Update: George Hunka on British playwrights, responding to David Cote's Time Out blog, is a must-read. And see Andrew Haydon in the Guardian on the banning of a play by Anthony Neilson in Malta. Godwot, it's been a busy week in Britannia...
Caryl Churchill's new play, Seven Jewish Children, is presently stirring up a huge brouhaha (or is it a furore? Anyway, one of those words that you never read outside articles like this one).
Billed as a "ten-minute history of Israel, ending with the bombing of Gaza", it is being staged as a free event at London's Royal Court, after performances of Marius von Mayenburg's play The Stone, which is about German attempts to deal with its Nazi past. Predictably, given its implied critique of the State of Israel, Churchill's play has been accused of being anti-Semitic, and even of bringing up the blood libel. This stems from a line that reads: "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." Which is a tough line, yes, but is also plainly a response to the kind of commentary which also sparked articles like this one from Gideon Levy in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
You can read Churchill's text for yourself here. The dingdong argument at the Guardian theatre blog continues here, Andrew Haydon has a review and discussion here and George Hunka has more here. George intriguingly reports that the New York Theatre Workshop - which caused another furore when it first booked, then cancelled, a NY production of My Name is Rachel Corrie (TN background here) - is putting out feelers about putting on Churchill's play.
The accusations of anti-Semitism made against Churchill are very depressing. They are part of a political strategy to undermine critique by conflating legitimate criticism of a state with the ugliest racism. What is worse is that the bombing of Gaza has prompted some of the vilest anti-Semitism I have seen recently, which seems - erroneously - to legitimise this stance. However, confusing Churchill's play with anti-Semitism helps nobody, and worst of all, trivialises what anti-Semitism actually is.
Coincidentally, an email from the distinguished US poet Adrienne Rich recently landed in my inbox, in which she explains, not without anguish, her reasons for joining an academic and cultural boycott against Israel. She also outlines this particular mechanism of repressing political critique as clearly as anyone I've seen:
As an American Jew, over almost 30 years, I’ve joined with other concerned Jews in various kinds of coalition-building and anti-Occupation work. I’ve seen the kinds of organized efforts to stifle — in the US and elsewhere -- critiques of Israel’s policies -- the Occupation’s denial of Palestinian humanity, destruction of Palestinian lives and livelihoods, the “settlements,” the state’s physical and psychological walls against dialogue—and the efforts to condemn any critiques as anti-Semitism. Along with other activists and writers I’ve been named on right-wing “shit-lists” as “Israel-hating” or “Jew-hating.” I have also seen attacks within American academia and media on Arab American, Muslim, Jewish scholars and teachers whose work critically explores the foundations and practices of Israeli state and society.
Me, I'll just point out that libelling artists of conscience as anti-Semites in order to stifle debate and criticism is as wrong as racism itself.