Foul play needs firm response

Our leaders should be among those denouncing the Royal Court’s nasty calumny

By Geoffrey Alderman, February 26, 2009

In recent weeks, the JC has reported on a wide variety of semi-hysterical manifestations grounded in an undoubted (though limited) public disquiet in this country following Israel’s military action in Gaza. These manifestations have ranged from genuine humanitarian concern at the incidence and intensity of civilian casualties to an outrageous manipulation of this concern for the sole purpose of pushing a scarcely disguised anti-Jewish agenda.

The recent production staged at the Royal Court Theatre — Seven Jewish Children — clearly sits at this latter end of the spectrum.

In seven short scenes (the texts of which are available online) the play purports to examine the ways in which Jewish adults might explain recent Jewish history to some unseen children.

Literary commentators far more expert than I have expertly dissected this toxic production. Writing in the JC two weeks ago, John Nathan reminded us that the play’s author, Caryl Churchill, had herself characterised Seven Jewish Children as a political event as well as a theatrical one. “Churchill’s Jews,” said Mr Nathan “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 and JC, Mr Howard Jacobson, one of Anglo-Jewry’s most successful authors, offered a masterly analysis of Ms Churchill’s script. Drawing attention to its unashamed lack of objectivity, he observed as follows: “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 Mr Jacobson, is a “hate-fuelled little chamber-piece.”

So far, so bad. A line has been crossed. A playwright writes a play critical not just of Israel but of Jews — who are portrayed as an evil people — and (hence) of Jewish moral values. A London theatre stages it. There are reviews critical of it, but also reviews that pour praise upon the hateful messages it purposely conveys.

Michael Billington, for example, writing in the Guardian, was unstinting in his praise of Caryl Churchill who, he said “shows us how Jewish [note that word] children are bred to believe in the ‘otherness’ of Palestinians.”

All this is (you might say) par for the course. And you would be right. Surely (you might then inquire), some major communal figures might have been found to speak out against the play, and against the Royal Court Theatre?

Well, the good news is that there was a communal response. An open letter, signed by several dozen British Jews, including the actresses Maureen Lipman and Tracy-Ann Oberman, and the Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood, was published in the JC and the Daily Telegraph.

Among the signatories were two former presidents of the Board of Deputies (Lord Janner and Dr Kopelowitz) and several rabbis. But not the present president of the deputies. And not the Chief Rabbi.

Since I knew that both these gentlemen had been approached by those responsible for drafting the letter, I was naturally more than a little curious to discover why their signatures were absent.

Mr Henry Grunwald, QC, president of the Board of Deputies, told me that he thought it was “a good letter” and that he would have signed it but for the regrettable fact that he had had “an incredibly busy time professionally, communally and personally” and so had not been able (you and I must understand) to find an opportunity to read a play that takes just 10 minutes to perform, and then send a short email authorising his signature to be affixed to the protest.

Incidentally, it seems not to have occurred to Mr Grunwald to ask one of his vice-presidents to attend to this matter, and sign the letter in his stead.

As for Sir Jonathan Sacks, my own email to the executive director of his office, Mrs Syma Weinberg, remains unanswered, but I understand that Sir Jonathan felt that insufficient time had been afforded him to consider the context of the letter as well as its text.

But now that the context is clear, surely the Chief Rabbi will waste no further time in lending the text his very public support.

Last updated: 12:12pm, February 26 2009