Seven Other Children – John Nathan’s Review

This review, by John Nathan, is from the Jewish Chronicle.

Actor and playwright Richard Stirling’s 10-minute theatrical response holds up a mirror to the 10-minutes of Caryl Churchill’s now famous, some would say infamous, Seven Jewish Children.

Stirling’s play, directed by Simone Vause, reflects much of the structure, speech patterns and rhythms of the piece that caused so much controversy when it was staged by the Royal Court in London in February (I myself regarded Seven Jewish Children as antisemitic). And, like any reflective surface, it gives a reversed image of the original.

As with Churchill’s play at the Royal Court, this work is performed by nine actors and each scene is set within a period of modern history. But whereas the original begins with the Holocaust and ends with Israel’s attack on Gaza last year, Stirling’s timespan is between 1947 and the present day.

The perspective, however, is Palestinian, not Jewish. This time it is Palestinian adults who thrash out what version of the truth about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict should be revealed to an unseen child.

And this time, the child is a Palestinian “him” rather than a Jewish “her”. As a result, the repeated refrain is “Ask him…” as opposed to Churchill’s “Tell her…”

Stirling, who is not Jewish, has said that the focus of his riposte to Churchill’s work is the “distorted education of many Palestinians about Israel, Israelis and Jews”.

“Ask him if he understands the Naqba” (the Arab word for the “disaster” of Israel’s establishment), says one adult in his play. “Ask him what they do with children’s blood,” asks another.

Where education becomes propaganda and where propaganda becomes a downright lie is a worthy subject for any drama about the Middle East. And I understand Stirling’s motivation to respond to Churchill with a play in kind.

But the danger of holding a mirror up to a work whose content you find offensive, is that you end up replicating distortions rather than opposing them.

And if one of my complaints about Churchill’s play was that the playwright, a non-Jew, implicated all Jews in her criticism of Israel, then the same point must surely apply to Stirling, a non-Palestinian whose play, it would appear, represents the attitudes of all Palestinians, even though Palestinians are conspicuously absent from his title.

One member of the audience suggested to me that the two pieces should be staged together, which might raise the level of the debate. But it appears that debate is not the Royal Court’s priority.

Before Stirling’s piece was performed, the cast read out his letter of complaint about Churchill’s play sent to the Royal Court’s artistic director Dominic Cooke. But permission to read Cooke’s reply has been withheld by the Royal Court, with a threat that it would sue.

Ridiculous.

This review, by John Nathan, is from the Jewish Chronicle.

Book Review: Perry and Schweitzer, ‘Antisemitic myths: a historical and contemporary anthology’ – David Hirsh

Antisemitic mythsThis Review is from Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol. 32 No. 4 May 2009 pp. 749-750

Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer, ANTISEMITIC MYTHS: A HISTORICAL AND CONTEMPORARY ANTHOLOGY, 2008, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 384 pp., $24.95 (pb).

To subvert the Queen’s Christmas Message to her subjects this year, Channel 4 Television hosts, unchallenged, Holocaust denier and antisemite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, so its viewers can benefit from hearing his ‘alternative world view’. A friend in South America emails this New Year: ‘Today there’s a big banner just outside my place (very central location, as you remember) by the Communist Party saying ‘‘Israel the Nazis of the Middle East’’ and showing the Israeli flag with a swastika inside the Magen David . . . made me tremble, to be honest.’

The children and grandchildren of the Jews who fled to Israel from anti-Jewish racism in Europe, in the Middle East and in Russia have not yet found peace and neither has the antisemitism from which they fled been defeated. Israelis act and they interact with their neighbours; wisely and stupidly, aggressively and defensively, employing racist ways of thinking and antiracist ways of thinking.

When Jews act in the world their actions are often understood within antisemitic discourse and are often narrated using antisemitic language, but these processes are not usually conscious and are not usually clearly understood. Even many antiracists are only dimly aware of the nature of the rich resources of antisemitic assumption, trope and image which lie deep in the cultural unconscious and which sometimes shape the way that they themselves think about actually existing Jews who act in the world.

It is for this reason particularly that the material presented by editors Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer in Antisemitic Myths: A Historical and Contemporary Anthology is important. ‘The Jewish Question’ is again high on the agenda, is a live issue, for much respectable, intellectual and anti-bourgeois thought, although it is not at the moment so important in mass culture. ‘The Jews’ are thought to have thrown their lot in with imperialism in the Middle East, to have succeeded in joining a white ‘Judeo-Christian’ elite in America and to have dodged the line of racist fire in Europe by constructing Muslims as the ‘new Jews’. The Holocaust piety of the 1990s is being smashed up by the taboo-breaking excitement of Holocaust blasphemy. Constructions of ‘the Jews’ in terms of ultimate morality or absolute victimhood are being replaced by more apparently radical ones. It again appears to be respectable to think of ‘the Jews’ as powerful, secretly cohesive, disproportionately influential and susceptible to the temptation of committing cold-blooded acts of childkilling.

Perry and Schweitzer offer us a compilation of Jew-hatred’s greatest hits across the centuries. They give us extracts from texts demonstrating Christian demonization of Jews and blood libel; Jewish responsibility for Plague and how the Jews were expelled from Spain; from Martin Luther to Voltaire, the Catholic Church to Marx, the Dreyfuss affair to the pogroms, conspiracy theory to the Holocaust, Soviet antisemitism to Islamist and African American antisemitism.

This is material that every antiracist should know. This is material that everybody who wants to talk about Israel and Palestine should understand. This is material with which anybody who wants to be able to judge whether or not a contemporary text is antisemitic needs to be familiar.

Yet I fear that the material is presented in this ‘anthology’ in a form which is as likely to repel as to absorb contemporary antiracists. This is not only because today’s anti-Zionist Zeitgeist contains within itself a significant degree of auto-immunity against a serious consideration of antisemitism. It is also because the book is constructed within a political and sociological framework which is not going to be able to educate a new generation of antiracist activists and scholars on the nature and history of antisemitic mystification.

The book presents antisemitism less as a racism alongside other racisms and more as an ahistorical and unchanging fact of human history. While the aim of the work is not to offer a sociological or historical account of the causes and natures of distinct manifestations of Jewhatred in different times and different places, it is not as concerned as it might be to problematize similarities and differences or to grapple with the complexity of geographical and historical contingencies. The material seems to respond to the characteristically antisemitic view which positions ‘the Jews’ at the centre of world history by attempting to thrust instead the antisemite into that pre-eminent position. It offers little explanation as to why and how the central themes of Jew-hatred reappear and reinvent themselves in radically different times, contexts and places.

Perry and Schweitzer repeat a standard misreading of Marx’s On the Jewish Question, arguing that Marx was an antisemite, and in doing so they miss a key wider point of which Marx himself was acutely aware. Antisemitism is not only bad for Jews but when it is found within radical thought it is also an indicator of a wider sickness. In my view antisemitism is to be found, now hidden, now less so, as a potentiality within much contemporary antihegemonic, radical, liberal and socialist commonsense, and its presence there should be taken seriously by those of us for whom such political movements are important.

It is because antisemitism is a live and virulent threat that sociologically and politically sophisticated engagement with it is required. This book offers much necessary material but it does so within a framework which will not help to regenerate radical thought as much as it could do.

©  2009 David Hirsh Lecturer in Sociology Goldsmiths, University of London

This Review is from Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol. 32 No. 4 May 2009 pp. 749-750

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