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'Tell Her the Truth' | The Nation

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'Tell Her the Truth'

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Alisa Solomon
Alisa Solomon, director of the arts and culture concentration at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of...
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Caryl Churchill has made Seven Jewish Children available for productions without licensing or royalties for presenters who request audience contributions for the London-based relief organization Medical Aid for Palestinians. The play can be downloaded from the Royal Court Theatre's website.

Israel's recent bombing and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, Operation Cast Lead, killed 1,417 Palestinians; thirteen Israelis were killed, five by friendly fire. Thousands of Palestinians were seriously wounded and left without adequate medical care, shelter or food. Among the Palestinian dead, more than 400 were children. In response to this devastation, Caryl Churchill wrote a play.

Churchill is one of the most important and influential playwrights living, the author of formally inventive, psychologically searing, politically and intellectually complex dramas, including Cloud Nine, Top Girls, Fen, Serious Money, Mad Forest and Far Away. To this body of work she's now added the very brief (six pages, ten minutes long in performance) and very controversial Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza. The play ran for two weeks in February at London's Royal Court Theatre and is being presented across the United States in cities such as New York (Theaters Against War and New York Theatre Workshop), Chicago (Rooms Productions), Washington (Theater J and Forum Theatre), Cambridge, Massachusetts (Cambridge Palestine Forum) and Los Angeles (Rude Guerrilla).

While some British critics greatly admired the play, which was presented by a Jewish director with a largely Jewish cast, a number of prominent British Jews denounced it as anti-Semitic. Some even accused Churchill of blood libel, of perpetrating in Seven Jewish Children the centuries-old lie, used to incite homicidal anti-Jewish violence, that Jews ritually murder non-Jewish children. A spokesman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews told the Jerusalem Post that the "horrifically anti-Israel" text went "beyond the boundaries of reasonable political discourse."

We emphatically disagree. We think Churchill's play should be seen and discussed as widely as possible.

Though you'd never guess from the descriptions offered by its detractors, the play is dense, beautiful, elusive and intentionally indeterminate. This is not to say that the play isn't also direct and incendiary. It is. It's disturbing, it's provocative, but appropriately so, given the magnitude of the calamity it enfolds in its pages. Any play about the crisis in the Middle East that doesn't arouse anger and distress has missed the point.

The now-rote hysteria with which non-Israeli criticism of Israel is met--most recently dismayingly effective in quashing Chas Freeman as President Obama's nominee to chair the National Intelligence Council--has a considerable and ignoble record of stifling opinion and preventing unintimidated, meaningful discussion, in the cultural sphere as well as in the political. The power of art to open us to the subjectivities of others is especially threatening to those who insist on a single narrative. Hence efforts to shut down exhibitions of Palestinian art all over the country, most notoriously, perhaps, in 2006, when Brandeis University officials removed paintings by Palestinian teenagers from a campus library exhibit, "The Arts of Building Peace."

Theater, arguably the most humanizing of art forms because it begins and ends with human presence, with an encounter between spectators and living actors, has often attracted the ire of people grimly determined to maintain the invisibility of others. It's been twenty years since liberal stalwart Joe Papp caved to pressure and canceled appearances at the Public Theater of a visiting Palestinian troupe, El Hakawati. In the decades since, American discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has only become more vituperative and polarized, as the New York Theatre Workshop learned three years ago when it announced, and then retreated from, plans to present My Name Is Rachel Corrie.

With its title, its subject matter, its distillation of that subject matter, of a long, tangled, bloody and bitter history down to a few simple strokes, it's hardly surprising that Churchill's play has elicited outrage. The hostile reaction to Seven Jewish Children has been amplified by the context of a frightening wave of anti-Semitism in Britain and elsewhere, and exacerbated by the tendency to misread a multivocal, dialectical drama as a single-voiced political tract.

Even among those who are anguished and appalled at the catastrophe in Gaza and repulsed by the invective being hurled at Churchill, some are likely to be startled, if not to say troubled, by the play's blunt assertion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a Jewish-Palestinian conflict. Even those familiar enough with Churchill's work to recognize in Seven Jewish Children another installment in her recent move toward poetic compression--and Beckett proved how profound dramatic minimalism can be--may be taken aback by the play's brevity, by the playwright's implicit rejection of the idea that the situation in the Middle East is too complicated, too impacted, too needful of historical exegesis and balancing points of view to be responsibly explored at anything other than great length.

There are passages, particularly in an ugly monologue near the play's conclusion, that are terribly painful to experience, especially for Jews.

It's difficult to imagine that the author didn't intend to court outrage, whether or not she anticipated its ferocity. This imputes nothing to Churchill of the mischievous or sensationalistic. Her play's political ambitions are at least as important as its aesthetic ambitions. Moreover, it would be disingenuous and, in a sense, a betrayal of Seven Jewish Children to insist upon a calm, quiet reading or hearing free from the voluble passions it has enflamed. The fury that rises up around this conflict, and the cowed silence that is that fury's inevitable concomitant, are simultaneously the object and subject of the play. It's an incitement to speech and an examination of silence; in its content and through its inevitably controversial reception, it describes what can and cannot be said.

Why is the play so short? Probably because Churchill means to slap us out of our rehearsed arguments to look at the immediate human crisis. No wonder it smarts. The play dares reduce the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the kind of stinging simplicity of Neruda's lines, "and through the streets the blood of children flowed easily/like the blood of children."

Why does the title use "Jewish" rather than "Israeli"? Because all the children the play revolves around are Jewish, but not all are Israeli. And because not all Israelis are Jewish; a sizable minority is Arab. More important, because her play addresses the worldwide Jewish community. Our history of diaspora and persecution led to the founding of the State of Israel, which claims to act on behalf of all Jews. We have an impact upon its policies. Many Jews, including the two of us, feel profoundly connected to Israel and concerned for its fate; Seven Jewish Children is speaking to us.

Why does the play feel, even to those of us who admire its virtues, so peculiarly and, at times, almost brutally painful? It is an exigent text, a rapid public response to and at the moment of slaughter; and, remarkably, as few such texts are, it is contemplative, interior, almost entirely soft-spoken, and demanding.

The play consists of seven sequences, each composed of approximately twenty simple sentences, almost all of which begin with the words "Tell her" or "Don't tell her." There is no place-and-time setting specified for the sequences, and the lines are not assigned to specific characters. In fact, there isn't a character list or even a suggested number of performers, and the text looks less like a play than the poem it also is. Nonetheless, it's clear that these are discussions between the parents, adult relatives and guardians of a young girl, presumably a different little girl in each sequence, who the playwright specifies is not on stage, not seen. It's also clear that the first of the seven sequences begins during the Holocaust; then the play moves successively to the founding of the State of Israel, the displacement of its Palestinian population and the intensification of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arriving, finally, in a very dark, very dangerous moment--probably, although this is not made explicit in the text, concurrent with the military operation and humanitarian disaster in Gaza that occasioned the play. All else--the cast's size, gender, age (as long as all the players are adults) and ethnicity, as well as all staging choices--the playwright leaves to the director and actors.

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