to help them gain control of the world by secret means. They control the economy, press and television; they are responsible for the outbreak of World War I, which they initiated in order to destroy the Muslim caliphates (the Ottoman empire), to get the Balfour Declaration and set up the League of Nations with the aim of establishing their state. They also initiated World War II in order to make a fortune from selling war materials; they use both capitalism and communism as their agents.

    Sound familiar? Yes, some of it is taken directly from “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and some, particularly the parts dealing with the world wars, is original.

    Don’t tell me that these are merely words and Hamas must not be judged only on the basis of its covenant. Would anyone dare say that if a similar movement were to arise in Europe or America and, in addition to statements like these, was busy killing Jews?”

    Read the rest for yourself here.

    http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/objects/pages/PrintArticleEn.jhtml?itemNo=1076694

    And by the way, if J Street wants to stage Churchill’s clearly antisemitic play, why not offer a reading of Hamas’ covenant. That should give us something to talk about as well. I don’t mean this ironically since Churchill’s play is just so much pretentious bile, while Hamas’ covenant is a call to action and we must familiarize ourselves with what it says.

    Forewarned is forearmed and the way to peace is through a thorough knowledge of what your enemy’s aims are. You can’t wish your way to peace.

  9. “I hold Jews to a high standard because I am one. I hold America to a high standard because it is my country and I want it to be better.”
    hanvnah

    Others feel that their higher standards which are different from yours are the correct ones.

    How do you know that your “higher” standards are the correct ones?

  10. To those who think that Hamas hates Jews because of Israel.

    “Egyptian cleric: The Jews “are enemies not because they occupied Palestine. They would have been enemies even if they did not occupy a thing.”

    “Egyptian Cleric Muhammad Hussein Ya’qoub: The Jews Are the Enemies of Muslims Regardless of the Occupation of Palestine,” from MEMRI TV, January 17 (just posted), with thanks to Sr. Soph:

    Following are excerpts from a speech delivered by Egyptian cleric Muhammad Hussein Ya’qoub, which aired on Al-Rahma TV on January 17, 2009.

    Muhammad Hussein Ya’qoub: If the Jews left Palestine to us, would we start loving them? Of course not. We will never love them. Absolutely not. The Jews are infidels – not because I say so, and not because they are killing Muslims, but because Allah said: “The Jews say that Uzair is the son of Allah, and the Christians say that Christ is the son of Allah. These are the words from their mouths. They imitate the sayings of the disbelievers before. May Allah fight them. How deluded they are.” It is Allah who said that they are infidels.”

    http://www.memritv.org/clip_transcript/en/2042.htm

Comments are closed.