Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, The Nation – 26 Mar 2009
Israel’s recent bombing and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, Operation Cast Lead, killed 1,417 Palestinians; thirteen Israelis were killed, five by friendly fire. Thousands of Palestinians were seriously wounded and left without adequate medical care, shelter or food. Among the Palestinian dead, more than 400 were children. In response to this devastation, Caryl Churchill wrote a play.
Churchill is one of the most important and influential playwrights living, the author of formally inventive, psychologically searing, politically and intellectually complex dramas, including Cloud Nine, Top Girls, Fen, Serious Money, Mad Forest and Far Away. To this body of work she’s now added the very brief (six pages, ten minutes long in performance) and very controversial Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza. The play ran for two weeks in February at London’s Royal Court Theatre and is being presented across the United States in cities such as New York (Theaters Against War and New York Theatre Workshop), Chicago (Rooms Productions), Washington (Theater J and Forum Theatre), Cambridge, Massachusetts (Cambridge Palestine Forum) and Los Angeles (Rude Guerrilla).
While some British critics greatly admired the play, which was presented by a Jewish director with a largely Jewish cast, a number of prominent British Jews denounced it as anti-Semitic. Some even accused Churchill of blood libel, of perpetrating in Seven Jewish Children the centuries-old lie, used to incite homicidal anti-Jewish violence, that Jews ritually murder non-Jewish children. A spokesman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews told the Jerusalem Post that the “horrifically anti-Israel” text went “beyond the boundaries of reasonable political discourse.”
We emphatically disagree. We think Churchill’s play should be seen and discussed as widely as possible.
Though you’d never guess from the descriptions offered by its detractors, the play is dense, beautiful, elusive and intentionally indeterminate. This is not to say that the play isn’t also direct and incendiary. It is. It’s disturbing, it’s provocative, but appropriately so, given the magnitude of the calamity it enfolds in its pages. Any play about the crisis in the Middle East that doesn’t arouse anger and distress has missed the point.
The now-rote hysteria with which non-Israeli criticism of Israel is met–most recently dismayingly effective in quashing Chas Freeman as President Obama’s nominee to chair the National Intelligence Council–has a considerable and ignoble record of stifling opinion and preventing unintimidated, meaningful discussion, in the cultural sphere as well as in the political. The power of art to open us to the subjectivities of others is especially threatening to those who insist on a single narrative. Hence efforts to shut down exhibitions of Palestinian art all over the country, most notoriously, perhaps, in 2006, when Brandeis University officials removed paintings by Palestinian teenagers from a campus library exhibit, “The Arts of Building Peace.”
Theater, arguably the most humanizing of art forms because it begins and ends with human presence, with an encounter between spectators and living actors, has often attracted the ire of people grimly determined to maintain the invisibility of others. It’s been twenty years since liberal stalwart Joe Papp caved to pressure and canceled appearances at the Public Theater of a visiting Palestinian troupe, El Hakawati. In the decades since, American discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has only become more vituperative and polarized, as the New York Theatre Workshop learned three years ago when it announced, and then retreated from, plans to present My Name Is Rachel Corrie.
With its title, its subject matter, its distillation of that subject matter, of a long, tangled, bloody and bitter history down to a few simple strokes, it’s hardly surprising that Churchill’s play has elicited outrage. The hostile reaction to Seven Jewish Children has been amplified by the context of a frightening wave of anti-Semitism in Britain and elsewhere, and exacerbated by the tendency to misread a multivocal, dialectical drama as a single-voiced political tract.
Even among those who are anguished and appalled at the catastrophe in Gaza and repulsed by the invective being hurled at Churchill, some are likely to be startled, if not to say troubled, by the play’s blunt assertion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a Jewish-Palestinian conflict. Even those familiar enough with Churchill’s work to recognize in Seven Jewish Children another installment in her recent move toward poetic compression–and Beckett proved how profound dramatic minimalism can be–may be taken aback by the play’s brevity, by the playwright’s implicit rejection of the idea that the situation in the Middle East is too complicated, too impacted, too needful of historical exegesis and balancing points of view to be responsibly explored at anything other than great length.
There are passages, particularly in an ugly monologue near the play’s conclusion, that are terribly painful to experience, especially for Jews.
It’s difficult to imagine that the author didn’t intend to court outrage, whether or not she anticipated its ferocity. This imputes nothing to Churchill of the mischievous or sensationalistic. Her play’s political ambitions are at least as important as its aesthetic ambitions. Moreover, it would be disingenuous and, in a sense, a betrayal of Seven Jewish Children to insist upon a calm, quiet reading or hearing free from the voluble passions it has enflamed. The fury that rises up around this conflict, and the cowed silence that is that fury’s inevitable concomitant, are simultaneously the object and subject of the play. It’s an incitement to speech and an examination of silence; in its content and through its inevitably controversial reception, it describes what can and cannot be said.
Why is the play so short? Probably because Churchill means to slap us out of our rehearsed arguments to look at the immediate human crisis. No wonder it smarts. The play dares reduce the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the kind of stinging simplicity of Neruda’s lines, “and through the streets the blood of children flowed easily/like the blood of children.”
Why does the title use “Jewish” rather than “Israeli”? Because all the children the play revolves around are Jewish, but not all are Israeli. And because not all Israelis are Jewish; a sizable minority is Arab. More important, because her play addresses the worldwide Jewish community. Our history of diaspora and persecution led to the founding of the State of Israel, which claims to act on behalf of all Jews. We have an impact upon its policies. Many Jews, including the two of us, feel profoundly connected to Israel and concerned for its fate; Seven Jewish Children is speaking to us.
Why does the play feel, even to those of us who admire its virtues, so peculiarly and, at times, almost brutally painful? It is an exigent text, a rapid public response to and at the moment of slaughter; and, remarkably, as few such texts are, it is contemplative, interior, almost entirely soft-spoken, and demanding.
The play consists of seven sequences, each composed of approximately twenty simple sentences, almost all of which begin with the words “Tell her” or “Don’t tell her.” There is no place-and-time setting specified for the sequences, and the lines are not assigned to specific characters. In fact, there isn’t a character list or even a suggested number of performers, and the text looks less like a play than the poem it also is. Nonetheless, it’s clear that these are discussions between the parents, adult relatives and guardians of a young girl, presumably a different little girl in each sequence, who the playwright specifies is not on stage, not seen. It’s also clear that the first of the seven sequences begins during the Holocaust; then the play moves successively to the founding of the State of Israel, the displacement of its Palestinian population and the intensification of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arriving, finally, in a very dark, very dangerous moment–probably, although this is not made explicit in the text, concurrent with the military operation and humanitarian disaster in Gaza that occasioned the play. All else–the cast’s size, gender, age (as long as all the players are adults) and ethnicity, as well as all staging choices–the playwright leaves to the director and actors.
The central issue being discussed, in each of the sequences, is what the little girl should or shouldn’t be told regarding her circumstances; the tenor of the debate changes as the circumstances change. In the first section, the child faces immediate danger of arrest and murder by the Nazis. Her survival requires that she have an awareness of the seriousness of her situation without being traumatized into paralysis or dissociation. The play begins:
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 it’s important to be quiet
Tell her she’ll have cake if she’s good
In the next sequence, which takes place sometime immediately post-Holocaust, telling or not telling revolves around questions of memory and mourning, of protecting a child from the emotional annihilation of a grief too weighty and of a knowledge of evil too imponderable for her youthful capacities.
Tell her this is a photograph of her grandmother, her uncles and me
Tell her her uncles died
Don’t tell her they were killed
Tell her they were killed
Don’t frighten her.
Tell her her grandmother was clever
Don’t tell her what they did
Tell her she was brave
Tell her she taught me how to make cakes
Don’t tell her what they did
Tell her something.
In subsequent sequences, what can and can’t be talked about are the anxieties of relocating (to pre-state Israel, although it isn’t named), then the presence and forcible displacement of others (the Palestinians, again not named), the roadblocks, the bulldozing of homes, water rights. There’s a shift at this point in the dialogue: the tension between assertions and their negation becomes tighter, more suggestive of conflict within the family or community, as the speakers struggle over how to deal with conflict from without.
Don’t tell her she can’t play with the children
Don’t tell her she can have them in the house
Tell her they have plenty of friends and family
Tell her for miles and miles all round they have lands of their own
Tell her again this is our promised land.
Don’t tell her they said it was a land without people
Don’t tell her I wouldn’t have come if I’d known.
Tell her maybe we can share.
Don’t tell her that.
Just before the play ends, the back-and-forth of the dialogue is stopped for the first time by a monologue. Though it’s ostensibly an answer to the question of what the girl can or can’t be told, that question becomes mere pretext for an explosion of rage, racism, militarism, tribalism and repellent indifference to the suffering of others. It’s important to note that this monologue is neither the last word in the play nor any kind of summation or harmonizing of the play’s disputatious voices. But it’s near enough to the end; and expansive as it is, after so much compression, it unavoidably feels like a dreadful conclusion; to some, it’s manifestly an indictment.
Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army. Tell her about the family of dead girls, tell her their names why not, tell her the whole world knows why shouldn’t she know? tell her there’s dead babies, did she see babies? tell her she’s got nothing to be ashamed of. 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. Tell her we’re the iron fist now, tell her it’s the fog of war, tell her we won’t stop killing them till we’re safe, tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen, tell her they’re animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out, the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I don’t care if the world hates us, tell her we’re better haters, tell her we’re chosen people, tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.
This monologue is the “proof text” for those who’ve charged Churchill with anti-Semitism and worse, with blood libel, which her accusers discern in the last lines of the speech.
When the two of us first discussed Seven Jewish Children we turned immediately to those lines. We both winced when we read them; we both became alarmed. One of us was disturbed by the line “tell her we’re better haters,” resonant of Shylock and Alberich the Nibelung. The other focused on “tell her we’re chosen people,” contending that in this context it reflected a misunderstanding of the term “chosen people,” casting Jewish chosen-ness as an expression of divine right and exceptionalism rather than of religious/ethical responsibility. We speculated that these two lines added fuel to the willful misreading as blood libel of the lines that follow: “tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.” Those who level the blood-libel accusation insist that Churchill has written “tell her I’m happy when I see their children covered in blood.”
But that is not what Churchill wrote. Distortion, misrepresentation and name-calling are tactics familiar to anyone who’s spoken out about the Middle East. There’s no blood libel in the play. The last line of the monologue is clearly a warning: you can’t protect your children by being indifferent to the children of others.
There’s a vast difference between making your audience uncomfortable and being anti-Semitic. To see anti-Semitism here is to construe erroneously the words spoken by the worst of Churchill’s characters as a statement from the playwright about all Jews as preternaturally filled with a viciousness unique among humankind. But to do this is, again, to distort what Churchill wrote. The monologue belongs to and emerges from a particular dramatic action that makes the eruption inevitable and horrifying.
The play traces the processes of repressed speech. The violence forcing that repression comes initially from without; the monologue gives voice to a violence that’s moved inside. The play stages the return of the repressed, an explosion of threatened defensiveness that, unexpressed and unowned, has turned into rage. Encountering it is terrifying; we don’t want to own it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t recognize it. And sad to say, there’s no sentiment in the monologue’s spew that we have not heard or read at some point from presumed “defenders” of Israel (as even a cursory survey of the Internet demonstrates: for example, the chilling story in the March 20 Ha’aretz about some Israeli army units making T-shirts celebrating civilian casualties and rape in Gaza).
The siege of Gaza over the past several years, which nearly starved a high proportion of the population, was unconscionable in humanitarian terms, but an even worse corner was turned this past winter. A placard at a peace-movement demonstration in Tel Aviv in January proclaimed, Slaughter Is Not Security. Apart from some brave thousands who took to the Israeli streets throughout the weeks of Operation Cast Lead, a large majority of Israelis–and their supporters in America–were convinced that the carnage was, indeed, justified as defense. Some even boasted about it. In America’s weekly Jewish newspaper, the Forward, the president of the Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, in an op-ed defending the Gaza invasion, disparaged more hawkish Israel supporters for “the obscene, cowboy-like delight” in “the damage Israel’s army is able to inflict.” But even when softened into Yoffie’s remorseful notion of the Gaza offensive as a “tragic necessity, unwelcome but inevitable,” the justification amounts to the same thing: better them than us. Such dehumanizing rhetoric is common in mainstream Jewish-American and Israeli discourse (and, in fact, in all military conflicts). Churchill, a non-Jew, had the chutzpah to strip that rhetoric of its hangdog, contrite camouflage and reflect it back to us: “tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.”
That hideous sentiment, however, is not the play’s final word. There are three more lines:
Don’t tell her that.
Tell her we love her.
Don’t frighten her.
A playwright’s presumptuous job is to imagine others, and the others Churchill has imagined in this play are Jews. If there’s anger in the writing, there’s also empathy, tenderness and intimacy. Nothing is more intimate than discussions between parents about what to tell their children; no act of speech is more carefully weighed or more fiercely protected. This is a family play, told from within the family. It concludes with love, and it concludes with fear.
Seven Jewish Children is a play. It must be read with an awareness of the incompleteness of plays on paper, destined as they are for collective rather than singular experience, for warm bodies speaking the lines, for empathy, for the variability of interpretation. All plays require that directors and actors make considered choices. Performance produces meaning. If an actor stresses “tell” in the line “Don’t tell her that,” it might suggest, That’s true, but don’t let her know. But if “that” is emphasized, it might mean, How can you even think such an outrageous thing? And much will depend on how the actor strikes the first word, “Don’t”–collegially or adversarially.
Churchill ups the interpretive ante by leaving everything, beyond the lines themselves, to her interpreters. The monologue and the lines that follow it will carry different meanings if spoken, say, by a grandmother with a Yiddish accent or by a young man in an Israeli army uniform. Or by, say, a Korean-American man or a Chicana. Or, since the play is so short and could be watched three or four times in a row, with the lines spoken each time by different actors. Any director and company approaching the play will have to decide whether and how the audience will be made aware of the radical degree to which the written text has insisted, through its lack of character identification or stage action, on collaboration. Surely it’s essential to understanding Seven Jewish Children that against the specifics of the script, the playwright, relinquishing nearly all traditional authorial control, engineers a far-greater-than-usual slippage among text and performance and audience reception, producing an unusually large amount of room for variant readings.
And it is perhaps only on stage that the central characters of the play come into their own: the eponymous seven Jewish children who are its heroines. We never see them. Our empathic imaginations are enlisted by the playwright. We have to conjure them.
In the opening scene of Churchill’s Far Away, a girl asks her aunt about beatings she’s seen her uncle commit. What’s most terrifying is how easily the aunt placates, justifies and quells her niece’s will to question. But in Churchill’s play for Gaza, the girls never stop asking.
This is a powerful trope in Jewish culture; it’s the questioning child around whom the Passover Seder is built. We’re left to hope that this girl we’ve never seen, the last scene’s girl, won’t become one of the Israeli teenagers who recently gave the truly frightening Avigdor Lieberman the highest share of the votes in a high school election poll. Perhaps she’s a pain in the ass, this girl; perhaps she’ll keep questioning. Perhaps she refuses to succumb to those in her family whose loving desire is to protect her by not speaking, by not saying. Perhaps she’s realizing that their repression of the truth has become not only misguided and immoral but fatal; for nothing survives on lies, on a denial of reality; eventually, reality wins. Perhaps she’s found out about a relative of hers, mentioned earlier: “Don’t tell her her cousin refused to serve in the army.”
Perhaps this girl will grow up to work for justice.
Tony Kushner is a playwright whose most recent work is Homebody/Kabul.
Alisa Solomon teaches at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and is the author of Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender.