All heck broke loose last week after students in the Palestinian Solidarity Society (PSS) at the UK’s University of York staged the play Seven Jewish Children: A play for Gaza by British playwright Caryl Churchill at an Israeli Apartheid Week event.
When the production was first announced, the University of York’s Jewish Society condemned the play and lobbied the University of York Students’ Union (YUSU) to shut down the production claiming the play “supports anti-Semitic culture”. A spokesperson from York’s Jewish Society objected that the university or the Students Union should have contacted the Jewish Society prior to approving the event! But YUSU didn’t cave to the pressure, deemed the production “safe” and the show went on.
Churchill herself stated Seven Jewish Children is “a political event, not just a theatre event.” Churchill wrote the 8-page, 10 minute play as a response to the Cast Lead massacre of 2008-2009, and made it available for anyone to perform without royalties as long as they do a collection from audience members for people in Gaza. From the beginning the play, which consists of seven brief scenes in which Jewish adults discuss what or if or how they should tell their children about certain events in Jewish history, has spurred heated debate. At the time Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon gave the play a huge thumbs up, writing in the Nation that “the dense, beautiful, elusive and intentionally indeterminate” work should be seen and discussed as widely as possible.
Last week, after the York production, a Jewish Chronicle (JC) reporter promptly slandered the play and the students: “Pro-Palestinian students perform ‘antisemitic’ play as part of Israel Apartheid Week.” The International Business Times (IBTimes) repeated the smear the next day: Students perform ‘anti-Semitic’ play Seven Jewish Children during Israel Apartheid Week.
Unlike the Jewish Chronicle, at least the IBTimes included some context:
Ben Leatham, University of York Students’ Union President, denied the allegations made by the University of York Jewish Society. He told IBTimes UK: “A wide variety of student-led events and performances take place on a near daily bases on campus and within the community. We take our responsibility to uphold freedom of speech seriously and we work hard to get the balance right between protecting our students and supporting them to exercise free speech in a safe and constructive, if sometimes challenging, learning environment.
“We back this up with a robust risk management system which was followed in this instance. We take any concern about discrimination or threats to personal security very seriously and endeavor to promote an inclusive environment at all times.’
A University of York spokesperson added: “Caryl Churchill is an award-winning playwright whose work has been widely performed, including Seven Jewish Children – a play for Gaza, at the Royal Court Theatre. The proposal for staging the play at the University went through our normal procedures and protocols. As an institution we are committed to the principles of free speech and freedom of expression.”
It probably didn’t help that Tommy Corbyn, son of Labor party leader Jeremy Corbyn, is studying electrical engineering at York and is a Palestinian Solidarity Society committee member, leading to screaming headlines such as The Times of Israel’s Jeremy Corbyn’s son helps stage pro-Palestinian play on campus. However, students involved in staging the production stated in a Press Release that Tommy Corbyn “had nothing to do with organising, producing or even promoting the play.”
To whom it may concern,
We are Jews and Israelis who work and study in York. Some of us were in the audience for the recent performance of Caryl Churchill’s ten minute play Seven Jewish Children at the University of York; others were involved in its production and acted in it. All of us are committed to seeing a just peace in Israel and Palestine.
Some of us have only attended Palestinian Solidarity Society events, others are ordinary members and committee members of this university society. It is clear to us that the society is committed to fighting racism and prejudice in all its guises, in particular intolerance of Palestinians in Israel, as well as Palestinian prejudice against Jews. One audience member, Dr. Lisa Peschel, a lecturer in York’s theatre department who conducts research on Jewish ghetto theatre, said, “This play does not claim to be a balanced and objective look at the entire range of Israeli political opinions, but it accurately represents certain voices in Israeli politics while acknowledging Jewish suffering as well. It addresses a humanitarian crisis that urgently needs to be discussed.”
As Israelis and Jews, some of us have personal experiences of being labelled anti-Semitic because we have expressed criticism of the abusive and intolerant attitudes of many Israelis, or of Israeli policies, towards the Palestinian people. Our support of an occupied, oppressed people is often mistakenly perceived, particularly by those Jews who identify as Zionist, as anti-Semitic sentiment.
To equate criticism of Zionism with anti-Semitism is not only dishonest, it also has an adverse effect for those Jews who do suffer actual intolerant, anti-Semitic abuse which should be taken seriously. Moreover, this misplaced accusation calls into question our own Jewishness, which we find an offensive gesture.
Finally, we would like to make it clear that Tommy Corbyn, son of the leader of the Labour Party, had nothing to do with organising, producing or even promoting the play.
The script of Seven Jewish Children: A play for Gaza is available here or listen to a reading here (begins at 2:58). Here is the final scene in the play, the most controversial:
Tell her she cant watch the news
Tell her she can watch cartoons
Tell her she can stay up late and watch Friends.
Tell her they’re attacking with rockets
Dont frighten her
Tell her only a few of us have been killed
Tell her the army has come to our defence
Dont tell her her cousin refused to serve in the army.
Dont tell her how many of them have been killed
Tell her the Hamas fighters have been killed
Tell her they’re terrorists
Tell her they’re filth
Dont tell her about the family of dead girls
Tell her you cant believe what you see on television
Tell her we killed the babies by mistake
Dont tell her anything about the army
Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army. Tell her about the family of dead girls, tell her their names why not, tell her the whole world knows why shouldnt she know? tell her there’s dead babies, did she see babies? tell her she’s got nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves. Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them, tell her I’m not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them, tell her we’re the ones to be sorry for, tell her they cant talk suffering to us. 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.
Dont tell her that.
Tell her we love her.
Dont frighten her.