Caryl Churchill: Gaza's Shakespeare, or Fetid Jew-Baiter?

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Against my advice -- and the advice of others -- my friend Ari Roth has decided to stage two readings of Caryl Churchill's "Seven Jewish Children" at his Theater J, in Washington. (The first reading is tonight at 8:00 p.m.; the second is tomorrow at 10 p.m.) Given Churchill's strong distaste for all things Israeli and the not-entirely veiled blood libel embedded in the text,  Roth's decision to put on a reading has been controversial, but has at least produced a steady stream of publicity for his theater (of which I am generally a fan).

"Seven Jewish Children," (the full text -- it's a quick, if gross, read at eight pages -- is available here) was dismantled by some critics -- "ludicrous and utterly predictable lack of even-handedness" -- and lauded by others -- "heartfelt lamentation for the future generations." I'm in the first camp, in case you couldn't tell. Anyway, Ari asked me if I would come and talk to the audience after the reading, and I said no, but I said I would interview him on his decision to provide Churchill's play with Jewish oxygen. Here's our bizarre and sometimes-entertaining argument on Churchill and theater and Jews.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Well, tell me why I'm wrong.

Ari Roth: Well, let me ask you, do you think you're still right?

JG: I read the play five times. It reads like anti-Jewish agitprop to me. I see it as a short polemic directed against one party in a complicated conflict. Take the line, "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." I mean, I think she moves from the traditional smug, self-righteous European morally superior stance --

AR: When you say she starts, she doesn't start there --

JG: No, no, no, let me finish my sentence. I think she moves into an area that she has to know has this very, very terrible historic resonance. It's associating Jews with the spilling of innocent blood. She knows what that means and I think it kind of feeds into, obviously, the very worst and most dangerous stereotypes about Jews. How they revel in non-Jewish blood.

AR: I totally agree with you. I mean, I'm on the watch for this as well --

JG: Then why are you putting it on?

AR: I wrote in the Washington Post and the Washington Jewish Week when the Royal Shakespeare company came over with their Canterbury Tales two years ago and included The Prioress's Tale and they brought, in order to make it pungent and fresh again, they did this re-enactment of essentially a blood libel, a young boy was slaughtered by Jews and buried under the floorboards, and all the Jews wore hook-noses. This was very primitive and I blasted it. They wanted to make it fresh, they wanted to elicit outrage, they didn't contextualize, they didn't -- they wanted to surprise the shit out of people and surprise they did.

JG: Let's start at the beginning --

AR: One other thing, can you be available one of those nights? I want to give voice to a critic.

JG: I'm not going to validate it by arguing against it.

AR: Validate what? The play?

JG: What am I going to do, debate every hater?

AR: No offense, you're a critic who went out in public and said something strong about the --

JG: I don't want to treat this as a serious piece of art worthy of argument. I want to argue against what I think is a grotesquely unfair.

AR: I wouldn't be doing this if I thought it was as bad as you do.

JG:  I hope not.

AR: But then I think you should be open to the possibility that it's not as bad as you think. And the fact that some of this piece is incredibly deft in accurately overhearing the trauma that the Jews felt, you know, way back when. When they were hiding a child in the closet. I mean there's tremendous accuracy --

JG: Hold on, are you equating what happened to Jews in WWII to what happens to Palestinians children at the hands of Jews now?


AR: Okay, I'm going to speak like a valley boy: dude, I didn't say that. You know I didn't say that. And you didn't even say that because that's a dumb thing to say. That is not what it says and, in fact, that's a very convenient and easy conflation. Does she mean to suggest that people who are once under siege themselves are now laying siege? Is she creating a compressed historical irony like that? That's a question. There are a lot of questions here. But is she saying what you just said to me? I would say absolutely not.

JG: Let me give you another quote from Caryl Churchill. "Israel has done a lot of terrible things in the past, but what happened in Gaza seems particularly extreme." This is a woman who hates Israel. She's not complicated. I mean, has she ever expressed an ounce of sympathy for a Jewish child victim of a Hamas suicide bomber?

AR: You're a great writer, but you may not love art enough. And you --

JG:
I may not love art enough?

AR: Yeah, maybe you don't love the dramatic arts enough. You know a thousand things but you're making assumptions about Caryl Churchill that are not true, in terms of her lack of empathy. So I would invite you to come sit in on a rehearsal. We're just trying to understand what she's saying. Okay?

JG: Why? Why bother?

AR: Why do you do symposiums on Shylock? Why have we done two different pieces on Shylock? Because we want to make love with that character? Because we think it's the greatest comedy William Shakespeare ever wrote? It's not a particularly good play. Why is it of interest to Jews to decode and demystify and see into what --

JG: Decoding Shakespeare is one thing --

AR: How many better playwrights are there than Caryl Churchill living today?

JG: Eight.

AR: Eight?

JG: Okay, seven.

AR: Harold Pinter had lunatic left-wing politics too.

JG: He wasted the last years of his life writing shitty poetry about George Bush.

AR: When I read this play, I knew it was both pernicious and that there was something really strong and right about it, too. And I'm investigating the hell out of it, artistically. And I think it doesn't lend itself to journalistic drive-bys --

JG: I'm not driving by. Caryl Churchill wrote the drive-by. This is a drive-by shooting of a play. I mean, if she really wants to grapple with the complexity of the situation --

AR: -- Write a full-length play.

JG: -- then grapple with the complexity! There's no story in human history that is as simple as the story she presents.

AR: You may be entirely right. This form may be a kind of bastard form -- in ten minutes to tell the history of a people in the 20th century.

JG: I'll ask again. Why are you doing this?

AR: I'm not endorsing it. This is a critical inquiry. And, unlike you, I'm not saying that I'm not going to deem this play worthy of my attention. I think the play is insightful and problematic enough to be worthy of attention. It wasn't intended to be a signature calling card for us. At Theater J, we investigate plays we don't necessarily endorse.

JG: You use this distancing language. You're "investigating" it, you see its "pernicious qualities," but, in fact, you're giving it oxygen and you're giving it the imprimatur of a Jewish theater company.

AR: What is a book reviewer doing when he reads Jimmy Carter's book? What we would do is we would not only read the play and review it, we'd read it out loud and consider it.

JG: Go back to pernicious.

AR: The pernicious piece here, which is when the play goes off -- and by that, we mean in the colloquial sense -- the character spews his rage. Now I'm saying a character spews his rage. That's interpretive already. I'm not saying that the Jewish people did this.  There's one part of the paragraph that would suggest that one person is going off the rails there, where you have other people reacting, perhaps, differently to it. I mean you could say, like Motti Lerner said in "Pangs of the Messiah," a play that we did set on the West Bank --

JG: I saw it, I saw it. I did a discussion on it. Didn't I?

AR: Of course. You did it with the Israeli -- so you know what our project is up to in terms of how we love Israel and we wrestle and struggle with it.

JR: That was in the realm of the defensible. I mean, Motti Lerner's play was something completely different. It was a fully-formed, full-length play, it ventilated some of the issues. Maybe because he's writing from the inside, it scanned a lot differently to me than this smug playwright with pronounced animus towards Israel writing this drive-by polemic that's meant to demonize the Jewish state.

AR: I've shared this play with a number of Israeli academics and theater people --

JG: Yes, you found other Jews who agree you could put it on.

AR: The play is about an impulse to protect your children. From early on, the play's motivation, the characters' motivation is to protect the children at all costs. No matter what.

JG: The play's motivation is to demonize the Jewish people. Or at least the Israeli branch of the Jewish people. She's basically saying that Israelis are obtuse to the point of criminality, morally obtuse to the point of criminality and that they don't care about the lives of other people.

AR: I don't think that's fair at all. That's not what I think her project is about. Would it be different if Caryl Churchill were working the front lines of Seeds of Peace, and was an agent of dialogue, and that she wrote this play as a kind of cry from the heart, that she was outraged by the disproportionality of what happened in Gaza. Let's forget the fact that she's not letting her plays be performed in Israel --

JG: How could you forget that? She believes that Israel should be cut off from the quote-unquote civilized world --

AR: Caryl Churchill is talking with different directors now in Israel about her plays and is one step away from lifting her boycott. Maybe that's because we're trying to build a bridge between her and --

JG: Who wants to build a bridge to Caryl Churchill? That's --

AR: You don't and I do. I didn't think I did, but I do want to build that bridge with her because I think she is, she writes better than what her politics are. I hated that quote. I read that quote before I read the play and I thought I'm not going to do this play.

JG: Why?

AR: I thought it might be agitprop. But you know what? I defy you to read those first six chapters and say that they're agitprop. Now you might say it's more seductive than that --

JG: I think she's seducing you toward the point where you stage something that insinuates the blood libel.

AR:  I may agree with you. I think she's a very, very shrewd dramatist --

JG: I think shrewd is a good word. I think she wrote this to demonize Israel.

AR: There are different ways of demonizing Israel. And you can look at this as a ploy to seduce the audience and to seduce the reader, but she's also trying to emotionally engage and validate the Jewish audience member or the universal audience member --

JG: Who is she to engage me?

AR: She's going to be remembered a lot longer than you or me, that's who she is. She's a writer who has written twenty-eight great plays --

JG: Czar Alexander III is going to be remembered for longer than I'm remembered, but what do I care?

AR: I read this play and I said, "My God, she's been listening really, really closely to how Jews speak." She's not Jewish. She's gone to a shitload of cocktail parties, she's memorized every play that David Hare ever wrote about Israel. You know, her referencing the swimming pools is a reference to David Hare's "Via Dolorosa" when he talks about something fundamentally un-Jewish about Jews is Gaza sitting by their swimming pools and watching a Palestinian walk two kilometers with a jerry can for two liters of water. That's a direct reference to that. Every fucking line there comes from something else she's overheard or watched or said. And who the hell knows if she's ever been to Israel or not. I have no idea. But she is smart. She is a smart writer. And each one of these lines is doing something that is more sophisticated than you're giving her credit. And then --

JG: Oh, I'm not saying that she's not sophisticated. I'm just saying that she's using her skills and her shrewdness in order to paint a picture of Israel's that's a caricature. And she knows that Jews, because of their self-flagellating nature, will just go along with this to an extraordinary degree. I mean if she were brave, she would write about the Qu'ran, about Islamic fundamentalism.

AR: You know, it's pretty easy to go after Islamic fundamentalism.

JG: It is?

AR: I'm hearing it in the Jewish community ad nauseum. Jews get together and bash the Qu'ran, that's what they do.

JG: Who's bashing the Qu'ran? The Qu'ran is a lovely book. It's filled with very interesting passages. I'm just saying that she seems to be engaged in an exercise of cost-free moral vanity. I know she has explored the demons inside British imperial culture.  But this just seems to smug and superior. Maybe you'll say, Jeff you're such a tribalist it's ridiculous, but my general position is that I don't need to listen to Europeans lecture Jews on morality. I think they have a lot more repentance to do.  Why does Israel exist? Israel exists because Europe persecuted its Jews! I mean, where's her examination of the British fault? Where's her examination of European fault? The Jews are a scapegoat for her.

AR: I wonder whether you're entirely right about the character of Jews today. And whether we are as self-flagellating as you think.  If you look at how the Jews  --

JG: If David Mamet wrote --

AR: Can I finish? Can I finish? Look at how the Jewish community is organized institutionally here. And look at how we're set up in Israel. Look at how the Jewish institutions are set up in Britain as well. Do you see a lot of self-flagellating going on?

JG: Yes.

AR: You do?

JG: I think so.  And by the way, I think self-criticism is ultimately a gift --

AR: I do, too.

JG: One of the reasons the Muslim world is in trouble is that self-criticism is so stifled.  But there comes a point when its like, "enough already." But answer this question. If David Mamet were to write "Seven Muslim Children: An Inquiry Into Why Palestinians Allow Their Sons to Become Suicide Bombers," do you think that people would be sitting in Beirut and Amman, staging the play and having dialogue groups about whether the play was fair or not? And I use Mamet very particularly, obviously, because you know where he's coming from.

AR: He's a rough --

JG: He's a Jewish nationalist --

AR: He's the Jeffrey Goldberg of the American theater is what he is.

JG: He's the what?

AR: He's the Jeffrey Goldberg of the American theater is what he is. And you can feel good about that. He's off the rails, but at least he's got a very strong, pugnacious sense of Jewish pride.

JG: My problem with Mamet is that he doesn't allow for complications to come into his understanding of Jewish power.

AR: Right --

JG: Maybe you could just get Caryl Churchill and David Mamet on a stage together with butter knives and see who comes out alive.

AR: Funny. I like the dialogue we're having right now. It's what I hope to have with the audience. I'm not going to stop until I get you to join me --

JG: No, no, no! You're not going to get me to join you.

AR: You're going to have to own that. There you go. So you do not want to debate?

JG: I'm not going to go debate Walt and Mearsheimer either. Why? Because I think they're motivated not by facts, but by hostility.

AR: If somebody writes a play about Walt and Mearsheimer's ideas, I'd absolutely do a reading of it and talk about it.

JG: You're better than that. You're --

AR: If it was written by a halfway decent writer and somebody wrote a play about the so-called pernicious Jewish lobby that's affecting the way the make our decisions. So listen to this. Here's why we're doing it. The fact that, over eight pages, so many of the lines resonate not with the language of hate, but with the language of perception. Meaning she has overheard, she has seen, she has captured the language that Jews speak to each other with and that is astonishing.

JG: It's astonishing that she overheard the ways Jews talk at cocktail parties?

AR: Because that makes her a ten-times better theatrical reporter than anybody I've ever seen. This is play written with extraordinary precision. She wrote a play that arrested my attention. And it has a problem title. I hate the title. It is a problem place where it ends, but it is subject to an incredible amount of interpretation. It's written with multiple characters. People argue with each other. It's not written as a diatribe. And so you have to allow for the art form of theater to have its way with her text. That is what's going to happen, that's what's happening in this rehearsal room. I struggle with the play. God bless me. I'm a struggling Jew. You know?

JG: You can't decontextualize it. I'm sorry. It comes out of a certain moment and it comes out of a culture that has demonized Israel. It comes out of a particular theater subculture in Great Britain that demonizes Israel.

AR: Does this play play differently in Washington, D.C. then it does in London?  The answer is absolutely and the context is tremendously important.

JG: So fine, next Tuesday night, put me on stage and I'll read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the audience.

AR: We should read that thing!

JG: Oh come on!

AR: You know who did that thing, Will Eisner, the great graphic novelist, did his last work on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in comic book form. I'd love to stage that thing.

JG: Let's put it on a show. Put on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I'd sooner do that than this.

AR: How on earth do you get up the balls to talk to all these Hamasniks?  And you won't even sit with a play you think you know --

JG:  I'm not that much of a masochist. You know, if I want a prostate exam, I'll go get a prostate exam.

AR: It's good for you.

JG: Why do I have to sit there and have this argument: "The Jews are demons!" "No they're not!" "The Jews are demons!" "No they're not!"

AR: You actually read the play five times?

JG:  You're not crediting me with sincerity here. I don't think it's artistic. I think it's polemical. I think it's agitprop. And because it's polemical and agitprop, I judge it differently. I judge it as a piece of politics, not as a piece of art. And as a piece of politics it's dishonest.

AR: Can I interrupt?

JG: Yeah.

AR: Lots of people disagree with you about the nature of what it is as a work. Forget its politics. The politics, we can all agree, are pro-Palestinian and angry at Israel. Let's agree on that. It's a play for Gaza.

JG: She's trying to close a circle. "Once the Jews were oppressed, now they are the oppressors." That's her story of Jewish people. Oh, what a tragedy. It's easy, it's smug, it's fetid.

AR: Okay, just stop for a second. Let's pretend we're not talking about a play but we're talking about a painting. Let's pretend Picasso. Picasso was going to paint, à la Chagall, the story of Gaza, like in "Guernica" -- he's outraged by the killing of children in Gaza. So let's say Picasso does with simple brush strokes, little artful renderings of who his friends, the Jews, used to be; who they were in the '60s; how they were in the '90s; and what he sees today. And he does them with little stokes, little hints of this. And they just happen to be the strokes of a master artist, as opposed to an idiot. And they end with a horse braying and an electric light bulb going off and bombs falling. And that is his cry from the soul.

JG: Are you saying Caryl Churchill is Picasso?

AR: I'm saying it's Caryl Churchill's "Guernica." Come and debate this. And how did Franco feel about "Guernica?" Who knows? He was angry too. I'm angry. I don't think this is a great work of art, but I think there's a great artist doing something interesting here

JG: I know exactly what she's doing.

AR: I think she was trying to do her "Guernica" in ten minutes here.

JG: Well, she probably should have spent more time and a little bit more thought.

AR: Look, I hate the fact that she conflates the Israeli military behavior with Jewish behavior --

JG: That's not a small thing --

AR: That's not a small thing but then let's wrestle with it.

JG: I think she has a pornographic interest in Jewish immorality.

AR: I like what you're saying, but other people are going to read this and say: "Jeffrey, you're just not giving enough possibility to the fact that it's more complicated than that."

JG: I think she's the enemy of complication in this case.

AR: If she were, she wouldn't have written the play as well as she did.

JG: It's interesting to me that nothing in the last fifty years of Middle East history has prompted her to write like this until now. The Dolphinarium bombing, the slaughter of innocent people on buses across Jerusalem, the birth of a suicide cult in Gaza. That doesn't interest her. And I'm serious when I say this: I think that people like Caryl Churchill have a kind of gross, sometimes pornographic interest in proving Jewish immorality. It makes them feel better. I believe that. It makes them feel less immoral if they can prove that Jews are immoral too -- that the ultimate victims are just like everybody else. Or worse than everybody else!

AR: You do know what a fierce critic she is, as you've pointed out, of British colonialism. Of hypercapitalism. Of Thatcherite politics, of the Thatcherite economy. She has found many, many other righteous causes to be indignant about over the decades. So this is not the case that she's been waiting all her career to finally get one thing off her chest. She's been getting a lot of things off her chest for many years. Now, you and I don't know what her record of writing is and her record of political involvement on issues pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict is.

JG: Well, I've seen what she's said.

AR: We don't know what's in her dramatic writing. She has a long history -- I mean her writing on Ceaucescu and the Romanian Revolution in "Mad Forest" is fucking masterful and she did that work by going to Romania --

JG: I never argued that she's not a talented person. What I worry about is that a play like this demonizes and endangers Jews. I'm sorry. Maybe that makes me limited --

AR: I don't worry about the Jews being endangered by this play one bit. I think this play --

JG: You don't think this play has the ability to possibly increase anti-Semitism?

AR: What do you feel about the articles that came out this week about the Israeli army in Gaza? Does that have the possibility of increasing anti-Zionism, anti-IDF feeling?

JG: Of course! Of course! But that's documentable truth. What Caryl Churchill has done is written a one-sided polemic free of facts. We're talking about two different things. And I've written that Israeli behavior sometimes endangers Jews who have nothing to do with Israel. Anyway, I just don't get it. I understand your impulse -- it's controversial; she's a famous and respected playwright.

AR: It's not as dissimilar as you think to the "Merchant of Venice" issue.

JG: She says that we're "better haters."

AR: Jeffrey, Jeffrey --

JG: That's Shylock, right?

AR: I want your very, very smart blog readers to understand that the way to discuss this play is not to lift lines from the last page and a half of it. That is not how to fully experience and understand the meaning of any drama. I can't cede this to journalists who don't love theater enough to understand what's going on here. That is not a sophisticated way to regard art, by picking out a sentence here and then going apeshit over it!

JG: It's not just a sentence.

AR:  She could have said worse.

JG: Oh, that's a great standard to have. She could have said worse.

AR: This is why you don't work in the American theater.

JG: This isn't even the line that insinuates the blood libel.

AR: Okay, this is right at the end.  The line is, "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." So let's just say that this is the fucking problem line in the whole thing. I mean, it's one of many. So we are looking at our different options theatrically in interpreting this. If I saw it as heinous I wouldn't have any actors work on it at all. But one of our actors looked at it and said she didn't see the blood libel at all. She said, "I see it as she's simply saying she is recognizing the blood spilled on a Palestinian child," and her character has been protective of her child from the beginning of this thing. And she's saying, "That child may be covered in blood, but I am at least relieved that you're not. And I recognize that that child is injured, is dead."

JG: Your argument is that Caryl Churchill is very shrewd and understands what each line means. She knows what's she's doing. She wrote this to increase people's hostility toward Israel, and based on the title, to Jews. There's politics here.

AR: Listen, I think part of what you're saying may be right. She could have written any number of solidarity plays with the Palestinians. Instead, she wrote a play to hurt Israel. And to hurt the Jewish cause. Her aim here was to hurt. We in the Jewish community are motivated to do things because we love Israel. Even if we criticize Israel, we criticize because we love. Churchill, a great artist --

JG: Criticizes because she hates.

AR: I didn't say hates. You don't know that she hates, my friend. You do not know that and you shouldn't write it. I'm going to sound like my mother for a second. You shouldn't say that, you don't know that, you know that she's angry. She wrote it to hurt. And to hurt a country that she feels has hurt Hamasniks and innocent Palestinians alike. Because both are mentioned here. The innocents and terrorists are both mentioned here. And because she has the ability to, she is hurting back. And she's hurting in the form of exposing.

JG: I just wish you weren't doing this.

AR: Really?

JG: Yeah, really.

AR: Do you think I'm helping to hurt Israel?

JG: You're the useful Jew. You've made yourself into the useful Jew.

AR: And you in your work, in all the work that you do that is critical of Israel.  And when you go and talk to people who are building illegal settlements. Jeffrey, we do the same thing.

JG: No. I try to present it in a complicated way. And you do, too, except for this. I think Caryl Churchill and the political forces behind Caryl Churchill are very, very glad that Ari Roth exists because they can hide behind you. They can say, "Ah, look, how could we be anti-Semites if Jews are putting this on for us?"

AR: I find that to be stuff that makes me want to go to the theater and wrestle with it. And to say, "What's going on here?"

JG:
Ari, you don't have to wrestle with everything.

AR: Wrestling is not self-flagellation.

JG: No, but it can slide into self-flagellation. I'm a self-critical Jew. I am. I wrote a book about the morally flawed occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. And self-criticism makes you stronger. This, on the other hand, is a simple polemic designed to lower Israel's stature in the world and designed to lower the stature of Jews.

AR: There's a lot at stake here. There are big intellectual and political questions. And to boycott this and to just turn away and say "We don't hear Caryl Churchill. We don't hear this criticism," that's wrong. You asked why I said yes to this. I said yes to this because it's disarmingly, and maybe even unfortunately, so well-written.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. Author of the book Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, Goldberg also writes the magazine's advice column. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. Previously, he served as a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward, and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

His book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. Goldberg rthe recipient of the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism. He is also the recipient of 2005's Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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