Monday, May 18, 2009

The Seven Jewish Children and the Seven Other Children

There has been some controversy over a play written by a British playwright called "Seven Jewish Children." The play is quite short, and contains the transcript of a supposed discussion between parents and what they would tell their Jewish children at different stages in history beginning with the holocaust and ending with the last war in Gaza. The play was supposed to be a response to Israel's operation in Gaza and was billed as a 10 minute history of Israel. It is also the target of accusations of antisemitism.

Recently, Liverpool cut funding to a theater festival which was going to show "Seven Jewish Children" because they could not accommodate a response piece recently written called "Seven Other Children." This response play is written in the exact same transcript format used by the play that gave the impetus for it's writing. Instead of Jewish children, however, it chronicles different periods in Palestinian history and is the supposed dialogue of parents of a Palestinian child from 1948 to the war in Gaza.

I really hate to throw around the term antisemitic but there are certainly things in "Seven Jewish Children" which sit very uneasily with me. For example, the title. If this is a play about Israel, why is it called Seven Jewish Children and not Seven Israeli Children? Is it because it starts with the Holocaust and because that child was not Israeli? Certainly, not all Jewish children are brought up the same way. Such a presumption is absurd. Similarly, it's absurd to think that all Israeli children are given identical education. The implication that there is some sort of coordinated effort to imbibe all children of the same religion with the same political views at best sounds like stereotyping and at worst sounds like some global supranational conspiracy.

Particularly interesting is the repeated reference to Jews as the "chosen people." This is a comment that appears in the play and is one that I've heard used by others in their criticism of Israel. Somehow arguing that Jews/Israelis feel they can do as they wish because they were the chosen people. It's certainly true that the Jewish religion refers to the Jews as the chosen people because they were the ones chosen to receive the Torah and to use the knowledge and wisdom of the Torah to be "a light unto the nations." In other words, to take the lessons of the Torah and share it with the rest of the world. In all honesty, other than this theological expression, I have never heard the concept of the Jews of the chosen people in any other context. I have never heard any Jew, or Israeli argue that Jews somehow have a right to this thing or the other because they are the chosen people. Indeed, in years of attending synagogue, Jewish schools, knowing and speaking with Jews and Israelis of all political stripes and levels of piety I have never come across the concept of the Jews as chosen people in any context other than: 'Jews were chosen to receive the Torah at mount Sinai" and at that, I have only heard very rarely. So rarely in fact, that I had to ask myself what the play was talking about when I saw that reference. Perhaps there are Jews who use this theological point as a political argument, but I have never heard it. It's disquieting therefore to see this concept which is meant to be about sharing wisdom and learning applied to a justification for a war. It implies that Jews act out of a sense of racial or religious superiority when this is not the case.

Then there is the implication in "Seven Jewish Children" that Jews are somehow happy to see Palestinians killed. That they laugh at their deaths and they're happy to see it happen. I'm sure there are some Israelis who feel this way, just as there are Palestinians who celebrate and hand out candies when Israelis have been killed in suicide bombings. From what I know of Israelis and Jews, however, I don't believe that Israelis rejoice at having to kill anyone. I have heard Israeli leaders--civilian and military--talk tough about fighting their foes but I have never heard joy, glee or happiness at their deaths. That Jews (not Israelis, the play says Jews) celebrate the deaths of their enemies is a horrible, untrue brush with which to paint an entire religion. Indeed, it reminds me of two quotes, the first is a Yiddish proverb: "If your enemy falls down, do not rejoice, but don't pick him up either" and a second, a quote from Israel's former prime minister Golda Meir: "When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons."

As for "Seven Other Children" having not seen either of these plays performed, it's hard for me to comment on which has more impact on the stage. I cannot help but feel, however, that "Seven Other Children" is really merely reactionary and does not do anyone any good. What's the point? "Seven Jewish Children" is more than just art, it's politics and so I can understand from a political perspective, people seeking to respond in kind, but what's the point? "Seven Jewish Children" will likely attract audiences who believe in the cause being promoted or people attracted to a play by a notable playwright. What will attract someone to "Seven Other Children?" It seems to me to be a reaction that will in large part end up preaching to the choir.

I've always heard that authors should write what they know, and one thing the two plays have in common is that neither of the authors are either Jews, nor Israelis nor Palestinians nor Arabs. I have to ask, how the heck could either of these authors purport to know what entire ethnicities/religions teach their children?

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