Royal Court theatre bombarded with abuse over play about Jews

In wake of ‘Hershel Fink’ scandal, London venue swamped with furious calls for staging Jonathan Freedland’s show


The theatre staging Jonathan Freedland’s new play about antisemitism has been bombarded with antisemitic abuse, the JC has learnt.

Jews. In Their Own Words, written by the JC and Guardian columnist, scrutinises the Royal Court Theatre’s own chequered history, including last year’s “Hershel Fink” scandal.
It prompted a deluge of complaints to its switchboard and on its official social media channels.

Some complainants harassed the Royal Court’s box office staff on the phone, while others used Twitter to accuse the theatre of betrayal for showcasing Jewish voices.

The production has also been hit by an angry backlash from playwright Caryl Churchill, whose 2009 show Seven Jewish Children — condemned at the time as a “blood libel” — features in Mr Freedland’s play, alongside another notorious Royal Court play, Rare Earth Mettle.

In a letter to the Guardian, the director of Seven Jewish Children, Dominic Cooke, joined Churchill in attacking the “outrageous” notion that their play could be considered antisemitic.

Mr Freedland’s show, which premiered last week, was carefully checked for libel line-by-line by specialist lawyers who had been instructed by the Royal Court.

Mr Freedland told the JC: “As soon as that piece of mine appeared in the Guardian — setting out what the play was about — the trolls were out in force, not only on social media, filling up the Royal Court’s timeline, but in real life, harassing the theatre’s box office staff with phone calls, many of them abusive.

The team at the Royal Court were resilient in the face of that abuse, but some said that, horrible as it was, it was also very validating, confirming much what the play was saying and indeed the necessity of staging it.” Jews. In Their Own Words looks at ancient and contemporary antisemitism through actors playing 12 real Jewish people, including novelist Howard Jacobson. Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust talks about how Seven Jewish Children caused controversy in the Jewish community.

Actress Louisa Clein, who appears in the show as Luciana Berger and Tracy-Ann Oberman, told the JC that when a friend had tweeted about going to see the show, she was inundated with hateful messages.

“It brought it all home to both of us and showed why the play had to be written,” she said. “Some of the stuff these total strangers wrote to this friend of mine was horrific.”

Responding to an article by Mr Freedland about his play, Churchill and Cooke wrote in a letter to the Guardian: “Many of these accusations are founded on the absurd idea that the play echoes the medieval blood libel in which Jews are said to have killed Christian children and consumed their blood.

The play was written in 2009 after Israel’s bombing of Gaza in which more than 200 Palestinian children were killed. To make a connection between a reference to the actual deaths of children and antisemitic tract is outrageous.”

Seven Jewish Children starts with a scene in 19th century Eastern Europe, with Jewish parents asking whether they should tell their daughter about the rapes and murders of Jews or protect her from the shocking information.

The final section of the ten-minute play echoes that initial discussion with a portrayal of a Jewish character musing about whether they should tell their daughter about Jews murdering Palestinians.

One Jewish character says: “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.”

The Board of Deputies called Seven Jewish Children “horrifically anti-Israel”, and “beyond the boundaries of reasonable political discourse”. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic called the play a “blood libel… the mainstreaming of the worst anti-Jewish stereotype”.

The recent Royal Court play Rare Earth Mettle, which also features in Jews. In Their Own Words, included a greedy billionaire with a Jewish name, Hershel Fink. Although several theatre insiders had raised concerns, the Royal Court only responded amid uproar just a few days before the play opened.

In 1987, the Royal Court planned to stage the highly controversial production Perdition, which portrayed Zionists as Nazi collaborators. The play, by Jim Allen, was due to have been directed by Ken Loach but was abandoned before it premiered amid protests.

Mr Freedland said: “For my part, I think this is a moment the community can celebrate. The concerns, the stories, of British Jews are being heard on the London stage. The fact that that stage is at the Royal Court is also cause for celebration.

“We are — rightly — quick to point out when public institutions cause us hurt and fail to take responsibility.

The Royal Court has taken responsibility, and not just by issuing a statement, which would have been easy, but in the most powerful way it knows: by putting its full weight and prestige behind a play that puts the British Jewish experience front and centre. That literally listens to Jews, in their own words.”

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