Seven Jewish Children (1?)

Melbourne has had its reading of Seven Jewish Children, its donation bucket and panel afterwards, and yet I am a little surprised that no follow-up discussion has appeared, not even among the bloggers. I imagine it has something to do with the supreme lack of time we all seem to profess at the moment. I certainly have many better things I could be doing. However, I wanted to leave a short note, even if only to signpost: was there.

Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children is a very beautiful, if tiny, piece of writing, and the biggest failure of the event was quite possibly to use it as a pretext for the panel. I am not sure I would classify it as a political piece, simply. To my reading eye, Children is a text about ethics, community, and conscience, not politics. To those who haven’t read it, it is structured into seven short scenes, in which an unnumbered group of people, with unassigned lines, argue about how to explain seven unnamed moments of recent Israeli history (hiding from the Nazi, the Holocaust – and bear with me when I say ‘Israeli’, I will explain later – moving to Israel, the settlements, the Six Day’s War, the second Intifada, and the most recent attack on Gaza; the references are clear, but left unstated), to an unnamed child, which Churchill stipulates must be absent from the stage. The recurring phrases are: tell her that… – don’t tell her that… – don’t frighten her – don’t tell her THAT.

It is a chilling text to read when, like me, you’ve grown up listening to adults arguing over your head about what you should, and shouldn’t know. Perhaps it is this experience that makes me see Seven Jewish Children as a generous, sympathetic play where many people seem to see blatant anti-Semitism. I asked many questions when I was little, and I remember these conversations exploding into entire family arguments over my little head: tell her this!, tell her that!, don’t tell her that, that’s not true!, and the recurring phrase (one that Churchill leaves out): she is old enough to know. I was old enough to know all sorts of things about how evil the enemy was, how evil the neighbours were, how rotten the state, the continent, the world was. It was a little fight between my parents, and my parents and the world. Parents demarcate their world, their worldviews, their values, through their children, their children signpost a success, an influence. Thus we have vegetarian children, Christian children, Steiner-school children, children who play the violin at the age of three, and children old enough to parrot their parents’ political views.

Just like at my kitchen table, in Seven Jewish Children adults, through parenting advice, are discussing their political views with one another. Yet they are also mounting pressure and breaking down, and this is where Churchill’s extreme rhetorics (David Jays) should not be taken as a condemnation of some cold-blooded, exterminating Zionism or other. The inward-looking worldview of the parent is, here, struggling against the pressure from the disjointed, illogical, terrifying and shameful exterior that cannot be kept outside. As much as, in the face of a terrible world, we would all rather turn Amish than have to teach our children the rules of survival, inwardness cannot be kept forever. (A couple of very interesting films and plays have, since 9/11, focused on this problem of the intruding exterior: most notably The History of Violence and Cache but also, say, Mercury Fur.) The warm, vanilla-scented interior of the community needs to be opened up to the messy, violent exterior that we are responsible for and that contradicts our very values. It is a struggle to keep something complicated simple, for a child, and to protect them without lying, to her but mainly to oneself. And the breaking points happen: one can no longer speak truth because the truth is too unpleasant, or because lies don’t make sense anymore, or because the exterior has gone out of hand. Tell her we kill far more of them is a terrible thing to say, but I’ve heard adults say it over children’s heads, all good people who don’t kill other people, who give small change to the homeless, who hate conflict most of the time; but who are, in that moment, voicing a worldview which exists as legitimately as brotherhood and unity, in their world. They do kill far more of them, or they wish they do, it’s said often enough, she will learn the phrase sooner or later. Parenting becomes an impossible game that needs to be played nonetheless.

So Churchill’s playlet notates the progression of failing rhetoric in the face of a terrible situation; hardly a thing to call anti-Semitic. Yet it is precisely her insistence on making the play political that creates the problems. The text itself is poetic, ambiguous: keeping it free of performance rights, thus encouraging readings and staging worldwide, asking for donations to be made for Gaza and so on, are the external devices that made it into a political play, and it is, I think, a strategic mistake for Churchill. It makes us read a fundamentally literary text in terms of its political use-value, and a number of problems emerge: suddenly every literary gesture needs to stand for either condemnation or justification. To read the text politically ultimately diminishes its value as a work of art, without adding much. But there is a point to make here, too.

More than one person has felt that labeling the children Jewish signposts the dilemma of an entire religious/ethnic group, rather than a nation. It is possible to argue that the Holocaust is a Jewish, not an Israeli tragedy, that it was important to be correct. However, the inclusion of the Holocaust, if anything, tilts the political position (if there is one) of the play towards justifying one kind of violence with another (you see?, strategic mistake). This is exactly the same as the liberal-European position that justifies Islamic terrorism on the grounds of the colonial injustices suffered, or – why not? – Palestinian bombings with the state of Gaza. Yet behind every single nation-state there is the trauma of the preceding displacement: behind the nation-making violence of Yugoslavia was the trauma of the semi-colonial bloodshed of the world wars, just like behind the unification of Germany may be the Thirty Years’ War. Moreover, as Zizek points out, there is a foundational violence at the beginning of every nation: there were people living in just about every land before those currently living there arrived. Israel’s peculiarity is that its own foundational violence, the displacement of Palestinians, is too historically close to be conveniently forgotten. The problematic of the play is so universal that it could be transposed to every single country in the world, as long as it was willing to travel into the history: Seven American Children, starting with religious prosecution in Europe and ending with the genocide of the Native Americans; Seven French Children, in which the revolutionary terror spills over into the Napoleonic wars; Seven Australian Children, and so on. It is a universal story of a dishonest history lesson: and who hasn’t ever had one?

The problem with reading the play politically is that all this needs to be taken into account (and more, and more…). If this historical linearity between foundational violence is taken on into the future, if the arbitrary line between distant and recent history is not drawn (the violent and unfair gesture with which we relegate our past crimes to the past, refuse our victims the right to be historically wronged, and pretend nothing has happened), then the past keeps returning as a terrible justification of whatever our present crimes may be.


However, using this play as a pretext for a discussion on Gaza creates a set of problems much bigger than anything enumerated so far.

I am hoping to be able to continue this. However, I am enormously busy at the moment…
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6 thoughts on “Seven Jewish Children (1?)

  1. Thanks for this fascinating (and illuminating) report, Jana. I couldn’t be there… though there will be others! The question of foundational violence is a crucial one – it’s in Yeats, Benjamin, so much post-colonial writing. Yes, life is full on – but let’s continue the conversation! xA

  2. Jana says:

    It is probably better that you weren’t, dear Alison, it morphed into a strange performance of… dissent?, politics?, discussion?, the moment the play was over. That is an even more interesting thing to think about, and hopefully I will have time between my assignments to continue writing.

    I had read the play before going. It’s an absolutely beautiful text. Also one, it strikes me, that could mean many things (politically) depending on the performance. Whether the actors were performing soberly or in a heightened mood, what words were emphasized (don’t TELL her that / don’t tell her THAT) could change our responses to speakers completely… Oh, there is so much that could be said here. I am so surprised there’s been no discussion.

  3. Julian says:

    Hi Jana,

    interesting discussion, I’m looking forward to part 2! I do think, though, that there are more problems with Churchill’s inclusion of the Holocaust (and the ways in which it frames the piece as a play about Jewish history generally rather than specific Israeli actions) than the one that you examine here. You suggest that in taking the Holocaust as her starting point, Churchill tilts the play towards ‘justifying’ Israeli violence against Palestinians, presumably by understanding it as part of a response to that historical trauma, the sense of threat and lack of security. But when it is being performed in this context, another potential reading of the play might be that it is arguing that we should see how the victims have grown to become no better than their former oppressors (the move, essentially, from ‘don’t tell her what is happening to us’ to ‘don’t tell her what we are doing’) and thereby rebuking Jews (collectively) for failing to learn the moral lessons of the Holocaust, whatever those may be. To be clear, I don’t think that the play is anti-Semitic, but I do think that the simple trajectory it traces from the Holocaust to the recent attacks on Gaza is troubling because of its potential to feed into this kind of gloating conclusion. Anyway, I hope you find the time to write more on this.

    Best – J.

  4. Jana says:

    Hey Julian, great to have you here!

    The context is the big thing, much more troubling than the play itself, because of the way it feeds into the bigger theatre of life, politics, protest, all of it. And what you say is correct. But this was just a quick note on the play itself: how it works on stage, after donations and before a panel, is a slightly (although not entirely) separate question.

  5. Yes, it’s a hard text to embrace in some ways, although I would absolutely defend it against claims of anti-Semitism, the haste of its writing shows, I think. I could wish it to be a stronger text… On the other hand, should theatre always refrain from the polemical and from immediate intervention in public events? I find myself feeling ambivalent about it, all the same. Some of the more controversial quotes come straight from Israeli comment columns, such as those underneath articles in Haaretz, and I do wonder at the shrillness of objection to them – these things are said, and straight out, and in some ways Churchill is doing little more than reporting what she has read. I know Tony Kushner defended the title, but I suspect a lot of the defensiveness from within the Jewish community comes from the titling.

  6. Jana says:

    Not theatre, not literature either. But I do hope I get to write more about this, because there was something particularly problematic about the way Seven Jewish Children was employed in this context.

    The performance of a text like this would hugely influence its meaning. While my readerly interpretation was of a very compassionate text, I imagine it could be read as a war-mongering monstrosity too (although it would mean a number of jarring moments). That’s part of the beauty of it, the open-endedness.

    A lot of the arguments for and against, I find, treat Churchill’s text as one that makes a political statement, and defend its political position. While I admire the effort, I would be very careful about saying that the politicality of the text, if there is one, derives from the words (rather than from the way it is to be performed). For that reason I found many of the arguments missed the point slightly, in their fervour to defend a great playwright and a good cause.

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