Imagine a play in which black characters are prominent and which uncritically relays several tropes standard in the racist disparaging of black people: such as that they’re feckless and lazy, are sexual predators, lower down the evolutionary scale than whites, and so forth. Would this play be defensible on the ground that its author hadn’t intended anything untoward by deploying such themes?
What most Jews object to is not, in fact, criticism of Israel itself, but when that criticism comes wrapped in the language or imagery of Jew-hatred. In Trials of the Diaspora, his forensic study of English antisemitism, the critic and lawyer Anthony Julius provides example after example. He cites Tom Paulin’s polemical poem Killed in Crossfire, published in the Observer at the height of the second intifada, or Caryl Churchill’s 2009 play Seven Jewish Children, suggesting they are the latest in a long line of English literary works that tap into the “blood libel” – the medieval accusation that Jews hanker after the blood of gentile children, a defamation that led to massacres of Jews in England and far beyond.
Jonathan Freedland (G2, March 3) denies that criticism of Israel is often wrongly called antisemitism. His point isn’t helped by quoting Anthony Julius’s allegation that my play Seven Jewish Children “tap[s] into the ‘blood libel'”. The line he is referring to is “tell her there’s dead babies, did she see babies?” It refers to babies killed in the attack on Gaza in 2009 and shown on TV. When people hear of babies killed in a war, they don’t usually think of medieval accusations of Jews consuming Christian children’s blood, but of babies killed in a war. If readers want to judge the play for themselves it is on the Guardian website and the text can be obtained on the internet and performed without charge to raise money for Medical Aid for Palestinians.
In Trials of the Diaspora, I argue that Caryl Churchill‘s play Seven Jewish Children is antisemitic. Churchill (Letters, 4 March) denies this characterisation, writing that I rely on the line “tell her there’s dead babies, did she see babies?”.
I had in mind the following lines, among others. “Tell her we killed the babies by mistake / Don’t tell her anything about the army.” “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.” “Tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out.” “Tell her I don’t care if the world hates us, tell her we’re better haters, tell her we’re chosen people.”
In this play, Jews confess to lying to their own children and killing Palestinian children. They also confess to something close to a project of genocide. And they freely acknowledge the source of their misanthropy to be Judaism itself.
None of this seems to bother Churchill – nor, indeed, the Guardian. As she correctly notes, the play is available on your website.
That utter wanker, Caryl Churchill returns to the fray with a new letter:
Antony Julius (Letters, March 7) quotes more lines from my play Seven Jewish Children to bolster his claim that it is antisemitic. What he doesn’t seem to realise is that these lines are not spoken as he suggests by “Jews” in general but by individual Israelis, desperate to protect their own child, during an attack of disproportionate violence on Gaza. I don’t think the play is a disproportionate response to that attack. It should be possible to pillory the defensive self-righteousness and racism of some – not all – Israelis without being called antisemitic.
This is why the play was called “Several Individual Israelis’ Children”, and why it steered away from using millennia-old antisemitic themes, including child-killing, justified by the claim to be the “chosen people”.