Gethsemane’s stereotype Jew

Are we being oversensitive when a Jew is the villain?

By David Aaronovitch, December 4, 2008

This is a strange one, this row about Sir David Hare’s Gethsemane and the Jewishness or otherwise of its devilish (though charming) character, Otto Fallon. I think the saga, with its attendant accusations of antisemitism, is telling us something, but what on earth is it?

You haven’t see the play? Let’s recap. Back in mid-August, two months before the drama opened, the Guardian’s chief arts writer, Charlotte Higgins, revealed that Hare’s new play would dramatise “his final and bitter disenchantment” with New Labour — thus, I suppose, distinguishing it from his several preliminary bitter disenchantments. Then, wrote Higgins, “a source close to the production…” Sorry, let me stop for a moment to acknowledge an entirely new journalistic category, the anonymous source in a bloody theatre, for God’s sake, and move on, because this source “said a major character in the play is the party’s chief fundraiser, Otto Fallon, a North London Jewish former hairdresser... audiences will perhaps note a likeness to Blair’s close friend and former chief fundraiser, Lord Levy, a North London Jewish former accountant who made his fortune managing stars such as Alvin Stardust.”

On press night, there I was with, among others, my fellow Newsnight Review panellists, the shadow education secretary Michael Gove and Natalie Haynes the stand-up comic. Now, even without having read the words of the source, I could see that Fallon was a yiddle. One, he was from Hendon. Two, he had got his accent from Sydney Tafler. The one bum note was his residence on Bishop’s Avenue, which (as everyone but Hare knows) is a mixed Muslim and Greek Orthodox street.

In the play, Fallon is the Mephistopheles, the other side of the pact that the Fausts of New Labour make with wealth in order to achieve power. He is charming, cosmopolitan, deracinated and amoral. He gets the best and most cynical lines. You like him more than you like the other characters (this is not hard), but he is also the most wicked. He is the tempter.

I have to admit I thought very little about his ethnicity, other than to note it. This was because, despite Hare’s claim that his characters were entirely fictional, it was obvious that they were based on real people. Why else have a churchy PM who plays an instrument associated with rock music? Why else have a woman minister agonising over whether to renounce her financially interesting husband? Why else have a party fundraiser who made it big in popular music and who plays racquet games with the PM? In real life, the PM was male, the minister was female and the fundraiser was Jewish. So, too, in Hare’s play.

This was not quite Michael Gove’s view. He saw Fallon as a Jewish stereotype — a deliberate creation of a particular Jew, rather than the mere repetition, if you like, of an existing Jew, and he used the “a” word. I admit I was taken aback by this. Hare’s wife, Nicole Farhi, is Jewish, and I have never, in anything that Hare has written or said, had cause even for a millisecond for doubt about his overwhelming lack of racial or ethnic prejudice.

But Michael wasn’t alone. There was, of course, the excitable Rabbi Schochet, who unwisely chose to go public about an unseen play on the basis of what others had told him. “Very much like Fagin but worse,” was his comment. More significantly, I received a very sincere, upset letter from a Jewish theatregoer who had also felt that Fallon was an antisemitic stereotype. He was no publicity hound, and not to be dismissed as malicious. It is obvious that others felt similarly.

Our theatre critic, John Nathan, wittily recounted the strange way in which Fallon, incontrovertibly Jewish on August 13, had become only possibly Jewish in the eyes of the National Theatre just nine weeks later, so much so that the Evening Standard was persuaded to take a reference to Fallon’s Jewishness out of later editions of its review. Jewishness, it seems, was in the eye of the beholder.

But we all know, don’t we? And the question is whether Gove, Schochet and others are being too sensitive. So I thought about this. First, I thought, we have got to get to the stage where Jews can be bad guys because, in life, they sometimes are. Second, I wondered whether Hare had quite thought through the implication of having a Jewish Mephistopheles in a play called Gethsemane. Gethsemane may be the garden of Jesus’s doubt, but it also the garden of betrayal. It is where Judas betrays Jesus to the Jewish authorities, and many Jews have died because of what Christians thought about Judas.

Third, I wondered whether the worry wasn’t so much with the playwright’s intentions, but with the modern theatre audience, and what we think its political orientations are, especially when it comes to the Middle East. What is the guy sitting next to me really thinking when he laughs at Otto Fallon? I am told by my kids that, in places where they wouldn’t dream of a Pakistani or Irish joke, it is once again possible to tell Jewish jokes. And not the kind Jews tell.

Last updated: 11:38am, December 4 2008