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Is American Theater Becoming Genteel-y Antisemitic?

By Gwen Orel

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Is American theater becoming more like British theater — that is, genteel-y antisemitic?

Playwright Jeremy Kareken posted this announcement on a Yahoo! Group for playwrights two weeks ago:

God Damns. By David Hare

The Royal Court presents a new one man show from the author of Via Dolorosa and Skylight. The time is “End Times” and the Jewish people are judged by their own texts as Rabbi Eliezar is resurrected from the dead to question former President George W. Bush on the righteousness of the Zionist state of modern Israel. And the redemption of mankind hangs in the balance in this tuneful, soulful melody of damnation of the acts that evil men do.

Trevor Nunn returns to the Royal Court stage to direct Mr. Hare in the first of his one-man-musicals.

A number of people immediately protested, with links. Several of us forwarded it to friends in news media. Melissa Hillman, artistic director of Berkeley’s Impact Theatre, criticized Hare on Facebook. Then Kareken replied “April Fool’s.”

That the spoof was so plausible seemed to be a result of growing anti-Semitism in British theater. After all, it was the Royal Court that produced Caryl Churchill’s controversial ten-minute play “Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza.”

In this piece, Keith Kahn-Harris, a Brit discusses some of the ways anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli feelings have been conflated, looking at the reaction to British Jewish critics of Israel in a volume “A Time to Speak Out” (Verso, 2008) and a project called Independent Jewish Voices. He writes:

Some detractors of IJV complain that by making such a play of being Jewish critics of Israel, the signatories contribute to the anti-Semitic agenda of those who treat Jews as inherently racist unless they publicly renounce support for Israel. Such criticisms are over the top, but it is true that most contributors have difficulty in articulating a positive vision of Jewishness and the Jewish community.

Churchill’s play had readings at the New York Theatre Workshop and Theater J in Washington. last month. To put this in context for American theatre-workers and their growing sense of genteel anti-Semitism, consider that the New York Theatre Workshop faced charges of bowing to “Jewish pressure” when they declined to produce “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” in 2006. And at New York’s Public Theater, last year’s “Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East” by Naomi Wallace featured “cruel Israelis and saintly Palestinians,” according to Sam Thielman of Variety.

Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, who moderated the New York Theatre Workshop readings of “Seven Jewish Children,” defend Churchill’s play eloquently in this article in The Nation:

Though you’d never guess from the descriptions offered by its detractors, the play is dense, beautiful, elusive and intentionally indeterminate. This is not to say that the play isn’t also direct and incendiary. It is. It’s disturbing, it’s provocative, but appropriately so, given the magnitude of the calamity it enfolds in its pages. Any play about the crisis in the Middle East that doesn’t arouse anger and distress has missed the point.

On the other hand, Kushner and Solomon share Churchill’s views about Gaza, and make their bias clear in this paragraph:

The siege of Gaza over the past several years, which nearly starved a high proportion of the population, was unconscionable in humanitarian terms, but an even worse corner was turned this past winter. A placard at a peace-movement demonstration in Tel Aviv in January proclaimed, Slaughter Is Not Security.

Jeffrey Goldberg’s debate with Theater J’s Ari Roth on his Atlantic blog also points to British anti-Semitism:

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.

Goldberg argues that the play isn’t really about Gaza, but about the Jews:

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.

At the New York Theatre Workshop reading post-show discussion, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal reportedly challenged Tony Kushner:

Where do you feel more comfortable as a gay man, in Gaza City or in Tel Aviv?” Stephens said from the audience, after asking sarcastically when Kushner’s career-making play about the AIDS epidemic, Angels in America, would be performed at the Islamic University of Gaza. Kushner did not answer publicly.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Theater, Jeremy Kareken, Seven Jewish Children, Caryl Churchill

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