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: Seven Jewish Children. It is only eight minutes long but it has proved to be one of the most controversial plays in years. There have been howls of protest and declarations of support, and it has spawned alternative versions trying to make a different point.
This week it was reported that Liverpool City Council has withdrawn funding from the Writing on the Wall Festival which is organising a presentation of Seven Jewish Children at the CUC.
Now anyone who has not seen Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children can make their own judgment by watching a reading on the Guardian’s website. The play began as a swift response to Israel’s bombing of Gaza and was performed over a short run in February at London’s Royal Court theatre. Churchill made the script available online and said the only condition on it being performed live was that a collection for Gaza should be made. It has been performed across the UK – including in Taunton, Birmingham, Belfast, Glasgow and Brighton. In the US it has been seen in New York, Chicago, Washington and Seattle and there have been versions in Mumbai, Ottawa, Mexico City, Athens, Lisbon and Barcelona.
There were hopes of a British radio version but the BBC refused, saying that even with drama it had to remain impartial – the same reason it gave for not broadcasting a Gaza emergency appeal. Tom Happold, the Guardian’s head of multimedia, approached Churchill after the BBC’s decision. He said: “People will have different views but they should at least base their views on having seen it.”
The Guardian version features the actor Jennie Stoller reading the play, which has Israeli parents articulating how they should tell their children what is going on during key moments in Israel’s history, from the pogroms of the early 20th century to the six-day war to the Gaza bombing.
Seven Jewish Children divided critics. The Guardian’s Michael Billington praised its “remarkably condensed poetic form” which showed “theatre’s power to heighten consciousness and articulate moral outrage”. In the Sunday Times Christopher Hart called it “a ludicrous, dishonest and grossly anti-Israeli rant”.
The voices against it have been loud and often fierce. In a letter to the Daily Telegraph 65 prominent British Jews, including the screenwriter Ronald Harwood, the historian Geoffrey Alderman and the actors Maureen Lipman and Tracy-Ann Oberman, accused Churchill of writing a “historically inaccurate” play that portrayed Israeli parents as “inhuman triumphalists”. Howard Jacobson in the Independent called the work antisemitic and “wantonly inflammatory”.
Churchill responded by saying: “We should be able to disagree without accusations of antisemitism, which lead to a pantomime of ‘Oh yes you are’, ‘Oh no I’m not’, to distract attention from Israel.”
There have also been voices in the middle. The US pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby group J Street supported its performance in Washington and talked about “its value in sparking a difficult but necessary conversation within our community”. The playwright Tony Kushner and writer Alisa Solomon, in a piece for the Nation, said there were scenes “that are terribly painful to experience, especially for Jews”. But, they said, it is a work to be admired: “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.”