Tip-offs, Surprises, and the Play that Won’t Die

Two Fridays ago, I received an email – almost by accident.

A non-Jewish woman, thinking I was a member of the left-wing Australian Jewish Democratic Society, contacted me to ask for assistance.

The nature of this blog is that for every comment written by a reader, tens of private emails come my way. A number of these emails are tip-offs, of varying usefulness and reliability.

The problems arise when the tip-offs are really good (and reliable), but they come with caveats that prevent me from mentioning key individuals or organisations.

This particular email, however, grew into something more than the usual tip-off.

***

In early 2009, the Maccabi organisation’s plans (mercifully abandoned) to expel non-Jews from its sporting clubs, emerged concurrently with another communal issue: the Jewish communal reaction to the Seven Jewish Children play. These two events inspired the creation of this blog.

When the play re-emerged as a candidate for an award earlier this year, it did not register much with me, because there were far more pressing matters, such as the passports scandal.

But then, two Fridays ago, a woman in an Australian state that is neither Victoria nor New South Wales, wrote to me.

She told me that a few months ago, she and some fellow university graduates wanted to produce a performance of the play, but had run into serious opposition from the local Jewish communal roof body.

One of that roof body’s representatives approached the venue where the play was going to be staged and made enough of a fuss that the venue cancelled the performance.

The two positions – roof body and graduate players – seemed irreconcilable. The play’s producer (and writer of the email to me), however, did something extraordinary.

Instead of going down the convential anti-Zionist path of equating love of Israel with a hatred of free speech (and of course, Palestinians), she decided to approach the roof body to find out why exactly the play had upset them so much.

From there, a relationship developed between a group wanting to produce a play many Jews find anti-Zionist, if not anti-Semitic, and a Jewish roof body committed to Zionism.

Together, the two groups discussed ways that the play might be produced that would neither violate the players’ right to free speech, nor vilify Jews.

Can those of us who live in Melbourne’s Jewish community imagine such an outcome? In the larger cities, the positions on both sides are so entrenched that the idea of dialogue between roof bodies and politicised artists seems  ridiculous.

I do not imagine such negotiations were easy. The producer has requested I not use her name, or name the state in which these negotiations are taking place, because they are ongoing and sensitive.

The producer asked for my opinion on the matter because she had assumed mine was a left-wing Jewish perspective (for the record, I am staunchly non-ideological) that might have viewed the play differently from the roof body representatives.

This led to a really interesting conversation I was not expecting.

For the first time, I had to explain what exactly it was about the play that I found problematic. During a discussion with someone of obvious good faith, it’s not enough to throw around words like, “anti-Semitic” or “anti-Zionist” and expect that this is sufficient to elucidate the very real concerns many Jews have in response to the play.

Below is an edited compilation of my thoughts on the subject, sent during the email conversation with the play’s producer.

***

…When the play was performed in Melbourne last year, the atmosphere was highly – and in my opinion, unnecessarily – rancorous and partisan.

While there was much ridiculousness on the part of some in the Jewish community, those in the play and their supporters did present views that were extremely hurtful and confrontational to most Melbourne Jews.

To me, it didn’t feel like the Palestinians were really the play’s first priority: rather, it (and its performers) were more enthusiastic about putting the boot into the Zionists.

Both sides of the public debate in Australia seem to be playing a zero-sum game: either the Palestinians are all bad, or the Zionists are all bad. This is profoundly unhelpful to those actually living in Palestine or Israel, and even drags certain highly undesirable elements (ie racism) into the Australian discourse.

That is why your description of the process that you have undertaken with the play is heartening. We Zionists are a diverse and fractious bunch. Some are hard line, but many of us are keen for a just solution.

The play, when it was performed in Melbourne, did not reflect that, just as our “leadership” did not reflect the true diversity of Melbourne Jewish opinion.

The play’s principle failure is in its complete abandonment of Israel/Palestine’s complexity.

Its thoroughly inaccurate rendering of the Jewish character and sentiment is equalled by an unforgivable infantilisation of the Palestinians.

There is simply no Palestinian “voice” in that play that could delve into the dual horrors of occupation, and the corrupt and violent Palestinian governance under which they live.

A similar situation exists in Israel: the state is severely compromised not just because of outside threats, but because, like the Palestinian leadership, Israeli leaders use the conflict as an excuse for appalling behaviour domestically.

I take issue with any performance or piece of writing that’s written by well-meaning “white folk” trying to package an “exotic” oppression narrative neatly, but failing spectacularly to render the cultures and cadences with any accuracy.

How can any of us be done justice in an eight minute play?

Anti-Zionists will only have their beliefs confirmed after watching it, while not a single Zionist will change his/her mind because of the play.

Is there perhaps a way to rework the script to get authentic Palestinian and Jewish/Zionist voices in there? Or to workshop something new with people of good faith who hold varying opinions, from both communities?

***

I hope to hear from the play’s producer again. Hopefully, there will be more news of good faith dialogue. If there is, I’ll be sure to report it here.

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14 Responses to “Tip-offs, Surprises, and the Play that Won’t Die”

  1. Mohan says:

    It does not really matter whether Zionist are all “good”, “Bad” or mixed. What matters are their politics and support for Israel’s policies. As individuals, they might be good to their friends, families, and colleagues, they maight be sober, drunk, mild etc. Their personal lives and qualities ar not of much interest, it is their public role as supporters of Israel’s practices that matters.

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    • Morry says:

      No comment as to whether the Palestinian terrorists “are all “good”, “Bad” or mixed”? No I didn’t think so. Let’s go to your famous “Israel’s policies”. To the best of my knowledge, as somebody who lived in Israel for 15 years, Israel’s only policy is to defend its citizens, and it has been since day 1.

      The second the attacks on Israeli civilians cease, the checkposts will be gone. Sadly, Jews have been under constant attack since 1920, 28 years before the establishment of Israel.

      In resolving a conflict, the only important thing to understand is who is driving that conflict, who is initiating attacks. For as soon as you elimnate those attacks, there ceases to be a need for defence, and peace reigns. It’s not the Palestinians, and it’s not the Israelis, but it is the demon spawn of Haj Amin al Husseini …. Hamas, Fatah, PLO, El Aksa brigades, PFLP, Islamic Jihad, A Saika, DFLP, Hezbollah, Izz A Din Martyrs …. and the list goes on. They are the ones with “Policies”, all neatly set out in charters and speeches.

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    • Daniel Levy says:

      Seems a bit narrow-minded, Mohan, to judge a person by one rather small facet of their existence. Such a hostile, black and white approach to judging somebody seems rather extremist to me…

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    • Liam says:

      @Morry, you said: “To the best of my knowledge, as somebody who lived in Israel for 15 years, Israel’s only policy is to defend its citizens, and it has been since day 1.”

      That’s not true and is unfair to say. Israel does do that, most of the time. Sometimes it makes mistakes. Sabra and Shatila comes to mind, first and foremost. How was Israel defending its citizens then?

      Ultimately, Israel’s generally good. Most Israeli actions are designed to make Israelis safer. Building the wall is an example of that. But then the mistake of choosing where to deviate from the green line based on where Jewish settlements are, splitting villages in two, angering Palestinians, that’s the unfortunate bit. That’s the “we *were* defending our citizens, now we’re deciding borders unilaterally” bit.

      It is, however, important to remember the context. While I would love Israel to be morally perfect like no other state before it (why shouldn’t it be, after all?), it makes many of these misadventures in a similar vein to other countries.

      Was children overboard in Australia’s national interest? Nope. Prolonged detention of legitimate refugees? Doubtful. White Australia Policy? Come on.

      In context, compared against the rest of the world, Israel isn’t as bad as many make out. But it isn’t perfect, and “defending its citizens” certainly hasn’t been the sole and pure motivation of every Israeli action since 1948. We need to remember Israel’s bad as much as its good, but simultaneously aim to make it all good.

      We can’t go around pretending that Israel’s the perfect land of milk and honey, free from blemish and blunder. It just ain’t true.

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    • Morry says:

      Hi Liam, the key word was “policy”. I’m not sure how much you know about Sabra and Shatillah, but certainly letting the Phalange into the camps was an error of judgement. That it wasn’t a matter of policy is evidenced by the establishment of the Kahan Commision, and the heads that subsequently rolled.

      Again, the fence route was set by the IDF (not Israeli policy) arguing that it was best for the defence of Israelis … probably so. The Israeli High Court overturned the route and rerouted the fence based on balancing Palestinian rights (the ones you cite) against Israeli defence, because Israel, despite so many views voiced in our newspapers, is a nation that adhers to, and is signatory to the protection of human rights.

      Similarly, here in Australia, “children overboard” wasn’t policy, just bad PR, detentions and the White Australi policy are and were policy issues.

      I, too, would love to see a perfect Israel … but know how wrong and unjust it is to demand any more of Israel than you demand of any other democracy. If you allow for mistakes by them, then you must for Israel. Most important is to understand what is policy. People are murdered in Australia every day … that doesn’t make us a murderous society, as long as we have a policy that abhors murder, and a police force to enforce that policy. Similarly, if an Israeli soldier murders a Palestinian, you don’t judge Israel any harsher than you judge Australia, as long as the IDF arrests and tries the perpetrator, as long as policy abhors that action.

      Ultimately, mistakes notwithstanding, I stick to my original contention that Israeli policy has been to protect Israelis, and would add to it “and to make friends”. Israel has worked tirelessly providing courses in agriculture, irrigation and a multitude of other skills, for third world nations from Africa to India and Asia. That is a matter of policy, with Israel largely footing the bill. I met many of the grateful recipients whilst living in Haifa where one of the major learning institutes is located. It has always been so. In the 40s Israel built roads in Lebanon, and in the 60s airports in Uganda. Most recently we have Israeli efforts in saving lives during disasters.

      We benefit every day from amazing Israeli discoveries in all fields, especially technology and medicine … totally out of proportion with the size of the population. They are amazing, but we rarely hear about them because of the terrble anti-Israeli bias. Here’s a test case. In today’s Jerusalem Post an amazing discovery by Hadassah Research that will allow damaged organs in the elderly to regenerate, a true “fountain of youth”. It’s huge. The cynic in me says that I won’t be seeing it reported in the news … hope I’m proven wrong.

      Ultimately, I judge Israel by human standards, not god ones. In my world, with those criteria, Israel scores very high. She would in everyone’s books, I think, if there was no need for defence and peace prevailed. Hell, how much could she achieve then?

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  2. Morry says:

    I remember, when I first read the play, deciding that it was a grossly lobsided piece of bigotry, a piece of vilification that operated via the vehicle of putting words into Jewish mouths that were simply untrue.

    Just to be sure, I just reread the play. The “children” are all little girls … perhaps because in the world of Caryl Churchill there is something horrific about the corruption of little girls, perhaps women carry society’s morality. The play is presented as a Jewish couple’s dialogue on what to tell their daughter. Churchill is quite open in saying that the play is a contextless view of one side only. Here is a very brief synopsis, in a similar point form to the original text.

    The horror of surviving the Holocaust, Jews driven out of Palestine eons ago, Jews now drove out the Arabs and took their home based on lies about “land without people”.

    Jews stole their water, knocked their houses down. Checkpoints. Ripped out Olive trees. Jews kill far more of them. Jews are entitled because they’re stronger. Jews believe Arabs only understand violence. Jews believe Palestinians can die because they’re all terrorists, because they’re filth, and don’t mention that we’re killing women and babies … claim it was an accident.

    Jews believe there is no shame in killing babies, that Palestinians want their babies to die so that the world will feel sorry for them, Jews don’t feel sorry for them because they can’t talk suffering to Jews.

    Perhaps a small excerpt might be appropriate to understand the language.

    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.

    Frankly, none of this rings true, no effort was made to actually find out what Israelis think … rather this is a viscious streotyping, almost as viscious, in my view, as the protocols. I personally know of the pain most Israelis feel at every Palestinian civilian death, and just how much they would want it to be so. I find it wholly vilifying, without a single redeeming feature. Take out the vilification and the politics, I loved the format and it could have been a great play. Even presenting the misguided thinking of both sides might have had value in explaining the basis of the conflict. But as you say, Alex, there is no redeeming value in terms of changing the entrenched, but then vilification is aimed at changing the views of the poorly informed, and this play may have gone a long way, in its many presentations, in demonising Israel.

    Perhaps somebody can be found who thinks like the people in the play … but the play clearly wants us to think this is the overwhelmingly Jewish view.

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    • Laura says:

      I am the producer that Alex is referring to and I feel a need to respond to your comments regarding that final excerpt from the play.

      It is the most misrepresented part of the text, and I feel that Churchill wanted that text to be seen as rediculous and outrageous. As you do.

      That final monologue is a theatrical tool. Churchill uses the text as a metaphor, or extreme example, of the power of hate and intolerance. She isn’t saying that Jewish people say these things. It’s like a dream sequence, just a theatrical representation of the dark places hate can take us. The most important part of that entire scene is what is said next:

      Don’t tell her that.
      Tell her we love her.
      Don’t frighten her.

      This is what Churchill believes Jewish parents really say when they discuss the complexities of explaining what it means to be Jewish to their children.

      I hope that sheds some light on that final moment of the play and I hope one day I will have the chance to show the power of the play’s sensitivity.

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  3. Morry says:

    I thought I would respond to this in two parts. The first dealt with putting inappropriate words in people’s mothes in order to demonise them, this one goes to historical veracity of the issues presented … the narrative.

    The play is about what Jews involved in Israel’s survival are supposed to think, though I’m quite sure no such Jew was asked. The simple truth is that, historically, it never mattered what Jews thought. The decision to return an indigenous people to its ancestral homeland was taken by the League of Nations in 1920, not by Jews. The decision to then partition the land of the Mandate of Palestine, with 80% to make up an Arab homeland, and the remaining 20% West of the Jordan River to make up a Jewish homeland, was also taken by the League of Nations in 1924, not the Jews.

    The land that the League of Nations gave was theirs to give, the Jews didn’t take it. It certainly didn’t belong to the Palestinians. The Ottomans retained some 90% of their land holdings as state land, the ownership of which passed to the League after WW1. This is the land that was given to Israel and to Jordan. It did not include any privately titled land. Both Britain, who took the mandate, and Israel recognise and honour all private title from Ottoman times. But just to give an understanding of what we’re talking about, from the “British Survey of Palestine 1947″ we learn that local Arabs (today’s Palestinians) owned 3.9% of the land West of the Jordan River (Israel, WB and Gaza). Today, Arabs own 3.3% of Israel. Whilst I’m quite sure some Arabs lost property in 1948, taking demographics into account (higher density of Arabs in the WB and Gaza than in Israel) that number would have to be tiny. But I also understand why so many Palestinians claim losses, and that goes to the complexities of Ottoman land laws, so complex the the Brits were forced to adopt them, as is Israel today.(Won’t enlarge unless somebody is particularly interested in the ramifcations of Ottoman law)

    This is a very longwinded way to say that, contrary to the thrust of the play, Jews have been very passive players in this particular drama. If you’re concerned about Jewish possession of Israel then the League of Nations should be the object of your ire. Those decisions were theirs. The play very deliberately blames Jews, and accuses them of theft.

    Finally I’d like to address one line in the play, because it typifies so much. “Don’t tell her they said it was a land without people”. It gives a good synopsis of what truth is up against. That quote is attributed alternatively to early Zionists, Weizman and Ben Gurion.

    (from Wiki) “The phrase was in fact coined by a Christian Restorationist clergyman in 1843 and it continued to be fairly widely used for almost a century by Christian Restorationists.”
    The quote was changed to accuse Jews of a Terra Nullis approach. What Anthony Ashley-Cooper said in 1843 was “A land without a people for a people without a land”. That little indefinte article, that “a”, makes a world of difference. It was Edward Said who erased it in his book “The Question of Palestine” … very deliberate propaganda. Strangely when I see it on the blogs, when the AJDS jumps up and down, it is Edward Said’s propaganda they quote, not the real phrase at all. People sure love omitting that indefinite article.

    The phrase “A land without a people for a people without a land” was actually very accurate with the breakdown of any form of government in Palestine post-WW1.

    I did try to keep this short, but that particular slice of history is both fascinating and complex.

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  4. Mohan says:

    Hello Morry

    I have analysed your views often enough. The discussion was about Zionists – remember! Well I presume, expanding settlements and demolishing Palestinian farms and homes is a part of Israel’s “sole” policy.

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    • Morry says:

      No Mohan, people get arrested for “demolishing Palestinian farms and homes” and they are totally condemned throughout Israeli society. That’s what any nation’s “policy” is about.

      Allowing for natural growth of settlements is indeed a matter of policy, clearly a policy you don’t agree with.

      Let me ask you this. You clearly have issues with Jews building on both Jewish-titled land and what was Ottoman state lands, today belonging to nobody (though allocated to Jews). Do you have any problems with Arabs building on Jewish titled land and Ottoman state lands in the WB that they clearly don’t own, as they were allocated to Jews in 1924? Do you have any problems with Arabs building on Jewish land in Gaza?

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  5. Mohan says:

    Hello Morry

    I can only suggest you read Israeli papers, reports more. There are a few instances of arrests, but the policy of the state of Israel is to build settlements. (Netanyahu has said tha no Israeli government has stopped building in the West Bank in 40 years. This in response to US protests.)

    If you come out with a more detailed query about the latter part, I will give a rational answer based on universal principles.

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    • Morry says:

      Mohan, it’s simple enough. The Palestinians have been building in the West Bank on land that doesn’t belong to them for decades. Most was once Ottoman state lands. Some is Jewish owned, often tracts of JNF land. You seem to have no problem with this. You do have a problem with Jews building on Jewish owned land, and on what was once Ottoman state land in the West Bank. As a matter of policy Israel doesn’t allow any settlement to build on Palestinian owned-land. But the Palestinians have no qualms about building on Jewish owned land.

      Please explain your very obvious double standard. Given that it’s “disputed land” one would think that each side should be able to build on land that holds clear title, but that neither should be allowed to build on the disputed territory until its ownership is resolved … wouldn’t you also think? You clearly advocate unrestricted building rights for Palestinians, but no rights at all for Jews.

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    • Morry says:

      Should have added:

      Israel has indeed built settlements, on Jewish-owned and Ottoman-state land. That building was frozen last November, except for natural growth, to the applause of the US and the international community. So, no, they are no longer building settlements.

      Mohan, now google “Arabs building illegally on JNF land” and you will get a litany of articles describing the illegal Palestinian grab of hundreds of acres of JNF land outside Bethlehem, including an illegal UN school. That is building that’s still going on, not on disputed land, but on clearly titled Jewish land. Any comments?

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  6. Mohan says:

    Hello Morry

    There is the obfuscation about ottoman state lands and jeish lands. Palestine was apart of the Ottoman empire and Ottoman state lands become part of Palestine upon the end of the empire.

    This the rational part I can answer. If there is a rational question about JNF, I can look into my information about JNF and Palestinian land tenures and give an answer.

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