One particularly popular version, pseudo-scientific in tone, understands Zionism as a political form given to a psychological condition – Jews visiting upon others the traumas suffered by themselves, with Israel figuring as the torture room in which they do it. This is is pretty well the thesis of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children, an audacious 10-minute encapsulation of Israel’s moral collapse – the audacity residing in its ignorance or its dishonesty – currently playing at the Royal Court. The play is conceived in the form of a family roundelay, with different voices chiming in with suggestions as to the best way to bring up, protect, inform, and ultimately inflame into animality an unseen child in each of the chosen seven periods of contemporary Jewish history. It begins with the Holocaust, partly to establish the playwright’s sympathetic bona fides (“Tell her not to come out even if she hears shouting”), partly to explain what has befallen Palestine, because no sooner are the Jews out of the hell of Hitler’s Europe than they are constructing a parallel hell for Palestinians.
Anyone with scant knowledge of the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations – that is to say, judging from what they chant, the majority of anti-Israel demonstrators – would assume from this that Jews descended on the country as from a clear blue sky; that they had no prior association with the land other than in religious fantasy and through some scarce remembered genealogical affiliation: “Tell her it’s the land God gave us... Tell her her great great great great lots of greats grandad lived there” – the latter line garnering much knowing laughter in the theatre the night I was there, by virtue of the predatiousness lurking behind the childlike vagueness.
You cannot of course tell the whole story of anywhere in 10 minutes, but then why would you want to unless you conceive it to be simple and one-sided? The staccato form of the piece – every line beginning “Tell her” or “Don’t tell her” – is skilfully contrived to suggest a people not just forever fraught and frightened but forever covert and deceitful. Nothing is true. Boasts are denials and denials are boasts. Everything is mediated through the desire to put the best face, first on fear, then on devious appropriation, and finally on evil.
From Christopher Hart, writing in The Sunday Times (February 15, 2009):
A leaflet handed out before the show, inviting donations to Medical Aid for Palestinians, tells you how “brutal” Israel’s “invasion” of Gaza has been. “Bombardment”, “devastation”, “earthquake”: these are reassuring little signposts. Otherwise, you might worry that Churchill has written a play that considers both sides of the conflict. In seven one-minute acts, Israeli adults discuss what to “Tell her” — in each case, an imaginary young Israeli girl. About the Holocaust? Suicide bombings? About 1967? “Tell her not to be afraid” is a recurring and poignant refrain. This simple device could have been highly effective, but it’s ruined by the play's ludicrous and utterly predictable lack of even-handedness.
We all agree, I think, that the scenes coming from Gaza are not good. But the enormously complex reasons for such horrors are not considered here. Instead, Churchill comes across like a very minor Old Testament prophet, bewailing the Wickedness of my people Israel (Jeremiah 7:12). And the final lines, delivered by an Israeli in full rant, about how the Palestinians are “animals”, how he wants to see their children “covered in blood”, are simply outrageous.
“Tell her we killed more of them” is one suggestion earlier. Ah, yes, the idea that you can fairly judge the righteousness or wickedness of either side in this miserable conflict by looking at the casualty figures. You hear this on the BBC, too. Hamas rockets rarely kill anyone. They don’t really mean it, they’re just teasing. Not like those ruthless Israelis. In fact, Hamas would love their rockets to kill Israelis — men, women, children, whatever. The reason their rockets rarely kill anyone is that they’re really rubbish at aiming them. Israel, on the other hand, despite having directly caused the deaths of more than 1,000 civilians in Gaza recently, does not deliberately target queues of people at bus stops.
Seven Jewish Children isn’t art, it’s straitjacketed political orthodoxy. No surprises, no challenges, no risks. Only the enclosed, fetid, smug, self-congratulating and entirely irrelevant little world of contemporary political theatre. Fresh air is urgently needed. But I’m not holding my breath.
Theatre J, a Jewish theater in Washington, D.C., is now staging a production of the play. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic debates the theater's director, Ari Roth, on the merits of the play.