Jeffrey Goldberg and Ari Roth duked out Caryl Churchill’s "Seven Jewish Children" at Goldberg’s blog this week.
I went into the extended exchange expecting to agree with Goldberg’s assessment that Churchill was a "fetid Jew-baiter" … and left thinking exactly that. But also that, on a more essential level, Goldberg is wrong and Roth is right. Roth’s decision to deal with the play is a better Jewish choice than Goldberg’s insistence on ignoring it.
Goldberg calls his exchange with Roth "bizarre and sometimes-entertaining" (maybe Roth should stage it?) but it is also insightful, and it says a lot about where real Jewish self-confidence can take you.
Roth has taken some flack for bringing the play to Theatre J, the Washington JCC’s theater. It has been pilloried as a 21st century blood libel, most eloquently by Howard Jacobson in The Independent, after the ten-minute playlet sparked by Churchill’s outrage over Israel’s actions during the Gaza war began showing in London.
Goldberg links to a full script of the play, and I must admit, it is not as reductive as Jacobson and others have portrayed … which makes it more insidious.
This is because Churchill captures well the difficulties of how difficult it is to explain to Israeli children why they live one way and Palestinians live another. Her critics have tended to ignore how the Jewish voices in the play veer from sympathy for the Palestinians to anger at the violence visited upon Israelis:
Don’t tell her they set off bombs in cafes
Tell her, tell her they set off bombs in cafes
Tell her to be careful
Don’t frighten her.
Tell her we need the wall to keep us safe
Tell her they want to drive us into the sea
Tell her they don’t
Tell her they want to drive us into the sea.
Tell her we kill far more of them
Don’t tell her that
Tell her that
In 76 words she captures a 1,000 ambivalent conversations I have had, I have heard.
She has a fine ear. But the overall arc of her play evolves from a Jewish child in hiding during the Holocaust, to a parent reacting to an image of a Palestinian child covered in blood. From:
Tell her she can make them go away if she keeps still
But not to sing.
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 cant talk suffering to us. Tell her we’re the iron fist now, tell her it’s the fog of war, tell her we wont 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.
There are three obvious anti-Israel and anti-Semitic "tells" here:
First, this arc, irreducibly, equates Israel’s action in Gaza with the Holocaust.
Second, "the chosen people." Such a flag. It’s become the easiest way to objectify Jews: "They think they’re ‘chosen,’ we choose to out them." Newsflash: In our daily dealings, when we eat, go to the movies, make love, buy a pizza, take a crap, start a war, we don’t consider ourselves "chosen," even when we contemplate what choice is Jewish and what isn’t. The word simultaneously signals a difficult, thorny theology and a broad joke, but it doesn’t guide our every thought. Really. We go to war because we think others want to kill us. Maybe we’re wrong. But it’s the same as everyone else. Geez.
Finally, the title: Seven "Jewish" children. Not so much because it visits the decisions of a government elected by a majority of Israelis upon all Jews everywhere, but because it suggests that the choice Churchill imagines that we take, to lash out, to kill, is somehow inherently Jewish.
But there’s a subtler and even more insidious reduction here: The Jewish girl in the opening — the one in hiding — is an icon, a cartoon of Jewish suffering. She sings! She likes magic! Fellow Moms and Dads: How many real children spontaneously burst into song during crises? I thought so.
By contrast, the Palestinian child covered in blood is immediate and real, based on real photos, preceded by the only passage written in actual dialogue, not verse, and packed with references to real events: The "family of dead girls," the "dead policemen."
Dead Jews are comfortably a myth. Dead Palestinians are, discomfitingly, not. This is not Holocaust reduction, it’s Holocaust denial.
As Goldberg says:
She’s trying to close a circle. "Once the Jews were oppressed, now they are the oppressors." That’s her story of Jewish people. Oh, what a tragedy. It’s easy, it’s smug, it’s fetid.
She has a pornographic interest in Jewish immorality.
But here’s what Roth says:
This is play written with extraordinary precision. She wrote a play that arrested my attention. And it has a problem title. I hate the title. It is a problem place where it ends, but it is subject to an incredible amount of interpretation. It’s written with multiple characters. People argue with each other. It’s not written as a diatribe. And so you have to allow for the art form of theater to have its way with her text. That is what’s going to happen, that’s what’s happening in this rehearsal room. I struggle with the play. God bless me. I’m a struggling Jew.
Theater is not necessarily a validation of the writer’s perspective; it is an engagement with it. A good performance disputes the text. Goldberg mocks Roth’s insistence that he is "investigating" the play, not "endorsing" it, but that’s exactly the process. And it doesn’t work with poor texts, with the cheapest propaganda. Henry Irving could not have extracted a sympathetic Jew from the Oberammergau, but he succeeded in adding nuance to Shylock because he could detect Shakespeare’s arguments with himself.
The best performance art subverts the text. I showed my kids "The Searchers" the other day (over my wife’s initial objections) because John Ford and John Wayne extract from the conventional western narrative an indictment of American triumphalism. (Yes, I hit the pause button a lot to explain, and I’m probably a candidate for most annoying Dad…)
America was confident enough in the 1950s to take on its myths, and we should have the confidence to take on ours.
Toward the end, Goldberg says Roth has made himself the "useful Jew" (useful to anti-Semites) and defends himself — through his own writings critical of Israel’s settlement policies — as a "self-critical Jew."
This tic, this self-labeling, is not where we should be now (it may be where we’re at, mind you, but I can hope). It’s a sign of moral queasiness, an odd bow and scrape ("I self criticize, therefore I self-validate"). It’s not necessary.
As Roth puts it:
I wonder whether you’re entirely right about the character of Jews today. And whether we are as self-flagellating as you think.
Maybe Roth’s an optimist. Or delusional. As in, you don’t have to be delusional to make a Jewish argument, but it helps.
But I can’t disagree with his deicsion to co-opt Churchill’s hatred and make it into something … Jewish.
(Full disclosure: For a few years, Roth ran a "Five-by-five" program in which he invited local writers to respond to performances with their own five-minute playlets. He and his then
artistic literary director, Hannah Hessel, flattered me by staging a few of my responsa. That led me to dump a couple of full-length plays (did I mention delusional?) on their doorstep; these were rejected.)