You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Israel Critics Take Center Stage

Oren Safdie is a California-based playwright and screenwriter.

Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza caused much controversy last month when it ran at the Royal Court Theater in London. The 10-minute play evolves in seven short monologues--dating from the Holocaust to present day Israel--where Israeli parents, grandparents and other relatives ponder out loud what to tell (or not tell) their children about their history, their country, and finally what they've become. Whereas, at the start, Jews are portrayed as victims of the Nazis, by the end they've evolved into the oppressors who righteously take pride in killing Arab children. Many inside--as well as outside--the Jewish community were outraged at the portrayal of Israelis as bloodthirsty militants. Jonathan Hoffman, a vice chairman of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, called the play "a libelous and despicable demonisation of Israeli parents and grandparents which will only stoke the fires of anti-Semitism."

Christopher Hart summarizes the play in his Times Of London review:

We all agree, I think, that the scenes coming from Gaza are not good. But the enormously complex reasons for such horrors are not considered here. Instead, Churchill comes across like a very minor Old Testament prophet, bewailing the Wickedness of my people Israel (Jeremiah 7:12). And the final lines, delivered by an Israeli in full rant, about how the Palestinians are "animals", how he wants to see their children "covered in blood", are simply outrageous.

But the most troubling aspect isn't that it was staged at The Royal Court Theatre in London--something to be expected--but the rush by certain "progressive" members of the Jewish community in the United States to present and discuss the play, perhaps in an effort to demonstrate how open-minded they are. Ari Roth at Theatre J in Washington DC and The New York Theatre Workshop in New York, with the participation of Tony Kushner, simultaneously announced public readings of the play--even in the face of the BBC recently declining to broadcast the play on grounds that it needed to remain impartial. "I think it would be nearly impossible to run a drama that counters Caryl Churchill's view," added Jeremy Howe, Radio 4's drama commissioning editor.

Both theatres have said that it is in their interest to present this reading so that it can lead to further discussion. But what exactly is there to discuss? I would think that a play that simplifies a multifaceted conflict, and strips it of any larger context, only does the opposite. In fact, the theatre's decision to present the play has usurped the play itself as the central object of debate. 

In the case of the New York Theatre Workshop, their decision may be an effort to compensate for a decision three years ago not to present My Name is Rachel Corrie, another play unabashedly critical of Israel. On each of the three nights that Seven Jewish Children was presented, the panelists who led the follow-up discussions--Laura Flanders (Wednesday, March 25), Kushner and Alisa Solomon (Thursday, March 26), and Mark Crispin Miller (Friday, March 27)--are known critics of Israel's military actions in the territories. If NYTW were really interested in "discussion," as the panels are billed on its website, wouldn't they invite someone from the Israeli consulate to participate in one of them? I'm sure Ed Koch was available. Although, to be fair, I'm not sure anyone with an opposing view would want their names associated with the event.

In the case of Theatre J--known in the theatre world as the most distinguished Jewish voice--Roth seems to be trying to demonstrate how "open" his theatre is by presenting a work critical of Israel. But Roth should ask himself if he would ever present a play with a similarly one-sided view against Arabs. (Perhaps he should have presented a screening of Dutch politician Geert Wilders's film Fitna following the reading of Churchill's play.)

The participants and presenters of this play can hide behind their lofty principles of freedom of expression and the need for further dialogue, but their support of this project says more about their own relationship to Israel than anything Churchill's play has to offer. 

--Oren Safdie