Friday, March 27, 2009

Approaches to Seven Jewish Children

So Jeffrey Goldberg put on his blog a dialogue with his friend Ari Roth about Caryl Churchill's play, Seven Jewish Children. Roth has staged the play, which has been sharply criticized by Goldberg and others as antisemitic, at a Jewish theater in Washington, DC. (Strangely, in a the midst of debate about who is stifling what kind of speech, a dialogue where you might not expect one.) Anyway, I'm unsurprisingly sensitive to Goldberg's view that we shouldn't validate the play by, for instance, staging it in a Jewish theater as Roth is doing. But I'm also, perhaps more surprisingly, quite sensitive to Roth's view that we should investigate the play.

Just this morning I was thinking about what I had written about Jewish humor. And I was thinking about Sarah Silverman who, I think, works on multiple levels but really works when we see the absurd contradictions of those different levels. I know not everyone would agree, but in particular, I'd argue that she should be understood in a context of Jewish humor that encourages such a more complicated reading. So I think it's really easy to dismiss her as racist but good reason to engage with her to see what she's really getting at. And there's a question I've asked before in there: can we ever dismiss something without engaging with it enough to be confident of our dismissal? And how much engagement is enough? I think we most certainly can dismiss some things out of hand, but I'm not sure how to decide except on a case by case basis. Though it's elitist, a proven artist almost certainly deserves a little more engagement than an unproven one. Churchill is certainly proven.

Well, now Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon have put up something that seriously engages with Churchill and that I think is well worth reading. Churchill's lines have a lot more tonality and nuance through these experienced playwrights than might be immediately apparent on the page. Kushner and Solomon make a number of good points.
Why is the play so short? Probably because Churchill means to slap us out of our rehearsed arguments to look at the immediate human crisis. No wonder it smarts. The play dares reduce the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the kind of stinging simplicity of Neruda's lines, "and through the streets the blood of children flowed easily/like the blood of children."
And I think they try to be sympathetic to those who are outraged. They write, for instance:
There are passages, particularly in an ugly monologue near the play's conclusion, that are terribly painful to experience, especially for Jews.
And they acknowledge that the play itself promotes misreading:
This monologue is the "proof text" for those who've charged Churchill with anti-Semitism and worse, with blood libel, which her accusers discern in the last lines of the speech.

When the two of us first discussed Seven Jewish Children we turned immediately to those lines. We both winced when we read them; we both became alarmed. One of us was disturbed by the line "tell her we're better haters," resonant of Shylock and Alberich the Nibelung. The other focused on "tell her we're chosen people," contending that in this context it reflected a misunderstanding of the term "chosen people," casting Jewish chosen-ness as an expression of divine right and exceptionalism rather than of religious/ethical responsibility. We speculated that these two lines added fuel to the willful misreading as blood libel of the lines that follow: "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." Those who level the blood-libel accusation insist that Churchill has written "tell her I'm happy when I see their children covered in blood."

But that is not what Churchill wrote.
I'd prefer they wrote that a little differently, emphasizing rather than merely acknowledging that there is a problem with the play that promotes misreading that line. In particular, I have to ask if Kushner and Solomon see these Chosen-ness and Shylock moments as antisemitic rather than just fuel for a different fire? (I also have to say that these points belie Roth's assertion that "My God, she's [Churchill's] been listening really, really closely to how Jews speak.") And I'm confident a significant proportion of audiences -- not just 'hypersensitive Jews' but also admiring 'anti-Zionists'-- will leave theaters thinking she had written that Jews are happy to see Palestinian children dead. Indeed, Gruandian theatre critic Micheal Billington wrote, "Churchill also shows us how Jewish children are bred to believe in the 'otherness' of Palestinians." He didn't understand the play as sympathetic to Jews in the way Kushner and Roth argue it can be. Churchill didn't have to write "tell her all I feel is happy it's not her." It's no wonder some people take from that "all I feel is happy." Whatever I'd prefer, though, at least Kushner and Solomon take a moment to address some problematic points in the text.

But ultimately they seem strangely unwilling to deal with actual antisemitism beyond their own wincing. Early in their article, they write:
The now-rote hysteria with which non-Israeli criticism of Israel is met--most recently dismayingly effective in quashing Chas Freeman as President Obama's nominee to chair the National Intelligence Council--has a considerable and ignoble record of stifling opinion and preventing unintimidated, meaningful discussion, in the cultural sphere as well as in the political. The power of art to open us to the subjectivities of others is especially threatening to those who insist on a single narrative. Hence efforts to shut down exhibitions of Palestinian art all over the country, most notoriously, perhaps, in 2006, when Brandeis University officials removed paintings by Palestinian teenagers from a campus library exhibit, "The Arts of Building Peace."
This is the context that guides their ultimate view of Churchill - a context where Jews stifle debate, but not where antisemitism has any larger meaning than being personally painful for Jews. There isn't acknowledgment that maybe Nancy Pelosi, who cares about Chinese human rights and lobbied hard against his nomination, had any role. There isn't acknowledgment even that maybe Freeman's views on the Middle East, which formed part of the argument against him, are actually unsuitable for the position. In fact, I do think Freeman's views of the Israel Lobby, some of which were made much clearer after he withdrew his nomination are decidedly antisemitic. Those views are very much about painting those Jews who find him unsatisfactory as traitors with dual loyalties, as a cabal that secretly rules American foreign policy. There isn't acknowledgment that there are some things which are antisemitic, that Jews should speak out against, and that sometimes should be marginalized to the point of censoring because of it. Jewish power is interrogated, but gentile privilege is taken for granted.

There isn't acknowledgment by Kushner and Solomon that antisemitism actually exerts a powerful force shaping the debate over Israel. There isn't acknowledgment that antisemitism is a structural force that thoroughly infects the way we talk about Jews and often denies Jews a meaningful voice. Speaking of which, there isn't acknowledgment that there's something very weird going on here.

In this debate, the only non-Jewish voice is that of Churchill. No Palestinians anywhere. Not even any Arabs or Muslims. At the same time that Jews are interrogated in defense of antisemitism, this isn't at all about encouraging a Palestinian voice in the discourse. The debate, including the play itself, is about the Jewish voice. And that's one thing that makes Seven Jewish Children so different from Masked, written by an Israeli trying to better understand the Palestinian view, featuring three Palestinian characters caught between Israeli security and Palestinian militants.

Masked has been performed all over the world, hundreds of times without controversy. It's been playing in New York for over a year and a half. And it adds so much more to the discourse than Seven Jewish Children ever could. But part of the reason Masked will never be anywhere near as well-known is that it isn't about Jews.

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