'Tell Her the Truth' | The Nation


'Tell Her the Truth'

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The central issue being discussed, in each of the sequences, is what the little girl should or shouldn't be told regarding her circumstances; the tenor of the debate changes as the circumstances change. In the first section, the child faces immediate danger of arrest and murder by the Nazis. Her survival requires that she have an awareness of the seriousness of her situation without being traumatized into paralysis or dissociation. The play begins:

About the Author

Alisa Solomon
Alisa Solomon, director of the arts and culture concentration at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of...
Tony Kushner
Tony Kushner’s most recent work includes the new play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and...

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Tell her it's a game

Tell her it's serious

But don't frighten her

Don't tell her they'll kill her

Tell her it's important to be quiet

Tell her she'll have cake if she's good

In the next sequence, which takes place sometime immediately post-Holocaust, telling or not telling revolves around questions of memory and mourning, of protecting a child from the emotional annihilation of a grief too weighty and of a knowledge of evil too imponderable for her youthful capacities.

Tell her this is a photograph of her grandmother, her 
 uncles and me

Tell her her uncles died

Don't tell her they were killed

Tell her they were killed

Don't frighten her.

Tell her her grandmother was clever

Don't tell her what they did

Tell her she was brave

Tell her she taught me how to make cakes

Don't tell her what they did

Tell her something.

In subsequent sequences, what can and can't be talked about are the anxieties of relocating (to pre-state Israel, although it isn't named), then the presence and forcible displacement of others (the Palestinians, again not named), the roadblocks, the bulldozing of homes, water rights. There's a shift at this point in the dialogue: the tension between assertions and their negation becomes tighter, more suggestive of conflict within the family or community, as the speakers struggle over how to deal with conflict from without.

Don't tell her she can't play with the children

Don't tell her she can have them in the house

Tell her they have plenty of friends and family

Tell her for miles and miles all round they have lands 
 of their own

Tell her again this is our promised land.

Don't tell her they said it was a land without people

Don't tell her I wouldn't have come if I'd known.

Tell her maybe we can share.

Don't tell her that.

Just before the play ends, the back-and-forth of the dialogue is stopped for the first time by a monologue. Though it's ostensibly an answer to the question of what the girl can or can't be told, that question becomes mere pretext for an explosion of rage, racism, militarism, tribalism and repellent indifference to the suffering of others. It's important to note that this monologue is neither the last word in the play nor any kind of summation or harmonizing of the play's disputatious voices. But it's near enough to the end; and expansive as it is, after so much compression, it unavoidably feels like a dreadful conclusion; to some, it's manifestly an indictment.

Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army. Tell her about the family of dead girls, tell her their names why not, tell her the whole world knows why shouldn't she know? tell her there's dead babies, did she see babies? tell her she's got nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves. Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them, tell her I'm not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them, tell her we're the ones to be sorry for, tell her they can't talk suffering to us. Tell her we're the iron fist now, tell her it's the fog of war, tell her we won't stop killing them till we're safe, 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.

This monologue is the "proof text" for those who've charged Churchill with anti-Semitism and worse, with blood libel, which her accusers discern in the last lines of the speech.

When the two of us first discussed Seven Jewish Children we turned immediately to those lines. We both winced when we read them; we both became alarmed. One of us was disturbed by the line "tell her we're better haters," resonant of Shylock and Alberich the Nibelung. The other focused on "tell her we're chosen people," contending that in this context it reflected a misunderstanding of the term "chosen people," casting Jewish chosen-ness as an expression of divine right and exceptionalism rather than of religious/ethical responsibility. We speculated that these two lines added fuel to the willful misreading as blood libel of the lines that follow: "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." Those who level the blood-libel accusation insist that Churchill has written "tell her I'm happy when I see their children covered in blood."

But that is not what Churchill wrote. Distortion, misrepresentation and name-calling are tactics familiar to anyone who's spoken out about the Middle East. There's no blood libel in the play. The last line of the monologue is clearly a warning: you can't protect your children by being indifferent to the children of others.

There's a vast difference between making your audience uncomfortable and being anti-Semitic. To see anti-Semitism here is to construe erroneously the words spoken by the worst of Churchill's characters as a statement from the playwright about all Jews as preternaturally filled with a viciousness unique among humankind. But to do this is, again, to distort what Churchill wrote. The monologue belongs to and emerges from a particular dramatic action that makes the eruption inevitable and horrifying.

The play traces the processes of repressed speech. The violence forcing that repression comes initially from without; the monologue gives voice to a violence that's moved inside. The play stages the return of the repressed, an explosion of threatened defensiveness that, unexpressed and unowned, has turned into rage. Encountering it is terrifying; we don't want to own it. But that doesn't mean we don't recognize it. And sad to say, there's no sentiment in the monologue's spew that we have not heard or read at some point from presumed "defenders" of Israel (as even a cursory survey of the Internet demonstrates: for example, the chilling story in the March 20 Ha'aretz about some Israeli army units making T-shirts celebrating civilian casualties and rape in Gaza).

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