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Thursday, 5 March 2009

On Anti-Semitism and all that stuff ...

March 4th

I have finally caught up with the controversial playlet by Caryl Churchill ‘Seven Jewish Children’ that played recently at the Royal Court.

It is available at and it makes painful reading.

Painful not because I think it is anti-Semitic – that accusation is more a kneejerk defensive reaction than a measured response – but painful because it encapsulates in its less-than-ten minutes of dialogue the pain of 20th history for Jews, and the pain any parent or adult might feel when we know how little we can do to protect our children from the pain of the world. What is done to us and what is done by us.

The text offers us seven scenes, each a set of voices in tension. In tension with each other – “Tell her her uncles died/Don’t tell her they were killed/Tell her they were killed/Don’t frighten her” - and voices in tension within themselves, tense with the excruciating dilemma of how not to pass on to one’s children one’s own fears, and guilt, and uncertainties in life, and how to pass on to them an honest account of what has happened, what is happening, what might happen, beyond the confines of their own homes and families.

The scenes trace Jewish history in the 20th century from before the Holocaust, through the birth of the State of Israel, and the wars that followed, up to the latest incursion into Gaza (the play’s subtitle is ‘a play for Gaza’). The text, with its deceptively simple lines and dialectical movement between opposing or contrasting points of view, is poignant and compassionate and provocative. Poignant because there has been so much sorrow in the last century of Jewish history, compassionate because the voices continually return to the protective refrain “Don’t frighten her”, and provocative because the author builds her text towards an indictment of Israel’s actions in Gaza in December and January: “...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. Don’t tell her that..”

There is a psychological honesty here that sears the heart and does make painful reading. But how should our history be written? The history of the emotional dividedness of the embattled Jewish people, and the emotional dividedness inside each Jew sensitive to the conflicting feelings of love and support for ‘our’ people in Israel, and the horror at what is sometimes done in the name of the State we also care about and want to feel such pride in.

The accusations thrown at this play include the accusation that it presents Jews in a historically anti-Semitic stereotypical way as ‘uncaring’, ‘triumphalist’ and ‘brutal’. Some of the feelings on display are indeed uncaring, triumphalist, and brutal (while others are caring, gentle and empathetic) – but these emotions are what fearfulness can generate in any one of us when we feel threatened. And the author shows the pervasive fearfulness about survival that has threaded its way through our history and wrapped itself round our souls. For anti-Semitism has been real, all too real. But this isn’t it.

This is a play alive to the inner conflicts of a persecuted people – “Tell her there were people who hated Jews/Don’t tell her/Tell her it’s over now/Tell her there are people who still hate Jews/Tell her there are people who love Jews...” – and how those unresolved inner conflicts can spill over until the persecuted ones, the victimized ones, still feeling themselves persecuted from within and without, end up victimizing others and hating themselves for it and hating the victims for making them do it, and then hating themselves for feeling that hatred ... and so it goes on, ‘to the third and fourth generations’.

Read the play for yourself. See what you think. I imagine you will be moved, and disturbed, and confused, maybe angry, maybe sorrowful – (and all those feelings are in the text too) – which means that the text has worked. It’s brave and brazen and risks itself being misunderstood. That’s what good texts do, stimulating our imaginations, our indignations, stirring us into response, reminding us of the complexities of the human condition and the sometimes well-nigh unbearable dramas we carry within our hearts and minds.


And while we are talking about comes Purim, that fleeting wine-drenched festival where we are commanded to drink to excess, to obliterate the difference between ‘Blessed is Mordechai’ and ‘Cursed is Haman’, to annul the distinction between (as it were) ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

How come? How is it that when Jews are so resolute in making a distinction between good and evil, the tradition sanctifies its abandonment on this day? Why is it a day of carnival, a day of disguises, a day of mocking authorities and subverting the status quo we cling to, of toppling the pieties we hold so dear. How can we be so brazen in questioning the clarity of the boundaries between goodness and its opposite? What were the rabbis of old intuiting about these categories? That the boundaries are not as clear as we like to think? A shocking thought – that good and bad might not be clear cut choices, that our hard-won moral positions may be more relative than we thought, more fluid than we dare to know?

We read the Book of Esther, where the name of God does not appear (the only Biblical book where this is so); and as we read this archetypal story of Jew-hatred cast in a diasporic land where God is (apparently) absent, do we not glimpse out of the corner of an eye the way in which good and evil plays out in history at the whim of all-too-human human beings, with their loves and hates, their loyalties, their treacheries and their feelings of betrayal?

The fate of the Jews in the story is in human hands. Not God’s hands. And the story illustrates how all of our fierce commitment to maintain goodness in the face of evil can be undone at the whim of tyrants and dictators. Perhaps no-one is in charge – a frightening thought. Perhaps life comes to us in disguise, asking us to search beneath the surface, to find what lies hidden within the revealed (‘Esther’ means ‘hidden’).

There is a mystery here that we may not want to know too much about – about arbitrariness in life, how life and death can come in the twinkling of an eye, about contingency and randomness, about all that lies beyond our control. About how life involves mixedupness , where yesterday’s heroes can become tomorrow’s villains, how no-one is thoroughly good and no-one is thoroughly evil, how the rejected can become triumphant, and the victims become persecutors. At the end of the Book of Esther the Jews massacre their former persecutors. No wonder we need to be inebriated to read this text. ‘You think you are good? Could never hurt a fly? Just wait – just wait until the boot is on the other foot...’

This story has it all, this festival intuits a truth about the human condition that maybe it’s best we only glimpse once a year. While drunk. And while pretending it’s only just a bit of fun.


And lastly, on this theme – although there is never an end to this accursed theme – the Jewish Chronicle offered us last week on its front page what for a moment I thought must surely be an early Purim spiel.

‘Wartime Pope’s secret heroism’ – Pope Pius XII, long condemned by Jews as an anti-Semite for his refusal to speak out against the Nazi persecution of Jews during the War, the man branded as ‘Hitler’s Pope’, and used by Jews to exemplify their sense of historic grievance against Christianity as innately anti-Semitic – this is the man who, it is now revealed by new documents found in the Vatican’s archives, secretly ordered convents, monasteries and Catholic churches to hide Jews from the Gestapo. And persuaded Brazil and the Dominican Republic to grant thousands of visas for ‘non-Aryans’.

The villain has become a hero. In the twinkling of an eye.

For this is no Purim jest. It turns out that Pope Pius was almost philosemitic, and pro-Zionist to boot. And another prejudice I hear from time to time – ‘the whole world hates us’ – bites the dust. Except it never does. The Catholic church under Pius may have saved between 700,000 and 850,000 Jews from the Nazis, an extraordinary story. Strange how history works.

So when we are tempted to imagine that the world is against us - and which Jew doesn’t feel that in their hearts at some moments of their lives? – let’s pause and recall how things are not always as they seem, not always as we are told, that life is often more complex and mixed-up than we want to know. And let’s this Purim raise a glass to our new ‘righteous gentile’ and former hate figure, Pope Pius XII, and offer a heartfelt toast ‘L’chaim’ – To Life!

To life in all its wondrous strangeness: ‘L’Chaim’.

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