Friday, July 13, 2012

And now, what Ian Thal calls a crude piece of anti-Semitic agitprop

This time seemed like a good one to revisit Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, which I first posted at its premiere, but which Ian Thal has recently called "crude anti-Semitic agitprop" which "invokes the blood libel" (in various articles on other sites and in our ongoing debate a few posts down).

Given that passions run high around these issues, I thought readers of the Hub Review should be able to judge the text for themselves.  I'm a fan of Churchill - and even a fan of this play (that's why I posted it), even though, needless to say, I am far from anti-Semitic (in fact I adore Jewish culture).

I wouldn't rate it among Churchill's very best, it's true - it was clearly written in haste and passion - but it has an urgency, obviously, that some of her more polished works lack.  And it not only posits a stern critique of Israeli policy - implying that consciousness of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism has begun to infect Israeli attitudes toward the Palestinians - but also convincingly evokes a a panoply of Jewish voices in conflict.  In fact rather obviously the play makes no monolithic anti-Jewish statement, but instead develops from a rush of panicked instructions to an argument between Jewish factions as to what the legacy of their shared experience is going to be; is it going to be about love, or is it going to be about fear?  The script also taps into Churchill's deep belief that culture and humanism are linked to the feminine rather than the masculine; the seven Jewish children seem to all be girls, and the text refers most warmly to female ancestors - while we feel angry, masculine voices are generally raised in an atmosphere of ironic critique.  All this, I think, makes the script valuable - however discomfiting its portrait of some intolerant Israeli voices may be - which is why I hope someday Boston sees it staged.

Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza 

Seven Jewish Children is Caryl Churchill’s response to the situation in Gaza in January 2009, when the play was written.


Tell her it’s a game
Tell her it’s serious
But don’t frighten her
Don’t tell her they’ll kill her
Tell her it’s important to be quiet
Tell her she’ll have cake if she’s good
Tell her to curl up as if she’s in bed
But not to sing.
Tell her not to come out
Tell her not to come out even if she hears shouting
Don’t frighten her
Tell her not to come out even if she hears nothing for a long time
Tell her we’ll come and find her
Tell her we’ll be here all the time.
Tell her something about the men
Tell her they’re bad in the game
Tell her it’s a story
Tell her they’ll go away
Tell her she can make them go away if she keeps still
By magic
But not to sing.


Tell her this is a photograph of her grandmother, her uncles and me
Tell her her uncles died
Don’t tell her they were killed
Tell her they were killed
Don’t frighten her.
Tell her her grandmother was clever
Don’t tell her what they did
Tell her she was brave
Tell her she taught me how to make cakes
Don’t tell her what they did
Tell her something
Tell her more when she’s older.
Tell her there were people who hated Jews
Don’t tell her
Tell her it’s over now
Tell her there are still people who hate Jews
Tell her there are people who love Jews
Don’t tell her to think Jews or not Jews
Tell her more when she’s older
Tell her how many when she’s older
Tell her it was before she was born and she’s not in danger
Don’t tell her there’s any question of danger.
Tell her we love her
Tell her dead or alive her family all love her
Tell her her grandmother would be proud of her.


Don’t tell her we’re going for ever
Tell her she can write to her friends, tell her her friends can maybe come and visit
Tell her it’s sunny there
Tell her we’re going home
Tell her it’s the land God gave us
Don’t tell her religion
Tell her her great great great great lots of greats grandad lived there
Don’t tell her he was driven out
Tell her, of course tell her, tell her everyone was driven out and the country is waiting for us to come home
Don’t tell her she doesn’t belong here
Tell her of course she likes it here but she’ll like it there even more.
Tell her it’s an adventure
Tell her no one will tease her
Tell her she’ll have new friends
Tell her she can take her toys
Don’t tell her she can take all her toys
Tell her she’s a special girl
Tell her about Jerusalem.


Don’t tell her who they are
Tell her something
Tell her they’re Bedouin, they travel about
Tell her about camels in the desert and dates
Tell her they live in tents
Tell her this wasn’t their home
Don’t tell her home, not home, tell her they’re going away
Don’t tell her they don’t like her
Tell her to be careful.
Don’t tell her who used to live in this house
No but don’t tell her her great great grandfather used to live in this house
No but don’t tell her Arabs used to sleep in her bedroom.
Tell her not to be rude to them
Tell her not to be frightened
Don’t tell her she can’t play with the children
Don’t tell her she can have them in the house.
Tell her they have plenty of friends and family
Tell her for miles and miles all round they have lands of their own
Tell her again this is our promised land.
Don’t tell her they said it was a land without people
Don’t tell her I wouldn’t have come if I’d known.
Tell her maybe we can share.
Don’t tell her that.


Tell her we won
Tell her her brother’s a hero
Tell her how big their armies are
Tell her we turned them back
Tell her we’re fighters
Tell her we’ve got new land.


Don’t tell her
Don’t tell her the trouble about the swimming pool
Tell her it’s our water, we have the right
Tell her it’s not the water for their fields
Don’t tell her anything about water.
Don’t tell her about the bulldozer
Don’t tell her not to look at the bulldozer
Don’t tell her it was knocking the house down
Tell her it’s a building site
Don’t tell her anything about bulldozers.
Don’t tell her about the queues at the checkpoint
Tell her we’ll be there in no time
Don’t tell her anything she doesn’t ask
Don’t tell her the boy was shot
Don’t tell her anything.
Tell her we’re making new farms in the desert
Don’t tell her about the olive trees
Tell her we’re building new towns in the wilderness.
Don’t tell her they throw stones
Tell her they’re not much good against tanks
Don’t tell her that.
Don’t tell her they set off bombs in cafés
Tell her, tell her they set off bombs in cafés
Tell her to be careful
Don’t frighten her.
Tell her we need the wall to keep us safe
Tell her they want to drive us into the sea
Tell her they don’t
Tell her they want to drive us into the sea.
Tell her we kill far more of them
Don’t tell her that
Tell her that
Tell her we’re stronger
Tell her we’re entitled
Tell her they don’t understand anything except violence
Tell her we want peace
Tell her we’re going swimming.


Tell her she can’t 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
Don’t frighten her
Tell her only a few of us have been killed
Tell her the army has come to our defence
Don’t tell her her cousin refused to serve in the army.
Don’t 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
Don’t tell her about the family of dead girls
Tell her you can’t believe what you see on television
Tell her we killed the babies by mistake
Don’t 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 shouldn’t 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 can’t talk suffering to us. Tell her we’re the iron fist now, tell her it’s the fog of war, tell her we won’t 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 wouldn’t care if we wiped them out, the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I don’t 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.
Don’t tell her that.
Tell her we love her.
Don’t frighten her.


  1. Damn Tom,fourth post in response to me in a week and a half! Are you renaming this blog "The Ian Thal Review by Thomas Garvey?"

  2. Well, it's fun exercising the old debate club muscles, I guess!


  4. Sorry, Michael, but I think you forgot these lines in your play:

    Tell her it's no use arguing.
    Tell her Israel will decide how its actions should be interpreted - not her.
    Tell there is no argument against Israel. Period.
    Tell her if we accidentally kill Arab children their parents should forgive us.
    Tell her if people resent Israel it's because those people are evil.
    Tell her it's not as complicated as she says.
    Tell her it's all very simple - she's wrong.
    Tell her "We can't hear you, Caryl Churchill, la la la la la."
    Tell her "You have our blood on your hands for reasons which are entirely unclear to everyone but us, la la la la."
    Tell her to shut up. Shut up, shut up!

  5. Tom, these are points that have been made by myself and others over the years which, to summarize:

    1.) The play misrepresents the history of both the Israeli-Palestinian and larger Arab-Israeli conflicts-- both in terms of the very real violence directed against Israel by its neighbors, and the numerous peace offerings that Israel has made (and have been rejected.) And most relevant, the complete silence on the number of Middle Eastern and North African Jews who were driven from their homes as part of this conflict (a number considerably larger than the number the Palestinian refugees.)

    2.) It presents a gross misrepresentation of Judaism, in particular her notion of "chosen people" as a notion of racial supremacy when it refers to the 604 mitzvot (or commandments) that Jews must follow in addition to the covenant of the seven Noahide laws to which the rest of humanity is bound through Noah. Note that these commandments are largely related to religious ritual and communal life: i.e. about how to pray, or keeping kosher.

    3.) It invokes the blood-libel when it implies the deaths of Palestinian children were not only deliberate but with the full knowledge of the unnamed parents in the play.

    4.) By refusing to acknowledge the clearly stated desire of many Arab governments and much of the Arab street to wipe out both Jewish people and the Jewish state, and the numerous failed attempts to do so, it represents all of Israel's actions as post-Holocaust neuroses and never as a pragmatic response to hostile neighbors. I find it ironic, Tom, that you of all people, who openly acknowledges the irrational, and often genocidal, hatred that much of the Arab world has for both Jewish people and the Jewish state would let Churchill of the hook for this.

    5.) It was written, published, and performed during a major uptick in anti-Semitic hate-crimes in the U.K.-- which makes Churchill more culpable, much in the way we hold homophobic clergy more culpable when we see an uptick in gay teenagers committing suicide (or at least an uptick in reported suicides.)

  6. Ian, I'm sure the play does not completely and accurately represent the whole conflict. (How could it? It's six pages long.) But then it does not explicitly delve into war crimes or aggressions on either the Israeli or Arab sides, does it (and there have been crimes on both sides). That doesn't make it "anti-Semitic," nor does it mean it invokes the "blood libel." And would one line regarding the displacement of North African Jews make any difference to you, really? Be honest.

    There is one single, highly ironic mention of "chosen people" in a manner which could be construed as "privileged people." From this you seem to be deducing quite a bit - "racial supremacy," no less - a claim which is unconvincing, given the opposite of Churchill's far-more-probable construction would be extremely bizarre. Are you positing that Jewish people never feel that they have a special mission or any particular status, despite Yahweh's attention to them? To you "chosen people" only refers to some contractual obligation, as in "I've chosen you to follow this set of dietary laws, but that's it"? Seriously. Every ethnic group tends to think of itself as special or privileged, and Jews are no exception to this rule. And beyond that, I think it's undeniable that among many Jews there is a strong belief that they have been "chosen" to re-occupy their ancient homeland, that it counts as some sort of mystical destiny. Sorry, but that's my impression, and that's what I think Churchill is evoking. Your idea that she's trying to paint the Jews as racial supremacists is ridiculous.

    Next, there's the "blood libel," your most extreme charge, which you claim stems from Churchill's implication that "the deaths of Palestinian children were not only deliberate but with the full knowledge of the unnamed parents in the play."

    Only of course she says no such thing. In fact, it's obvious from the text that Churchill's characters regret the deaths of innocent children, and that they never intended to kill any innocents. I'm sorry, but here you're just not telling the truth about the text, and people can simply scan the post above to check for themselves. There is one explosive paragraph in which one character (of many) says that the only thing he thinks when he sees a dead Palestinian child is that he's glad it's not a dead Jewish one. This is harsh language, but it's no different from language I've heard Americans use about Arabs after 9/11, and to be honest, I've heard much the same thing said by my Jewish friends about Palestinians. Sorry, but it's true. I don't hold it against them, and I certainly don't blame them, but I don't feel like covering it up, either. These things are said.

    Here is Churchill's own response to one of the first perpetrators of the "blood libel" attack, Howard Jacobson:

    I find it extraordinary that, because the play talks about the killing of children in Gaza, I am accused of reviving the medieval blood libel that Jews killed Christian children and consumed their blood. The character is not “rejoicing in the murder of little children”. He sees dead children on television and feels numb and defiant in his relief that his own child is safe. He believes that what has happened is justified as self-defense. Howard Jacobson may agree. I don’t, but it doesn’t make either of them a monster, or me anti-Semitic.

    Your final point is as weak as the rest. It's almost certain that the uptick in crimes against Jews was instigated by the Gaza reprisals, which Churchill's play was a response to. I've never heard of any violence stemming from a performance of the play, and it's hard to imagine, given the complexity of the text, and its final statement (in which violence is rejected) that this would be the case.

  7. It's such a relief to have you here, Tom, to tell us the only acceptable understanding of Caryl Churchill’s text. Our own understandings are clearly invalid in your mind and therefore both meaningless and powerless. It is apparently easy for you to dismiss the many thoughtful people who have similar understandings of her text, and explain condescendingly that it would be impossible for such a widespread reading to have any impact on any segment of public sentiment. After all, only opinions or interpretations you deem valid can have an impact. Oh, if only the world actually worked that way.

    And then you explain hundreds of crimes against Jews in London alone in 2009 as being a response to a military action by Israel, but you still don’t see the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism? Even when you’re engaging in it yourself?

  8. Thanks Michael for validating my impression of you by repeating your stupidity. According to you, people who think Caryl Churchill is not anti-Semitic are themselves, apparently, also anti-Semitic. And it seems somehow that a limited run (2 weeks) of one 10-minute play by a relatively obscure artist somehow sparked a crime wave in London. Right. And somehow I'm guessing that anyone who thinks I am not anti-Semitic would, by your lights, likewise be anti-Semitic. You posit all this while simultaneously accusing me of tunnel vision and an attempt to force my own interpretation of the play on others. Uh-huh. Have I got it all about right? Yes I think I have.

    You know, you're late to this particular game, junior. By now everyone here has already heard me called racist, homophobic, sexist, and even anti-Irish. We'll just add anti-Semitic to this list.