Since its first performance at the Royal Court Theatre in 2009 Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children has been a topic of critical debate. This performance divided its audience; it was lauded as an impassioned and illuminating dramatization of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, though some parties accused it of gross insensitivity. The joint production of the play staged by Palestinian Solidarity Society and The Antigone Collective during Israeli Apartheid Week, has sparked a similar discourse here on campus. Several Israel supporters condemned the staging, issuing flyers asking if the University of York supports anti-Semitic culture. Such scrutiny is an essential component of a university environment dedicated to combating intolerance, yet the accompanying allegations of anti-Semitism directed at the production are misguided and reductive.
The ten-minute play contains seven scenes, spanning roughly 70 years from 1930s Europe to Israel and the 2009 Gaza offensive. The literature distributed by the dissatisfied students focused on a quotation from the play’s final scene which they described as a “monologue of genocidal racist hatred.” It argued that this outburst – and the play by extension – perpetuates age-old anti-Semitic tropes. While it is true that each and every reader and audience-member has a unique experience of any play, this accusation of anti-Semitism requires a wilful misreading of the text and an irresponsible disregard for the play’s other voices. No single speaker claims to homogenise and represent the views of the Israeli government or Judaism. The play is a litany, the voice in question is one of many who struggle to describe the violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the seven voiceless children. The play does not stage a univocal perspective – instead a cacophony of interlocking and unassigned voices depict a multifaceted and fragmentary image of the crisis.
To argue otherwise is disingenuous, and yet the flyers condemning the play actively misrepresent this monologue as a solitary voice speaking on behalf of the entire text. The two lines following the outburst contradict such an interpretation, reading: “Don’t tell her that. / Tell her we love her.” The voices in the play refuse to be spoken for. Rage and fear are overruled by tenderness, empathy, and love. A play is incomplete outside of performance, and the directorial vison of the Antigone Collective reflected this tenderness and heterogeneity. The only light in the room came from the projection of images providing historical context for each scene, while the actors weaved in and out of the audience, changing position to punctuate the shifts in period. This emphasized the trans-historical nature of the play, and the rapidly evolving nature of the conflict. The darkness left the lines unattributed. They focused not on who uttered them, but on what they discuss: namely, how to represent the violence to the innocent children caught in the conflict. Their version of the play was not anti-Semitic. It did not assign responsibility for the conflict. Instead, it was a highly nuanced production which framed the issue as a collection of complex, contradictory, and yet legitimate narratives.
The production has triggered important dialogue on campus. A group of Jewish students – several of whom were involved in the plays production – have responded to the allegations of anti-Semitism and the play’s depiction in the media. In their statement they defended the production, and expressed their belief that their “support of an occupied, oppressed people is often mistakenly perceived, particularly by those Jews who identify as Zionist, as anti-Semitic sentiment.” They also expressed concerns that this kind of conflation is irresponsible, and can have an adverse effect on “Jews who do suffer actual intolerant, anti-Semitic abuse”. One can only hope that their voices will be heard amongst the clamour.