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Some Thoughts About “Seven Jewish Children”

by Michael Nathanson

[Editor’s note: This article was picked up by CBC theatre blog:

I was recently interviewed by Kevin Prokosh of the Winnipeg Free Press about the inclusion of Caryl Churchil’s play Seven Jewish Children as part of the upcoming MTC Master Playwright Festival.   I remarked that, as a Jew, I felt it was well within my right to call the piece anti-Semitic. 
Now, I know that’s always an inflammatory commentary, calling something anti-Semitic.  Concerning this specific ten minute play, several Jewish writers have vigorously defended the piece and noted that when Jews hastily and unnecessarily call something anti-Semitic, it kills dialogue as opposed to fostering dialogue.  Well, last I checked, I was entitled to my opinion, as they are to theirs.
I have become increasingly cranky when it comes to the defense of this play.  I have read it several times.  I have watched it online.  I have read the attendant commentary from the absurd to the lucid (to my tastes, it’s well worth reading the essays by the English writer Howard Jacobson and a wonderful piece by Canada’s Rex Murphy).  The play, as I read it, makes a generalization about a specific race, that race being the Jews of its title.  Its premise is that Jewish parents will lie to their children to cover up the heinous crimes that Israel commits against the Palestinians.  I recognize there are passionate voices on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that led me to write a play about that very subject some eight years ago.  It will only be through courageous dialogue that peace could ever be realized in the Middle East and the voices of the extremists on both sides tend to drown out the more moderate voices.  However, Seven Jewish Children is a polemic.  It does not appeal to reason.  It is meant to inflame.  It will give ammunition to those who hold anti-Israeli beliefs and cut off those of a pro-Israeli bent from the conversation.
I do not begrudge those Jews who have written favourably about this play.  That is their prerogative.  I do get irked, however, when I read the comments of non-Jews who present the play and say that they don’t find it anti-Semitic.  I don’t believe they’re actually entitled to opine on whether something is or isn’t anti-Semitic.  If you’re not a Jew, how could you know?  If you’ve never been privy to anti-Semitic comments or jokes or know the feeling that exists within your soul when watching or reading about the Holocaust or spending a minute or two reading the insane translations of books and television programs in Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Iran that propagate the most virulent anti-Semitic slanders, how can you speak of knowing what anti-Semitism is?  When Hamas states that they want to wipe Israel off the map and that Jews anywhere in the world are a target, that is no abstraction for any Jew.
I have not been asked to participate in a panel after the performance of Seven Jewish Children.  For this, I am grateful.  Truly.  Because I would have had to say no.  Not that I feel there aren’t points to be made but within that context, what argument could I give to those who watched the play?  Would I be there to declare  that all Jewish parents, in fact, don’t lie to their children?  I am reminded of the incident recounted in Deborah Lipstadt’s Denying The Holocaust where both Holocaust survivors and Holocaust deniers were on the Montel Williams television show and his lead in to the commercial was, “The Holocaust: Truth or Fiction?  We’ll continue the debate after this break.”  It would be funny were it not heartbreaking.
And, in the end, I can’t help but feel there’s a double standard at work here.  Would anybody be presenting a play titled Seven Muslim Children written by a non-Muslim that posited that Muslim parents lie to their children?  Would any University present a play titled Seven Black Children written by a Caucasian that posited Black parents lie to their children?  My strong hunch is: Probably not. 

But on it goes.  This is neither the first nor the last production of Seven Jewish Children.  For a ten minute play, it has caused a lot of ink to be spilled.  I do not wish to censor any theatre’s right to put on the shows they choose to.  However, I do not wish to be thought of badly for not wanting to see that which I find offensive.  I find Seven Jewish Children to be very offensive.  And, to boot, I find it to be bad theatre, too.

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Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.