When the CST say “Seven Jewish Children” is antisemitic, it is time to take the charge seriously

The Community Security Trust (CST) is a serious organisation.  It organises security for the Jewish community.  When you see security people standing outside synagogues or outside other Jewish events, they are CST volunteers.  They are well trained and they do a good job.  Only the most convinced antisemitism-denying antizionists would claim that there is no need for security outside Jewish communal events.   The CST keeps an eye on antisemitic behaviour and discourse in Britain and it collates information on antisemitic incidents.  The CST works closely with the police and it trains law-enforcement and communal agencies around the world in best practice.

The CST is an official, sober, experienced and serious organization, with roots in all parts of the Jewish community in Britain.  It is not a politically motivated organization – it is at the forefront of British Jews’ collective response to antisemitism.

When Dave Rich and Mark Gardner of the CST say that Caryl Churchill’s play “Seven Jewish Children” is antisemitic, and when they carefully explain why, people should take them seriously.   They don’t have to agree.  But to dismiss such criticism as dishonest pro-Israeli propaganda will not do.  Such a response exacerbates the antisemitism of which they are accused, it does not address it.

This piece, by Dave Rich and Mark Gardner, is from Comment is Free.

The Jewish festival of Passover celebrates the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the land of Israel. The festival begins with the seder, when Jewish families gather around the dining table and the story is retold by the adults to the children, who are encouraged to ask questions throughout.

There is a moment in the seder when the whole family recount the names of the ten plagues visited upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. As each plague is named, all present dip their finger into red wine – unmistakably reminiscent of blood – and spill a drop onto their plate. The Guardian chose a photograph of this scene to illustrate its online production of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children.

The association of blood with Jews is a well-established antisemitic tradition. It is embodied in the blood libel charge, which first appeared in 12th-century England and quickly spread. The accusation was that Jews murder non-Jewish children to use their blood in religious rituals, especially at Passover. Ironically, when Jews spill their wine at the seder, it is to remember with sadness the pain of the Egyptians, not to celebrate their loss. Nevertheless, so many Jews died in blood libel massacres at Passover, that a rabbi in 17th-century Poland ruled that Jews could use white wine, not red, during the seder, lest antisemites mistake the red wine for Christian blood.

Seven Jewish Children is not a play about Israel. It was written by Churchill as a “response to the situation in Gaza in January 2009”, but it is a play explicitly about Jews. Her response to Gaza is to accuse Jews of having undergone a pathological transformation from victims to oppressors. The play comprises seven brief scenes, of which the first two are generally taken to represent the Holocaust, or perhaps pogroms during an earlier period of antisemitic agitation; in other words, they take place in Europe, before Israel even existed. It is Jewish thought and behaviour that links the play together, not Israel. The words Israel, Israelis, Zionism and Zionist are not mentioned once in the play, while Jews are mentioned in the title and in the text itself. We are often told that when people talk about Israel or Zionists, it is mischievous to accuse them of meaning Jews. Now, we are expected to imagine that a play that talks only of Jews, in fact, means Israelis.

In the first two scenes, it is Jewish “uncles” and “grandmother” who are killed, despite approximately one and a half million Jewish children having perished in the Holocaust. Whereas it is elderly Jews who are killed, the Jews’ victims are overwhelmingly depicted as children: there are two mentions of dead adults, namely “Hamas fighters” and “policemen”, but seven of dead children: “the boy”, “the family of dead girls”, “babies” and “their children covered in blood”. The play lands its blows in the final two scenes, culminating in a monologue of genocidal racist hatred: “they’re animals … I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out … we’re chosen people.”

A spokesman for the Royal Court Theatre, where the play was first performed, defended it with the formulaic argument that:

“While Seven Jewish Children is undoubtedly critical of the policies of the state of Israel, there is no suggestion that this should be read as a criticism of Jewish people. It is possible to criticise the actions of Israel without being antisemitic.”

The anti-Zionist conceit that, as long as you are talking about Israel, you can say whatever you want about Jews, is laid bare here. It is not even possible to discuss whether or where this play crosses a line from criticism of Israel into antisemitism, because the play does not present us with a specific criticism of an Israeli policy or action. The Guardian’s illustration of a Jewish family seder table is far more appropriate than a photograph of the Israeli cabinet table would ever have been.

The dishonesty and amorality of the adult voices in Seven Jewish Children is striking. Nowhere are right and wrong considered, when deciding how to answer their children’s questions. Never does an adult in the play consider whether their suggested answer is true or not, nor whether this should have any bearing on which answer is given. Their only thought is which answers will best shield Jewish children from difficult moral questions. It is as if Jewish children are brought up in a moral vacuum, with Jewish power and vulnerability the only things that matter.

Michael Billington, the Guardian’s theatre critic, noted that the play “shows us how Jewish children are bred to believe in the ‘otherness’ of Palestinians”. Howard Jacobson described this as an example of “how easily language can sleepwalk us into bigotry.”

Billington’s use of the word “bred” should have shaken Guardian readers and editors from their slumber. After all, if used in connection with black or Muslim children, then the racism alarms would sound loud and clear. In fact, wittingly or not, Billington used exactly the right language to describe the message of Seven Jewish Children.

The original text of the play (pdf) does not specify the actual number of actors, nor who speaks which lines. There are no distinct characters: any Jew can speak any of the lines, in combination with any of the other lines, without distorting the narrative. This homogenising is bad enough, but the Guardian’s production goes a step further. By presenting the play with just a single performer, speaking every Jewish voice in each time and place, the Guardian distils the play into an internal conversation inside the head of every Jew – the increasingly manic neuroses of a screwed-up people.

Howard Jacobson identified this as “a fine piece of fashionable psychobabble that understands Zionism as the collective nervous breakdown of the Jewish people”. All the “tell her/don’t tell her” answers in the play are really attempts to answer one simple question: what do those Jews learn as children that they behave like this as adults? The end result of this “psychobabble” is to slander Jews as being psychologically compelled to become the new Nazis. Not so much a blood libel perhaps, but certainly a deadly new libel for a new millennium.

In the play’s concluding monologue, presumably set during the Gaza conflict, the Jewish speaker declares: “… 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.” What are we to make of the “all” in that sentence? This nameless Jew, seemingly representing any and every Jew, who cannot escape the pain of the Holocaust and the shame of Gaza, can now feel nothing for the other, dead, non-Jewish child, covered in its own blood.

Jews, children, blood and, for the Guardian at least, the Passover seder: this mixture has a murderous antisemitic past. The virus of antisemitism is easily transmitted by those who are not aware they are carrying it. Churchill almost certainly does not intend it, but her play culminates in powerful antisemitic resonances. The Guardian’s online production further amplifies them. People sometimes ask when does anti-Zionism become antisemitism. Here is a rule of thumb: when people describe Israel with the same language and imagery that antisemites use to talk about Jews, the difference between the two disappears.

Dave Rich and Mark Gardner work for Community Security Trust, a charity that monitors antisemitism and provides security for the UK Jewish community

This piece, by Dave Rich and Mark Gardner, is from Comment is Free.

“Antiracists” think Ahmadinejad was right

“…Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s UN speech on 21 April struck many as obnoxious, but in terms of understanding the 1948 roots of the Middle East conflict he was spot on. Vilifying him may feel good, but it is a diversion form the real issue.”

Ghada Karmi, Author, Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine

“However we may deplore the tone of President Ahmadinejad’s speech at the UN conference on racism, it is difficult to deny the principal facts that he presented…”

Geoff Simons, Author, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine

Karmi thinks Ahmadinejad was “spot on” in his understanding of the roots of the Middle East conflict.

Simons agrees with the “principal facts” that he presented.

Neither stops to wonder why it is they agree with a genocidal anti-Jewish racist on the central question concerning Jews in the contemporary world.  Perhaps it is just a coincidence?  A stopped clock is right twice a day?

But perhaps there are other lessons to be learnt from the fact that they agree with Ahmadinejad.

And why is the Guardian printing this support for the understanding and analysis of the world’s most powerful antisemite on its letters page?

If people don’t understand what is racist about holocaust denial then they should make use of Deborah Lipstadt’s magnificent website, which is an excellent resource, Holocaust Denial On Trial.  http://www.hdot.org/

Holocaust denial is antisemitic firstly because denial was part of the crime itself.  Those who were murdered were told that nobody would ever believe that this happened and that nobody would ever know that they even existed.  Denial is not a response to the Holocaust but it is part of the Holocaust.

Secondly because Holocaust denial necessarily assumes that the Jews are sufficiently powerful and sufficiently evil to have invented such a horrible lie and to have made believing it a precondition for acceptability in public life.  It is antisemitic conspiracy theory.

John Strawson

John Strawson

UPDATE – John Strawson adds:

Karmi and Simons rely on ignorance of history  in order to make their case: a case that Ahmadnejad is able to trade on.

“Their” history is that Western guilt for the Holocaust meant that the Jews were given Palestine in order to make amends.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Reading the United Nations documents that led to the partition plan – debate in the General Assembly May through November 1947 and the report of United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) – there are no Western expression of guilt whatsoever. The only speeches that linked the creation of a Jewish State to the Holocaust were from the Soviet Union and Poland.

Indeed what is striking is that despite many anti-Semitic remarks, not one Western country rises to object. The partition plan itself explicitly stated that it was plan for the future of government of Palestine and not a solution to the “Jewish question” – the latter formulation being a reference to the survivors of the Holocaust in displaced peoples’ camps.  Far from guilt there is indifference bordering on callousness.  The Jewish population of between 600,00-650,000 (and 18,000 in detention in in Cyprus) [UN figures]) were of course in Palestine in 1947.

They constituted a clearly constituted a national community.  It is this national identity that the Karmi et al wish to deny. Modern anti-Semitism mainly takes the form of discrimination against Jews as national community – something that the Durban II statement reinforces when it places anti-Semitism between “Islamaphobia” and “Christianophobia.” (draft article 10)

John Strawson

Independent Idiocy (& another Livingstone Formulation) – Mark Gardner

Adrian Hamilton’s dreadful article in the Independent’s 23rd April edition is worth noting, even by that newspaper’s standards.

The article is an attack on the walkout at the UN Geneva anti-racism conference by Western ambassadors during Iranian President Ahmedinejad’s speech. Hamilton quotes the UK ambassador saying that Ahmedinejad’s first mention of Israel was his cue to exit. Hamilton then asks:

“But what basically was our representative trying to say here? That any mention of the word Israel is barred from international discussions? That the mere mention of it is enough to have the Western governments combine to still it?”

Hamilton is aware of Ahmedinejad’s track record, but thinks the President wasn’t so bad in front of the UN. After all, he even remembered to say “Zionist” instead of “Jew”:

“In fact, Ahmadinejad’s speech was not anti-Semitic, not in the strict sense of the word. Nowhere in his speech did he mention his oft-quoted suggestion that Israel be expunged from the map of the world. At no point did he mention the word “Jews”, only “Zionists”, and then specifically in an Israeli context. Nor did he repeat his infamous Holocaust denials, although he did reportedly refer to it slightingly as “ambiguous” in its evidence”.

Next, Hamilton contextualises Ahmedinejad’s narrative (including “Zionist take-over of  Western politics”) as standard stuff in that part of the world:

“Instead, he launched the time-honoured Middle Eastern accusation that Israel was an alien country imposed on the local population by the West, out of its own guilt for the genocide; that it was supported by a Zionist take-over of Western politics and that it pursued racist policies towards the Palestinians.”

Then, Hamilton has his cake and eats it – if there is a “Zionist world conspiracy”, it is a rubbish one; although Western academics are now agreeing with the Muslim world that the American branch of the conspiracy (suddenly recast as “pro-Israel lobby”) is apparently doing brilliantly:

“Now you may find these calls offensive or far-fetched (if there is a Zionist world conspiracy, it is making a singularly bad job of it) but it is pretty much the standard view in the Muslim world. Western support of Israel is seen as a conspiracy, and it is not just prejudice. There are now books by Western academics arguing that the pro-Israeli lobby wields an influence in the US out of all proportion to its numbers. If the Western walkout in Geneva did nothing else, it rather proved the point.”

You can read the whole article on-line, where the sub-heading is the same Livingstone Formulation that the Independent’s headline team plucked out to put in bold letters in the print edition. Namely:

“What are we trying to say? That any mention of Israel is now barred?”

We are sadly used to the Independent and others alleging that anti-Israel “criticism” is branded as antisemitic – but “any mention is now barred?” goes much, much further.

The shift from mere “criticism” to “any mention” is bad enough, but in the context of Hamilton’s article it implies that the supposed antisemitism accusation conspiracy has now ensnared the highest levels of Western diplomacy. Yes, there is still a question mark hanging at the end of the sentence, so it remains more of a barbed rhetorical question rather than a statement of fact. Nevertheless, what is more likely to remain with Independent readers: the narrative, or the question mark?

Mark Gardner, Communications Director, CST

Geras deals with Seumas Milne’s trivialization of Ahmadinejad

Here.

Paxman allows antisemite Ahmadinejad to set the Newsnight agenda

David T on HP.

Two on the Z-Word

David Hare begins his latest monologue on reasons for Israel to take down its security barrier (only he calls it a wall) with an appeal to “be serious” and “think about this”. Not a moment too soon, David. He progresses through an interesting and worthwhile piece with occasional appeals for coolness, while relieving himself of a number of superfluous observations within which are buried some atrocious little sentences. Jews should have learned from 2000 years of suffering (that shameful, derelict point about persecution-as-education). Tel Aviv looks like Florida (what could be worse). And “you wouldn’t be very nice if you lived under permanent siege” – this is provoking, but we have to be cool, he says, so since we’re called upon to put ourselves in Hamas’ shoes, it occurs to me to wonder whether I would have got myself into the predicament of a siege. While Hare is probably right, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood have been violent and hateful for a long time and fearful Israelis deserve more empathy from people like Hare.

Eamonn responds on Z-Word blog.

Also on Z-Word blog, Jonathan Hoffman reviews the BBC’s finding that its Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen failed to meet guidelines on impartiality and accuracy. Considering it’s well understood that Israeli military operations are the occasion for spikes in antisemitic activity in Britain, accuracy and impartiality are important in BBC reports. David T comments on Jeremy Bowen’s defenders in The Independent.

Radio 4 and Seven Jewish Children – David Hirsh

Howard Jacobson describes Seven Jewish Children as an antisemitic work:

“Caryl Churchill will argue that her play is about Israelis not Jews, but once you venture on to “chosen people” territory – feeding all the ancient prejudice against that miscomprehended phrase – once you repeat in another form the medieval blood-libel of Jews rejoicing in the murder of little children, you have crossed over. This is the old stuff. Jew-hating pure and simple – Jew-hating which the haters don’t even recognise in themselves, so acculturated is it – the Jew-hating which many of us have always suspected was the only explanation for the disgust that contorts and disfigures faces when the mere word Israel crops up in conversation. So for that we are grateful. At last that mystery is solved and that lie finally nailed. No, you don’t have to be an anti-Semite to criticise Israel. It just so happens that you are.”

He re-states this view when Jacqueline Rose and Churchill herself defend the play. If Jacobson is right then it follows that the play has no artistic or political value.

BBC Radio 4 has decided not to stage the play. Radio 4’s drama commissioning editor Jeremy Howe, rejected the play, writing in an email:

“It is a no, I am afraid. Both Mark [Damazer, Radio 4 controller] and I think it is a brilliant piece, but after discussing it with editorial policy we have decided we cannot run with it on the grounds of impartiality – I think it would be nearly impossible to run a drama that counters Caryl Churchill’s view. Having debated long and hard we have decided we can’t do Seven Jewish Children.”

They have made the wrong decision. If it is a “brilliant piece” of course it should be broadcast. If it is a “brilliant piece” how could it be “countered”? Brilliant theatre does not require something else to be broadcast another night in order to balance it.

Why would Radio 4 not broadcast a “brilliant piece”? The official BBC statement says that “we felt it would not work for our audience.” Why not?

The implication, of course, is that The Jews will not allow the BBC to broadcast this “brilliant piece”.

Tell them its antisemitic. Tell them its unbalanced. Tell them the BBC is biased.

If the piece is antisemitic then its crap. And it shouldn’t be broadcast.

If the piece is “brilliant” then it should be broadcast, and the BBC should stand up to the full wrath of “Israel Lobby” – or as the Independent would say, the “Jewish Lobby“.

David Hirsh

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