Friday Mack Attack, 2/20/09
This week I'm macking on: those times when the universe's chaos organizes itself into a clear pattern. Every now and then it seems like the ether is sending a message: a particular phrase occurs in a string of productions; you think about someone you haven't seen in 30 years and there they are. Lately, for me, the message quite literally seems to be coming from the heavens.
A decidedly angry Jewish theme has emerged that began when I discovered Heeb's fake Holocaust memoir contest. It continued in Chicago, where I watched a festival of this year's Oscar-nominated short films and one of the group--probably the one that will take the prize, Germany's Spielzeugland (Toyland)--really irritated the hell out of me, with its irresponsible Holocaust kitsch. (Just because a movie can jerk a tear doesn't mean it's worthwhile. I could beat you over the head and make you cry too, but should I get an award for it?) For the record, my vote goes to the Swiss entry Auf der Strecke (On the Line), which makes a similar point about collective guilt and secrecy, but using a completely different metaphor.
Anyway, next, Menachem Wecker interviewed me about Jews and theater and I got a little riled up, tonight I'm headed to Aaron Posner's adaptation of Chaim Potok's novel My Name Is Asher Lev, and tomorrow, it's Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. I thought the pattern might end in some anti-assimilation epiphany, but no, it appears that what this has all been leading up to is what I'm hating on.
So this week I'm hating on: Caryl Churchill's eight-minute play Seven Jewish Children, but not for the reason you might expect. I'm hating on the specter of censorship surrounding any hint of an imminent U.S. production (click link above for NY Times article about the play and its potential production at the Public Theater). Of course, the work is polarizing, it's meant to be. And of course it's not even-handed, Churchill's using it as a fundraiser for Medical Aid for Palestinians, though as the Times Online's Christopher Hart notes,
"donating to Medical Aid for Palestinians seems a good idea. I just hope the supplies get through. Two weeks ago, the UN suspended all food aid to Gaza after 10 lorryloads of supplies, 3,500 blankets and 400 food boxes were stolen at gunpoint. By Hamas."
Maybe it's anti-Semitic, and it's definitely inflammatory. But is it, as the Spectator's Melanie Phillips suggests, an invocation of blood libel? That's just too facile a charge. To be perfectly honest, I've heard similar lines of dialogue delivered around my holiday dinner table by the most conservative members of my family. It's possible to be both Zionist and rational, but it's possible to be Zionist and irrational as well. And though I know I'm opening a firestorm by saying this, there's something in Churchill's dialogue that rings true. When she writes, as an Israeli mother talking about her young daughter,
"Tell her we're the iron fist now, tell her it's the fog of war, tell her we won't stop killing them till we're safe, tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policeman, tell her I wouldn't care if we wiped them out, the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I don't care if 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."
she's channeling the frustrations of both Jews and Palestinians who have lived their entire lives under siege. They may not be universal sentiments, but they're ones that can no doubt be found on either side of the Gaza checkpoints, and, I'm guessing, wherever there are Arabs and Jews in large enough concentrations to feel an organized antipathy toward one another. The show could just as easily have been called Seven Palestinian Children, and showed Palestinian mothers expressing the same sentiments to their daughters. But it's not, and though it's unfortunate--no, scratch that, it's downright dangerous--that Churchill chose to pick a side, she gains credibility when pro-Israel activists (p.s., I consider myself a pro-Israel activist) try to intimidate the Public Theater into silence, rather than calling for constructive actions such as balanced post-show discussions or twinning Churchill's piece with a play that has an opposing perspective.
Of course, there's the chance Churchill might veto a balanced slate. But that's where our free press and dauntless arts journalists can fill the void by informing the public whether the playwright is any more willing to compromise than her tyrannical characters. I, for one, would sure like to know.
Thanks to the Guardian's Charlotte Higgins for rounding up UK commentary on the issue.