Thursday, May 06, 2010

Vile little "play"revives an ancient hatred and pollutes our environment

From a critique of "Seven Jewish Children", a play by Caryl Churchill, in The Wall Street Journal, 31 March, 2009, by Bret Stephens:

...Ms. Churchill's short play unfolds over seven scenes, beginning, dimly, sometime during the Holocaust and concluding, sharply, with Israel's war with Hamas. Characters appear as parents or older relatives of an offstage child, and the dialogue revolves around what the girl should or should not know about her political circumstances as they unfold over the decades.

So, for the first scene we have the line, "Don't tell her they'll kill her" -- the "they" presumably referring to Nazis. Yet by the final scene the tables have turned. Now it's the Jews who behave like Nazis: "Tell her," says one of the play's Zionist elders, "I wouldn't care if we wiped them out . . . 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." (My emphases.)

Just what is this supposed to mean? Michael Billington of the Guardian grasped Ms. Churchill's point when he wrote that the play captured "the transition that has overtaken Israel, to the point where security has become the pretext for indiscriminate slaughter." Ms. Churchill herself has written that she "wanted [the play] in some small way to reflect the shock and enormity of what happened in Gaza. I think it does that relatively mildly." (My emphasis again.)

All this makes perfect sense -- provided you're willing to reduce the Arab-Israeli conflict to caricature, magnify it to the exclusion of all others, assign blame (and moral agency) wholly to one side, and suppose that Israelis use the memory of the Holocaust cynically or neurotically as an alibi for gratuitous and wanton bloodletting.

In other words, if you're prepared to manipulate history as dishonestly as our vile little "play" about black America does, then it's easy to draw a damning moral. And if you're clever enough to cast the indictment as a story about some blacks or some Jews, or as one of generational decadence, then you might also acquit yourself of charges of racism or anti-Semitism, since you can point to a few Jews or blacks worthy of your considered respect.

Of course Ms. Churchill does just that, even as she mocks Jewish claims to statehood ("Tell her her great great great great lots of greats grandad lived there"). Of course she cites the authority of Israel's many internal dissenters and Jewish critics as another method of self-justification, thereby using Israel's own openness as a club with which to bludgeon it. Yet if you say, for instance, that Israel is a fascist state and cite the testimony of Israelis who freely argue as much, then you have done nothing except instantly disprove your own premise.

But logic is not the issue here, nor, really, are the facts: Try arguing either with someone determined to ignore them. The issue is about taboo -- a word easy to mock until you realize it often upholds what is best in society. Racism has become taboo in American society, and that's a very good thing. Anti-Semitism used to be taboo, but that's been eroded by an obsessive criticism of Israel that seems to borrow freely from the classic anti-Semitic repertoire ("tell her they're filth") while adopting the brilliant trick of treating Jewish victimization as a moral ideal from which modern Israel has sadly deviated.

Readers may wonder why Ms. Churchill's trite agitprop, a cultural blip on the vast American stage, deserves a column. Maybe it doesn't; maybe it's best ignored. But I'm reminded of what a better Churchill -- Winston -- wrote about the German decision in 1917 to put V.I. Lenin on a sealed train to Petersburg, "in the same way you might send a phial containing a culture of typhoid or cholera to be poured into the water supply of a great city." Something foul has now gotten into our water, too.
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