Tragedy of an academic stage

By Geoffrey Alderman, October 3, 2012

Royal Holloway and Bedford New College - to give it the mouthful of a title by which it was established by private Act of Parliament in 1985 - sits majestically at the top of Egham Hill, Surrey. Its origins lie in the ambitions of one of the great Victorian entrepreneurs and philanthropists, Thomas Holloway, by whom it was founded in the 1880s as an institution for the higher education of women.

In 1900, it became a fully fledged "school" of the University of London. Co-educational from the 1960s, in 1985 it welcomed staff and departments from Bedford College, which had also started out, in 1849, as an academy for the education of the fairer sex.

I know Royal Holloway well because I was privileged (I use this word - I assure you - without the slightest cant) to be a member of its staff from 1972 until 1994. When I joined its history department, I was not quite the only Jew on the campus; there were already several academics there who were at least nominally Jewish, the most celebrated of them being Professor Samuel Tolansky, a world-renowned physicist who was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Lithuanian-Jewish parents. I must also mention Professor Kate Loewenthal, the celebrated psychologist and authority on Jewish religious behaviour, who also joined Royal Holloway in 1972 and who boasts impeccable Chabad credentials. But I was certainly the only kippah-wearing Jew on the college's staff. This made not the slightest difference to how I was treated.

One should not need to say this, of course, but given the times in which we now live, and the incidence of anti-Jewish incitement on university campuses up and down the land I feel it needs to be said. I go further: when I announced to my colleagues that I proposed to write a history of Jewish involvement in British political life I was given every encouragement. When I proposed to run, at Royal Holloway, the university's first-ever course on the history of British Jewry since emancipation, the support shown by my colleague historians was total. And I should add that the history department continues to display healthy philosemitic tendencies - witness the appointment to its staff of Professor David Cesarani, who is director at the College of the Holocaust Research Centre, undoubtedly the foremost facility of its kind outside Israel and the United States.

You need to absorb all this, to understand the very positive Jewish memories I have of Royal Holloway, in order to grasp my sense of shock and incredulity on hearing earlier this month that the powers-that-be at Royal Holloway had agreed to name its new
£3 million theatre after the playwright, Caryl Churchill.

Churchill authored an extremely nasty piece of invective

In case you have forgotten, let me remind you that, in 2009, Churchill authored, for presentation at London's Royal Court Theatre, an extremely nasty piece of invective entitled Seven Jewish Children. As I explained in my column in February 2009, the play purports to examine the ways in which Jewish adults might explain recent Jewish history to some unseen children.

The JC's theatre critic, John Nathan, had been moved to declare that "Churchill's Jews are no longer victims but perpetrators of atrocity… For the first time in my career as a critic, I am moved to say about a work at a major production house that this is an antisemitic play."

And in the Independent Howard Jacobson, one of Anglo-Jewry's most successful authors, drew attention to the play's unashamed lack of objectivity and observed: "It is as though, by a reversal of the usual laws of cause and effect, Jewish actions of today prove that Jews had it coming to them yesterday…

"Quite simply, in this wantonly inflammatory piece, the Jews drop in on somewhere they have no right to be, despise, conquer, and at last revel in the spilling of Palestinian blood… lie follows lie, omission follows omission."

The entire play, concluded Jacobson, is a "hate-fuelled little chamber-piece".

In the press release announcing the naming of its theatre, Royal Holloway was naturally silent about Seven Jewish Children, preferring to dwell instead upon the fact that Churchill is - apparently - "widely regarded as Britain's greatest living playwright".

I'm afraid that, even if true, this would cut no ice with me. Caryl Churchill is a hatemonger. I honestly dread to think what motives led my former employing institution to associate itself with her and - thus - with the values for which she stands.

Last updated: 10:45am, October 3 2012