For a brief moment last night, I had a sense of what it would be like to be on the other side of my issue.
The evening was coming to an end, at the New York Theatre Workshop-- a reading and discussion of Caryl Churchill’s very short, Gaza-inspired play, "Seven Jewish Children"-- and for the second time the play was read, this time by Andre Gregory, the aristocratic actor/director of social/religious engagement. He stood near the front of the stage pouring out anger against the ways of formation of Jewish identity. I applauded, as did most of the other 300 people in the house, and two seats away I could see the hands of a Zionist clasped in his lap, as he grumbled to his stony-faced girlfriend. You can listen to a recording of the play here and read it here.
For the rest of the night I could not get that picture out of my head. An important stage in New York, an elite workshop space that is contested ground: three years ago the writings of an idealistic young woman who was killed by the Israeli occupation could not even be performed here, because of the "sensitivity" of Jews, the cultural importance of Jews. But even Rachel Corrie's piece was not directed against the springs of Jewish identity, as Churchill's piece is, and here it was uncensored--swaddled of course in Context, a whole evening of discussion rather than just the thing itself-- but here it was, and Laura Flanders, the very appealing host of Grit TV, wearing black boots and a dark jacket, had begun the evening by invoking Corrie's name, and the evening now ended with Andre Gregory spitting out anger, which I applauded.
This site is about power issues, and for once I had an impression of what it would feel like when the elite sites of American life at last yield to anti-Israel argument.
That is the object, of course; that is essential. In so many ways, my side has the grass roots, while Zionism has always depended on elites, at least since Lord Balfour and down through AIPAC, because Jews are such a tiny minority, with outsized wealth and influence. It is all we Jews have: our smarts and money. The support of Israel depends utterly upon Establishment opinion, holding that opinion, and seeing Gregory shouting Churchill's lines about the ways Jews talk to their children about the Other-- it was a remarkable glimpse of a time when these things will actually be discussed in elite circles, and also when the Jewish feelings of loneliness that I was raised with, as the children in the play are being raised, will be magnified and intense. I want that day to come; because after all we are talking about the difference between conditions and feelings-- the real Palestinian condition of affliction for six decades, against the feeling of affliction on the other side--and policy must address conditions. But it is not as if I don't have sympathy--
Let us get to the thing itself.
This was the first of three readings. There will be one tonight and one tomorrow night. NYTW did not sell tickets, it invited people from donor lists, from the Jewish community, from its theater discussion group that is called "the usual suspects," and if there was still room, the general public could come in. All free. A remarkable motion of generosity and political service, but growing out of the grief of the Rachel Corrie censorship that rocked the theater 3 years ago.
NYTW is a beautiful space, a high exposed bare brick wall at the back of the stage and exposed structural brick on the sides as well. It is incredibly orderly and spare. As I sat down, I thought of all the Jewish arts-loving money that had gone to make this space. This thought came again as Thane Rosenbaum, a very hip-looking Zionist writer in a black suit, with a luxury of tumbling blond hair, having led the panel the night before at the 92d Street Y on "Why Zionism has become a dirty word," sat down in my row, soon joined by a goodlooking blonde. He seems to me to personify that identification of Jews with the finer things-- even as he defends the Gaza slaughter and marvels at "the absurdity" that Zionism has gotten a bad name.
The play is short and to the point. It is all dialogue and uses the device of Jewish adults discussing what they should tell a girl child about horrors, during 7 episodes of history, and in this way takes the Holocaust experience of ghastly suffering down though the Nakba and formation of Israel and the settlements and Gaza, so that at the end the oppressed have become oppressor. Caryl Churchill is a British leftist obviously imbued in this history and weary of any prevarication about it. I find the writing elegant and moving. The play makes the point that Avraham Burg makes more tenderly, and that many Palestinians have made for eons, that Jews are avenging the Holocaust on the Arabs.
Churchill has been accused of anti-Semitism in some measure because the last climactic speech of the play refers to Jewish chosenness and the blood of non-Jewish children in such a way as to revive the blood libel, or so it is charged:
Tell her we're the iron fist now, tell her it's the fog of war, tell her we wont stop killing them till we're safe, tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen, tell her they're animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldnt care if we wiped them out, the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I dont care if the world hates us, tell her we're better haters, tell her we're chosen people, 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.
The New York Theatre Workhsop, in its anxiety about providing context, gave out sheets with a statement by Kenneth Stern of the American Jewish Committee saying the chosen people and the blood of babies are anti-Semitic "canards." Myself, I have no interest in the talk of anti-Semitic canards; it is a way of stopping open discussion of horrors. Israel is destroying babies. Let’s talk about it; let engaged creative people talk about it with the words they want to use. We see where the blacklisting of this speech has gotten us: three years after Rachel Corrie's killing, American Tristan Anderson is maimed during a peaceful protest on occupied land.
The Stern piece-- handed out at the door along with an email that Churchill sent a couple of days ago to tortured Ari Roth at Theater J in Washington, which is also going to stage "Seven Jewish Children" in the face of boycott, is a piece of "context" that any description of Palestinian suffering must now be escorted by in elite spaces. After all, the norm in cultural circles is what I observed at the Thane Rosenbaum event the night before; the anti-Zionists are out on the street and there are four Zionists on the stage of an elite space. A great shame. If this is the only way the conversation can happen—context, the circumscription of free speech-- gosh, give them context.
After the first reading by several actors, Flanders led a 45-minute discussion in a sophisticated manner. (Tonight's hosts are Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon. Tomorrow night, Mark Crispin Miller.) Flanders's point of view was clear and helpful: she spoke of the 13 Israelis killed, 3 of them by Hamas, and compared that number to the hundreds of women and children killed by Israel. But she was very fair. The "talkback" had the feeling of an encounter session. A lot of older Jews stood up and spoke about their sense of the anti-Semitism in the play. It got a little out of control. For a while one Zionist plant after another talked about Hamas hating Jews; and they were met by our plant, Phyllis Bennis, of the Institute for Policy Studies, who was fierce and good, standing almost in the aisle on the right side of the hall.
Here I must say again: The play is filled with rage toward Israel and in turn toward the manner in which Jewish identity is today formed—and it is a rage many of us feel--and I know that many in the crowd thrilled to hear these feelings expressed openly. I was reminded that rage is a vital component of political expression. One woman got up to say that the Holocaust was the worst thing to happen to the Jews and Israel was the next worst thing, which a tall Zionist later described as a "grotesque" statement. Another woman said that when you imprison thousands of people and rape their women and destroy their lands, well, you are going to get bombs thrown at you. Phyllis Bennis said, start the clock where you will, in 1948 or 1967 or Gaza, and the history is all of a piece, dispossession. Two of those speakers were Jews. I noticed Thane Rosenbaum crunching down in his seat and taking notes and not clapping.
A writer named Edward Einhorn said the true context for the play--"when it was written, why it was written, who it was written for"--is anti-Semitism in England. I say No, the true context is Gaza and the messianic spirit that has captured so much of Jewish life and made Jews blind to dispossession and suffering, a spirit that has reduced smart people like Bret Stephens, a neoconservative--and neoconservatism is a gift of the Jews--to justifying Israel's behavior by comparing it to the French actions in Algeria nearly 50 years ago! But Einhorn was emotional and afraid. And his experience and mine are the same; for my identity was formed by descriptions of the neverendingness of anti-Semitism and of the alleged complicity of the American Establishment in the Holocaust. And so it is terrifying for Jews to glimpse the abandonment by the U.S. elite of support for Israel. Zionism has depended on elites forever, on Truman's former business partner getting access to the White House in the runup to '48, on Gaza warmaker Ehud Barak gaining access to Clinton endlessly in the runup to Camp David 2000, on Chicago music guy and AIPAC board member Lee Rosenberg getting Obama to Israel in 2006, and so on. The Israel lobby has had to buy politicians because we are such a tiny minority and have been persecuted. And the news is that this political/cultural corruption may at last be ending, in a post-Gaza festival called Context.
I had the same feeling I had the night before at the 92d Street Y, that my side is winning. Gaza undid the Israel lobby. The great fear of the other side is that when elite opinion goes, the newspapers will go and the money and the politicians, and suddenly Israel will be radioactive. Because, as even Zionists know, its actions are "indefensible." This is just a promise, that when the shoe is finally on the other foot, I will be mindful as ever of the power issues, and for compassion.