I went to hear a reading of acclaimed British playwright Caryl Churchill's hyper-controversial "Seven Jewish Children - a play for Gaza". It was presented by the ever adventurous New York Theatre Workshop at its cavernous East 4th Street theater. The actual reading - which lasted barely eight minutes - was extremely well done and was followed by a lively audience participation- discussion hosted the night I attended by literary luminary Mark Crispin Miller. For the most part, the audience discussion was more than civil - and given the number of would be playwrights present and eager to talk about themselves, at times slightly boring.
So what's the big stink? It's in the very nature and tone of Ms Churchill's latest creation, a blatant attempt to use drama to spew forth her own very one sided, super narrow Mideast political perspective and then call it "art".
Churchill has never made a secret of where she stands on the Mideast conflict. She is vocally, ardently pro-Palestinian and decidedly anti-Israeli (or as one of the theater's spokespeople told me "she's really just anti-Zionist" -- as if that made it kosher). Her new play consists of a supposed stream of consciousness dialogue among a handful of fictional Jewish and then Israeli parents who debate just what to tell or not tell a little Jewish girl at various moments of modern Jewish history - from Nazi pogroms to Israel's birth to the recent battles in Gaza. The moment the abbreviated time span reaches the beginnings of a reborn Jewish state, the characters become increasingly repulsive, boorish interlopers. The final lines of the Gaza war mini-sequence contain Churchill's ultimate punches. As she portrays it, the once oppressed have become the true oppressors, the once weak are now the super strong, the "chosen people" as they refer to themselves, are bloodthirsty by choice, immoral haters, merciless.
"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....'
Churchill's defenders see her mini-play (really more of a poem) as legitimate theater, the political drama of a playwright entitled to a singular perspective. Others. Like The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg see "Seven Jewish Children" as little more than agit-prop with some decidedly dangerous echoes of classic anti-Semitic blood-libel. I'd agree with Goldberg.
In fact, while it is arguably political drama, I am puzzled how anyone would see it as pure art - especially when it deals with so complicated an issue as the Mideast conflict.
Indeed, why choose to comment on this most recent phase of the decades old conflict by restricting it to a supposed discussion between Jewish/Israeli parents, especially repulsive one who are far from representative of Israeli parents who generally preach peace to their children - not war.
More to the point, why examine the Gaza battles and totally ignore the supposed thoughts of Palestinian Gaza parents who allow their children to be systematically taught to hate Christians as well as Jews, whose children are told that there must never, ever be peace with Israelis, whose children are exhorted from toddlership that there is no higher Palestinian goal than to strap an explosive belt around one's waist and then venture forth to murder as many Jewish men, women and children as possible.
The answer is because Ms Churchill, like her Hamas friends, is not interested in promoting true Mideast peace. I don't believe she's even that interested in defending all those hapless Palestinians she claims to identify with (she has forfeited any claim to royalties for this play in exchange for audience contributions to Palestinian medical welfare).
What interests her most, like a dangerously increasing number of left wing Britons, is to strike out at Israelis and Israeli actions, and in doing so to question the Jewish state's very validity. In the end, Churchill has produced a let's-hate-the-Israelis piece of political propaganda disguised as avant-garde drama.
Her work is a sad reflection of a growing tendency among "progressive intellectuals" here as well as abroad not merely to criticize specific Israeli government policies - their perfect right, even obligation - but to openly challenge Israel as such, to challenge its very right to exist as a Jewish state more than 60 years after its renaissance was ratified by the vast majority of the family of nations.
Indeed, it is increasingly chic in supposedly intellectual circles to claim "I'm not anti-Semitic, I'm merely anti-Zionist".
If that means "I disagree with certain Israeli government policies" - than calling oneself "an anti-Zionist", is a dangerous misnomer. Lord knows most of the people of Zionist Israel sharply disagree with their government's policies at one time or another. However, if by "anti-Zionist" one questions Israel's very legality, then this Zionist would argue the term is nothing more than a camouflage for anti-Semitism: it is denying to Jews the right that all nations have to a home on their ancestral land, even if, as in the case of Israel, they must share that land with another people that clearly doesn't want to share it.
Like so many who now proudly define themselves as "anti-Zionists", Caryl Churchill simply loves to hate Israel. And that isn't art.