A distasteful display of agitprop

REX MURPHY

Seven Jewish Children is a document of our age -- not in the manner that "progressive" thought would have it be. But as yet one more signal, though more sharply intense and fevered than all the rest, of how utterly inverted, how ferociously off track, the moral intelligence of our time has drifted.

from Seven Jewish Children

There is a difference between art, which is alive to nuances of character and circumstance, to the moral complexity of being, and agitprop, in which the purpose and outcome are already known to the artist, predetermined. Caryl Churchill's controversial playlet, Seven Jewish Children: A Play For Gaza, now getting readings and attention in Canada, is, in my judgment, clearly in the latter camp. And here's why.

The lines below are from the sixth act of Seven Jewish Children, which executes a brutally truncated dramatized run through the years from the Holocaust to the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas precipitated by the relentless rocket attacks of the latter upon the former.

It stages adults preparing a series of "explanations" or responses to a succession of little girls in the aftermath of seven key moments in modern Jewish/Israeli history. Seven Jewish Children is, to take a description from a different context, "nasty, brutish and short," and of those three descriptors "nasty" is by far the most applicable to its tendentiousness, unidimensionality and sly vituperation. The lines below, from the sixth scene, are presented as the imagined voice of a parent (we must presume) about what to tell a child after the Israeli victory in the Six Day War of 1967.

Tell her we kill far more of them
Tell her we're stronger
Tell her we're entitled
Tell her they don't understand anything except violence

There is, of course, nothing, nothing at all here, about the Arab armies massing for attack, or Israel's desperate gamble of a pre-emptive strike. Nothing at all about what it would have meant for the existence of Israel, if her enemies had been triumphant. Nothing about the whole freight of modern Israel's history, which has been a continuous struggle for existence, a continuous fretful gasping for air since the very day of its modern founding.

Nothing at all, either, about the sea of hatred that surrounds Israel today, with Holocaust-denying conferences featuring David Duke as keynote speaker, or Iran's president and his repeated assertions that Israel will be "wiped off the map." And as for suicide bombings and rocket attacks, in this progressive imagining nothing at all about them, for, after all, what are rocket attacks but mosquito bites in the eternal summer holiday that is day-to-day life in modern Israel? The "Zionist entity" is implacable, adamantine, impervious, racist, supremacist and vilely superior to ... well, everything and everyone. And, mostly, Jews live there. Such is the background image of Churchill's playlet.

No, it's all triumphalism and brutality ("Tell her we kill far more of them/ Tell her we're stronger"), flavoured with dismissive contempt -- the unworthy-to-be-named foe, the "they" in: "Tell her they don't understand anything except violence," which "they" cannot be spoken to, or even named, because "they" don't understand anything except violence.

These are parents, recall, rehearsing as it were, what they are going to tell a girl child about horrible events -- but they are not parents so much as wolves if our only guidance is Churchill's vicious imagining of them, and the dialogue she puts so conspicuously into their Jewish mouths.

 

It is the incursion into Gaza that supplied the occasion for this pseudo-drama, and that is given the entire seventh scene in the 10-minute playlet. Any hesitation that the most determinedly fair-minded, neutral reader/spectator might have about the purpose of Seven Jewish Children is utterly exiled by the raging rant that is the final scene. There is nothing to be said about this monologue to convey a sense of its distastefulness that can surpass the simple reading of it. It is deplorable in so many ways that it exhausts all ingenuity to tabulate them: First there's this:

Tell her the Hamas fighters have been killed
Tell her they're terrorists
Tell her they're filth

"Are there any other set of parents in the world who could be figured, imagined, projected as mercilessly and despicably as this, except Jewish or Israeli parents?"

They're terrorists. They're filth: oh, Jewish mother's mouth.

Hardly incidentally, it is never possible in reading this thing to actually say with certitude whether the "adult voices" are meant to be "just" Israeli parents or more elementally "Jewish parents." It's a convenient ambiguity in a so-called artistic effort that the brutal and dehumanizing lines are left hovering between as coming from Jews qua Jews, or "just" the Jews of Israel. Aimed at Jews as such it would fall into the camp of the unquestionably "anti-Semitic," but coming from the mouths of "Zionist" Israelis, the message is more conveniently cloaked as a "criticism of Israel," which is of course never anti-Semitic. Indeed the rage for criticizing Israel is the native right, if not the genetic compulsion, of every "progressive' thinker in the empathetic, vicariously moralistic, activist camp of the West.

But Churchill has hardly begun:

Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army. Tell her about the family of dead girls, tell her their names why not, tell her the whole world knows, why shouldn't she know? Tell her there's dead babies, did she see babies? Tell her she's got nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves.

What wonderful, compassionate mother these Israeli/Jewish women are: Tell her about the family of dead girls ... tell her there's dead babies ... tell her she's got nothing to be ashamed of. And of course the kicker -- yes, the kicker: Tell her they did it to themselves.

Are there any other set of parents in the world who could be figured, imagined, projected as mercilessly and despicably as this, except Jewish or Israeli parents? Any other set of parents who could be thrown silhouetted against the conscience of the world speaking these words about the "dead babies" of other parents to their own "babies"? Caryl Churchill's fretful mind throws up monsters of hate and callousness, and then dares to call it art.

One last quotation and we'll have done. It is among the playlet's last lines: 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.

We're "chosen people": Churchill saves herself by a single article: the omission of "the" in front of "chosen." That, of course, would have made this whole bibulous outpouring so much more "problematic," to draw on a term which is so useful in rhetorically dicey transactions. The full phrase "the chosen people" would have made Seven Jewish Children emphatically about "the Jews" and not just Israel. But "chosen," without the definite article, is thrown in to win the whole tawdry pot without risking a full showing of her cards.

The final point to be made is that Seven Jewish Children is also the drawing of a vicious circle. As I indicated, it begins in the shadow of the Holocaust. What its sly progress describes -- its "thought," if that is not too generous a term for the whole agitprop display -- is that the people who were the objects of Hitler's extermination, the very people herded into the camps and destined, were he to have had his full triumph, to be wiped utterly from the face of the Earth, have now become the exterminators. Six million dead, and a generation or two on, their descendants have morphed, by the playlet's indictment, into the very Monster of Jewry's greatest and genocidal nightmare.

It is the deepest, most radical insult to pass on Israel and Israelis to imply that they are now what Hitler and his demonic henchmen were then: that Israelis are the present world's Nazis. To my ear and mind, linking today's Jews of Israel to the Nazis -- as is so frequently the case in the demonstrations and rhetoric of the "anti-Zionists" -- passes as something, in a curious and painful way, more baleful and morally astonishing than denying the Holocaust.

About no other set of people could such a drama be written, or find audiences, than the Jews of Israel. Seven Jewish Children is a document of our age -- not in the manner that "progressive" thought would have it be. But as yet one more signal, though more sharply intense and fevered than all the rest, of how utterly inverted, how ferociously off track, the moral intelligence of our time has drifted.

 

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Rex Murphy, "A distasteful display of agitprop." Globe & Mail (May 15, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of Rex Murphy.

THE AUTHOR

Rex Murphy is host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup and contributes weekly TV essays on diverse topics to CBC TV's The National. (See Rex's TV commentaries). In addition, he writes book reviews, commentaries, and a weekly column, Japes of Wrath, for the Globe & Mail.

Rex Murphy was born near St. John's, Newfoundland, where he graduated from Memorial University. In l968, he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. His primary interest is in language and English literature, but he also has a strong link with politics. His first book, Points of View, is described on Amazon: "With TV commentator and journalist Rex Murphy, it's easy to put a twist on the old parable: when he is good he is very very good, and when he's angry, he's awesome. Uncommonly dignified, relentlessly honest, unencumbered by de rigueur political correctness, and solidly grounded by his Newfoundland roots, Murphy is that rarest of TV types. He's an everyman who happens to be a Rhodes Scholar, and a personality treasured for his brain, not his looks...A cranky intellect, maybe, but an intellect just the same. It's Murphy's almost reluctant cynicism -- delivered in language as sharp as shattered glass and aimed squarely at those in ivory towers -- that makes Points of View a must-read."

Copyright © 2009 Rex Murphy




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