Caryl Churchill's awards cancellation is something to celebrate

Bravo to Baden-Württemberg!

November 18, 2022 10:31

I have no idea if Caryl Churchill is an antisemite. I am sure some of her best friends are Jewish. But if you ask me if she, as it were, prefers ham to heimish…well I’ve not got a clue.

But what I do know is that she is the author of what I believe to be one of the most vile, Jew-baiting antisemitic plays ever to have been staged in Britain: Seven Jewish Children, performed at the Royal Court in 2009.

Indeed it has always seemed to me that, however much she went through the motions in saying otherwise, the title made it quite clear that Churchill wanted her screed to be seen as being about how vile Jews are; she did not even bother with the usual diversionary tactic of calling it Seven Zionist Children, or Seven Israeli Children. Seven Jews it was.

I rehash this well-trodden ground because Ms Churchill and her 2009 outpouring of Jew-hate are in the news again. This time, however, it is for the most uplifting, even joyous, of reasons.

In April Churchill was awarded this year’s European Drama award, a prize of £65,000 (the biggest of its type in Europe) from Schauspiel Stuttgart, sponsored by the Baden-Württemberg ministry of science, research and arts. So far, so unsurprising; the habit of cultural bodies to choose with laser-like accuracy the most inappropriate winner of an award is hardly newsworthy.

But this is where it gets fun. Earlier this month the panel which made the award to Churchill decided to cancel it, saying they had been “made aware of previously unknown information”, and citing “the author’s signatures in support of boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS]…The play Seven Jewish Children can also be regarded as being antisemitic. Therefore, to our great regret, the jury has decided not to confer the prize this year.”

Blow me down with a feather.

It gets better. Baden-Württemberg’s arts minister, Petra Olschowski, made clear that she agreed with them: “In Germany, we have a special historical responsibility. That is why we as a country take a clear and non-negotiable stance against any form of antisemitism. This is all the more reason why a prize funded by the state cannot be awarded under the given circumstances.”

I am struggling – and failing – to think of a similar instance when a group of cultural worthies have heaped praise on one of their own, only to disavow it when it’s been pointed out to them that the object of their praise is a wrong 'un. The point being, of course, that supporting BDS – an inherently antisemitic idea, singling out the world’s only Jewish state, and only the world’s only Jewish state, for boycott – and penning an antisemitic play are not usually even taken as evidence of being a wrong 'un. Usually support for BDS is seen as evidence of righteousness.

One of the most depressing aspects of the Corbyn saga was the refusal of so many of his supporters – I am talking about the ostensibly decent, leftish types, rather than the hard core ideologues – to accept the evidence that the man they took to be St Jeremy was anything but. No matter how much was there in black and white, in what he said and what he did, it made no difference. So many simply refused to accept that the image they had of him was plain wrong.

Which is why the withdrawal of this award to Churchill is so heartening. It was made by exactly the sort of people you would expect to make an award to someone like Caryl Churchill. But this time, when presented with Seven Jewish Children and her support for BDS, they regrouped, opened their minds, and acted. Bravo.

The response of so many of Ms Churchill’s fellow Brits would be amusing were it not to typical and so depressing in its knee-jerk dogmaticism. In an open letter in today’s Guardian – of course! – the likes of Harriet Walter, Stephen Daldry, Juliet Stevenson, Stephen Frears, Richard Eyre, Peter Kosminsky and Dominic Cooke say the withdrawal of the award is “nothing less than modern-day McCarthyism”, and “raises urgent questions about a pattern of intimidation and silencing.” The letter is organised by…go on, have a guess. No prizes, I am afraid: Artists for Palestine.

There are so many glorious elements to this story, but my favourite is the inability of the letter’s signatories to comprehend that there may be a particular reason why a German arts body and sponsoring ministry might have a special sensitivity about making an award to a woman linked with BDS (labelled in 2019 by the Bundestag as antisemitic) and accused of writing an antisemitic play.

Germany and the Jews. Hmmm. I’m sure there is some kind of backstory but search me if I can think of it.

November 18, 2022 10:31

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive