Wednesday, 21 January 2015

To Tell or Not to Tell: Our Jewish Legacy

It's certainly been a long time since I've posted on this blog, but I haven't been overly inspired to write about anything (cohesive) until today.

As a Teaching Assistant for a third-year Modern Drama class (, our syllabus explores a multitude of plays that address social and political issues spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Today we watched a version of Caryl Churchill's "Seven Jewish Children"( which has received both positive and negative reviews from the greater global and academic community.

Churchill's play was written in response to the refusal of BBC to broadcast an internationally backed appeal for aid relief for the Palestinian people. In response to her work, Richard Sterling wrote Seven Other Children, a play which mimics Churchill's in almost every facet, except in that it draws on the Israeli perspective.

Writers including Phillips (2009), Jacobson (2009), Nathan (2009), Newkey-Burden (2009) flatly asserted that Churchill's play was an anti-Semitic play disguised as a "critique of Israel".

One of my students today in class pointed out that while Churchill's play begins with a profound and poignant representation of the Holocaust--emphasizing the Jews as its oppressed victims-- it concludes with the Israel/Gaza conflict in order to explicitly position the Jews as today's oppressors.

In line with my student's comment, Jacobson, in the Independent, remarked that Churchill's anti-Semitic "tactic" is successful through her narrative frame (a topic we explored in class). He writes, "No sooner are the Jews out of hell of Hitler's Europe than they are constructing a parallel hell for the Palestinians."

Although Churchill denied accusations of anti-Semitism ("My play is not anti-Semitic", 2009), I cannot help but agree with Jacobson--to the extent that Churchill's narrative sets up a problematic oppressed/oppressor binary that suggests the Jews, as victims of the Holocaust, have internalized a genocidal hatred to the point of using the Palestinians as an outlet for their past sufferings.

Certainly the conflict in the Middle East is one that involves a spectrum of opinions, and I commend Churchill for pinpointing something that many others may not have not necessarily picked up on in their critique of her work (which I will discuss later on in this entry), but given the history of the Jewish people, and the current political climate, a play of this nature only exacerbates the ever-growing issue of anti-Semitism in Europe and the increase of Holocaust deniers currently among us.

Racism is a blanket term for the irrational hatred of, and discrimination against, a particular race. If hating Jews was never (or currently not) a concern, then why is there a specific term for it?

The Palestinians have no doubt been through a kind of hell in their own right. When the Jewish nation reclaimed Israel, the Palestinians lost more than just their land--thousands perished and many are currently living in squalor.

But why don't people question why this happened? Do you really think that the Jews randomly decided to go to war on a whim, without just cause? I've seen enough famous people perform parodies of the concept "Why can't we all just get along?" as though that's even remotely possible given the extensive and bloody history of the Middle East. Both "sides" claim right to the land (and this post has no intention of engaging with that particular minefield), yet people who have no connection to Palestine or Israel whatsoever somehow find ways to assert their own opinions on the subject.

Like Churchill.

I strongly doubt I have ever read a piece of literature by a Jewish person on another ethnic group's experience. I seriously question whether this work even exists, though I very well could be wrong. But there is certainly no end to non-Jewish writers who write on the Jewish experience.

Churchill wanted to respond to the BBC's refusal to broadcast an internationally backed appeal for aid relief for the Palestinian people. Great--I'm all for challenging censorship at every turn.

But then why choose to speak from a Jewish perspective, emphasizing Gaza's plight, and not the Jewish state's? Why not, in line with the bombardment of images of bloodied and broken Palestinian children, choose a Palestinian to narrate the story to a Palestinian child and not a Jewish one?

Initially, I can understand why Jacobson and other writers called out Churchill for a borderline anti-Semitic undertone.

In this particular adaptation, there are several moments where this appears quite blatant.

Around the 6:23 mark, the woman speaking pleads to the listener not to tell the girl that they (Palestinians) throw stones, but then half chuckles that the stones "aren't much good against tanks." As she is speaking from the Jewish perspective, this suggests that Jews, specifically Israeli Jews (because remember, not all Israelis are Jewish or identify as Jews), find the Palestinians' attempt to defend themselves amusing, which completely elides the destructive weaponry that Gaza has launched on Israel which results in Israel's use of tanks in order to defend themselves. This comment also ignores Hamas' genocidal child television programming (the kind of programming that does not exist in any form in Israeli television) as well as Gaza's blatant disregard for human life (as shown through the 2006 exchange for Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, for the 1027 known Palestinian terrorists). 

Of course innocent Palestinian civilians have been hurt due to the conflict in the Middle East and of course Israel has made multiple poor decisions (though frankly they are not left with much choice), but if Israel had no "Iron Dome" they too would have thousands of casualties, but more poignantly, they would no longer exist.

I have written this here before, but I must say it again: if Gaza put down its arms, there would be peace, but the very moment Israel put down its arms, there would be no more Israel.

I have seen videos of ignorant American Ivy League students condemn a man waving an Israeli flag, while cheering on the same man waving the flag of Hamas in the same breath.

The media has turned the entire world against Israel, which is why many Jews in Israel no longer identify as Jewish, and it is certainly why many Jewish writers shy away from discussions of their own Judaism because they do not want to be lumped in with Israeli Jews.

I have seen posts on forums by many Americans who throw the word "Zionism" around as though they are on the same level as Hamas and other terrorist organizations.

Like feminism (the equality between men and women), people grossly misunderstand what the term actually means.

The definition of Zionism (coined in 1890) is simply the idea that all Jews should return to Israel, their homeland, the land of their forefathers.

Critics of Zionism, of course, include those that assert that Zionism is a "racist" and "colonialist" ideology that calls for the dispossession and expulsion of the "indigenous" Palestinian people.

But the Jews lived in Israel long before Palestine ever became a state. The Jews were expelled from Israel long before the "Conflict in the Middle East" (as we know it today) began.

People, of course, contest this, as much as they contest Judeo-Christian religion itself, but you can't accuse Israeli Jews of racism when Hamas is gunning for the destruction of every Jew in the world.

Jewish people wanted a homeland, a place where they could call home, since they had been essentially kicked out of every land they have ever inhabited.

The Greeks persecuted and murdered over a million Jews for not conforming to their religion. They destroyed the Second Temple.

Jews were expelled from Alexandria (Egypt), Mainz (Germany), England, France, Warsaw (Poland), Sicily (Italy), Lithuania, Portugal, Spain, Brandenburg (Germany), Bavaria, Frankfurt (Germany) all the way up until the Holocaust itself.

When the Jews tried to escape Germany, even Canada refused to take them in ("None is too many").

None of this, of course, includes all the blood libels, the extensive massacres, the burning at the stakes, the never-ending conversions and the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion".

Despite practically every other religion, culture, and nation that persecuted and massacred the Jews over thousands of years, the world somehow managed to concoct a crazy conspiracy theory. Behind this theory lay the idea (dreamed up in Paris by some member of the Russian secret police) that there was a council of Jews (Zions) whose sole aim was to enslave or exterminate every Gentile in the world. This conspiracy, in turn, became one of the most convincing pieces of Nazi propaganda that ultimately led to the mass murder of millions of Jews.

Until this day, most Arab schools teach their students that this conspiracy is fact.

Circling back to Churchill, although "Seven Jewish Children" is certainly an impressive piece of theatre, it unfortunately encourages - whether she meant for it or not - problematic perceptions of Jewish people.

However, Churchill gets to the heart of something that I myself never thought of before, as unsettled as I was by watching the performance.

The sheer desperation behind the woman's attempt to decide what to tell and what not to tell the next generation struck me as quite powerful and equally terrifying.

Our Jewish legacy is continuously in question. More Jewish people are turning from their faith than those who are returning to it. Very soon, there may be no one at all left to tell or not to tell.

Although we certainly want to impart a legacy that is truthful, we want our children, and their children, to be proud that they are Jews.

Her desperation certainly speaks to this fear, but it also provokes a pressing question: what has led us to this desperation? If we truly have nothing to fear, if we really find the "rocks" something to laugh at, why do we still seem to be fighting a losing battle?

Although the world may not believe me, the Jewish people want peace. That's all they've ever wanted. Their own bit of land and the opportunity to serve God without having to worry about yet another expulsion or massacre. For the sake of my people, and the good of humanity, I wish more than anything for this conflict to end.

And, to be quite honest, I've never exactly been good at making decisions.

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