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Seven Jewish Children

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Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza is a controversial six-page, 10-minute play by British playwright Caryl Churchill, written in response to the 2008-2009 Israel military strike on Gaza, and first performed at London's Royal Court Theatre on 6 February 2009. Churchill, a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, has said that anyone wishing to produce it may do so gratis, so long as they hold a collection for the people of Gaza at the end.

Seven Jewish Children consists of seven scenes spread over roughly seventy years, in which Jewish adults discuss what, or whether, their children should be told about certain events in recent Jewish history that the play alludes to only indirectly : The Holocaust, Jewish immigration to Palestine, the creation of Israel, the flight or expulsion of Palestinian Arabs, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the dispute over water, the First Intifada, the death of Rachel Corrie, the building of the West Bank barrier, the death of Muhammad al-Durrah, Palestinian suicide attacks, Hamas rocket attacks, and the 2008 bombing of Gaza.

The play takes the form of a litany, repeating the phrases "Tell her", "Don't tell her" to reflect the tension within Israel and the Jewish community over how to describe events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: "Tell her for miles and miles all round they have lands of their own/Tell her again this is our promised land/Don't tell her they said it was a land without people/Don't tell her I wouldn't have come if I'd known/Tell her maybe we can share/Don't tell her that." Churchill has been particularly criticized for an angry monologue within the play purportedly representing a hardline Israeli view: "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/Don't tell her that."[1][2]

Reaction to the play has been mixed, within both Jewish and non-Jewish community. The play is criticized by The Board of Deputies of British Jews as "anti-Israel", and by Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland as anti-semitic. While most of the original cast and director at Royal Court Theatre are Jewish themselves, Independent Jewish Voices sponsored and staged the play at Canada. Playwright Tony Kushner and academic Alisa Solomon, both Jewish-American critics of Israeli policy, argued that the play is dense, beautiful and elusive, and that "[a]ny play about the crisis in the Middle East that doesn't arouse anger and distress has missed the point."[2] What Strong Fences Make and Seven Other Children written as a response to the play. Churchill defended herself as calling "critics of Israel as anti-Semitic" is "the usual tactic" while the play is about "the difficulties of explaining violence to children. In the early scenes, it is violence against Jewish people; by the end, it is the violence in Gaza."


The play is based around the increasingly urgent repetition of "Tell her," and "Don't tell her".[3] Occasionally breaking into this pattern is the injunction "don't frighten her", three significant words[4] that are also the last in the play.

These motifs can be seen in the opening lines of the play:

Tell her it’s a game
Tell her it’s serious
But don’t frighten her
Don’t tell her they’ll kill her [5]
Although Churchill indicates that the scenes concern different children, thus speakers change between them, she leaves it for each production to decide how many adults take part and how the lines are shared between them.[5] The Guardian, for example, has produced a version with Jennie Stoller that is a simple monologue throughout.

The first two scenes concern the Holocaust, featuring one family that are hiding from Nazis and another wondering how to tell their child of the many family members who have been killed. Later scenes are about episodes in the development of the Israeli-Arab conflict: one family is migrating to Jerusalem, another wondering what to tell their daughter about Palestinian Arabs, the next discusses an Israeli victory, and the next are speaking as the Israeli West Bank barrier is being built and when a Palestinian child has been shot. The culminating scene is during the 2008–2009 Israel–Gaza conflict and contains the only lengthy speech of the play:

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. Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them, tell her I’m not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them, tell her we’re the ones to be sorry for, tell her they can’t talk suffering to us. 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 policemen, tell her they’re animals living in rubble now, 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.

Don't tell her that. Tell her we love her. Don't frighten her.[6]</blockquote>


Churchill has said she sees the play as a political event.[7] Anyone wishing to produce it may do so for free so long as they take a collection for the people of Gaza after the performance, with proceeds to be sent to Medical Aid for Palestinians, a British medical aid and political advocacy organization.[8] She has made the script of the play available as a downloadable PDF on the website of the Royal Court Theatre.[9][10] A one-woman video performance of the play is also available online from The Guardian's website.[11][12][13]



The Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington awarded the play four of five stars and wrote that the play captures the mood that has overtaken Israel, where security "has become the pretext for indiscriminate slaughter."[14] "Mr. Billington’s sympathetic review describes the context of the cryptic play and points to some of the lines from the script that have disturbed readers like Mr. Goldberg." [15] The Times's Dominic Maxwell also awarded the play four of five stars and praised it for an "impassioned response to the events in Gaza that is elliptical, empathetic and illuminating."[16] In Saudi Arabian Saudi Gazette, London based freelance journalist Susannah Tarbush wrote that the play “succinctly dramatizes the tragedies and ironies of history for both sides” and builds to what she calls “a devastating final scene set during the Gaza onslaught.”[17]

Noting the comments by the Board of Deputies, in The Nation, award-winning dramatist and essayist Tony Kushner and academic journalist and critic Alisa Solomon, both Jewish American critics of modern Israeli politics, wrote:

"We emphatically disagree. We think Churchill's play should be seen and discussed as widely as possible... To see anti-Semitism here is to construe erroneously the words spoken by the worst of Churchill's characters as a statement from the playwright about all Jews as preternaturally filled with a viciousness unique among humankind. But to do this is, again, to distort what Churchill wrote."[2]

Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian's chief arts writer, defended the work by saying:

The play did not strike me as antisemitic and I do not now believe it to be antisemitic.... I cleave strongly to the view that it is possible to be critical of Israel without being antisemitic, and I do not believe that Churchill is making or otherwise implying universal claims about the Jewish people in this play.[18]

Canadian group Independent Jewish Voices sponsored the play's Canadian premiere in Montreal. [19]


Christopher Hart of the The Sunday Times, condemning the play for its "straitjacketed political orthodoxy," criticized Churchill's "ludicrous and utterly predictable lack of even-handedness," typical, he said, of the "enclosed, fetid, smug, self-congratulating and entirely irrelevant little world of contemporary political theatre."[20] Theatre critic Jan Dalley of the Financial Times described the play as "agitprop" harking back to long-discredited revolutionary ideas,[21] similar to Bret Stephens's criticism in the Wall Street Journal. [22] and Susannah Clapp's criticism in The Observer. [23] Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic Monthly also calls the play a blood libel and said it was "the mainstreaming of the worst anti-Jewish stereotypes -- for instance, that Jews glory in the shedding of non-Jewish blood -- is upon us".[24] Columnist Melanie Phillips wrote that the play is "An open vilification of the Jewish people... drawing upon an atavistic hatred of the Jews” and called it an "open incitement to hatred”.[25] Patrick Healy from The New York Times wrote that the play "at times paints heartless images of Israelis."[26]

The Board of Deputies of British Jews, invited to preview the play, accused Churchill of being "Anti-Israel".[27] Jonathan Hoffman, co-vice chairman of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, called the play "a libellous and despicable demonisation of Israeli parents and grandparents" and expressed fear that it would "stoke the fires of antisemitism". He added that the play is a modern blood libel drawing on old anti-Semitic myths.[25]

59 well-known British Jews published a letter published in the Daily Telegraph claiming that Seven Jewish Children reinforces "false stereotypes" and demonizing Israel for depicting Israelis as "inhuman triumphalists" who teach their children "Arabs must be hated", while it is "historically inaccurate" since it "fails to say that the Six Day War was a defensive war" and it doesn't contain Israel's "withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 or "more than 6,000 rockets" launched by Hamas indiscriminately. Signatories included Professor Geoffrey Alderman, the Michael Gross Professor of Modern History at the University of Buckingham; Greville Janner, Baron Janner of Braunstone, the Labour peer and former president of the Board of Deputies; Maureen Lipman, the actress; Ronald Harwood, the Oscar-winning screenwriter; Tracy-Ann Oberman, the actress who starred in EastEnders.[28][29]

Playwright Israel Horovitz, who wrote a play in response to Churchill entitled What Strong Fences Make, argued that while it is possible to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic and to criticize Palestine without being anti-Arab: "Those who criticize Jews in the name of criticizing Israel, as Ms. Churchill seems to have done in her play, step over an unacceptable boundary and must be taken to task."[30]

Royal Court Theatre

John Nathan at The Jewish Chronicle, though finding the play theatrically beautiful, criticized the play as anti-semitic and The Royal Court Theatre's artistic director, Dominic Cooke for not following, National Theatre's director Nicholas Hytner's self-policy that a play that is entirely populated by, and is critical of, a religious minority, can only be staged at the National Theatre if it is written by a member of that minority.[7][31][32] Further criticism centered on Associate Director of the Royal Court Theatre, Ramin Gray's interview, where he said he [as an director] "would think twice" to stage a play "very critical of Islam, or depicted Mohammed" since it is very hard "given the times we're in" since he would worry if he "cause[s] offence then the whole enterprise would become buried in a sea of controversy"[31] while the theatre did stage a play as Seven Jewish Children that is critical of some Israeli Jews and politics, Jonathan Romain argued that is because "fear".[33]

The theatre admitted the play was critical of Israel but denied this meant that it was anti-Semitic against "some concerns". A spokesman argued "in keeping with its philosophy" the theatre presents "a multiplicity of viewpoints". He gave example of their 2 plays staged along Seven Jewish Children [at that time]: The Stone that "asks very difficult questions about the refusal of some modern Germans to accept their ancestors' complicity in Nazi atrocities" running before Seven Jewish Children with Shades "set in contemporary London which explores issues of tolerance in the Muslim community" staging at their smaller studio theatre. Spokesman said:

"We categorically reject that accusation and furthermore would urge people to see this play before they judge it. While Seven Jewish Children is undoubtedly critical of the policies of the state of Israel, there is no suggestion that this should be read as a criticism of Jewish people. It is possible to criticise the actions of Israel without being anti-Semitic." [34]

Churchill's defence of the play

Writing in response to an article by Howard Jacobson which sought to place Seven Jewish Children and other criticism of Israel in the context of a rise in anti-Semitism,[35] Churchill defended herself: “Howard Jacobson writes as if there’s something new about describing critics of Israel as anti-Semitic. But it’s the usual tactic. We are not going to agree about politics … But we should be able to disagree without accusations of anti-Semitism." The play was about the difficulties of explaining violence to children. Its length meant favourable and unfavourable information about Israel had been omitted, she said. “Jacobson seems to see the play from a very particular perspective so that everything is twisted … I don’t recognise the play from [his] description.” [36]

Howard Jacobson seems to see the play from a very particular perspective so that everything is twisted. The characters are “covert and deceitful”, they are constructing a “parallel hell” to Hitler’s Europe, they are “monsters who kill babies by design”. I don’t recognise the play from that description. ...

Throughout the play, families try to protect children. Finally, one of the parents explodes, saying, “No, stop preventing her from knowing what’s on the TV news”. His outburst is meant, in a small way, to shock during a shocking situation. Is it worse than a picture of Israelis dancing for joy as smoke rises over Gaza? Or the text of Rabbi Shloyo Aviner’s booklet distributed to soldiers saying cruelty is sometimes a good attribute?...

Finally, the blood libel. I find it extraordinary that, because the play talks about the killing of children in Gaza, I am accused of reviving the medieval blood libel that Jews killed Christian children and consumed their blood. The character is not “rejoicing in the murder of little children”. He sees dead children on television and feels numb and defiant in his relief that his own child is safe. He believes that what has happened is justified as self-defence. Howard Jacobson may agree. I don’t, but it doesn’t make either of them a monster, or me anti-Semitic. [37]


Royal Court Theatre production

The cast for the play's premier production in February 2009 at London's Royal Court Theatre consisted of Ben Caplan, Jack Chissick, David Horovitch, Daisy Lewis, Ruth Posner, Samuel Roukin, Jennie Stoller, Susannah Wise, and Alexis Zegerman. Susannah Tarbush argued "that most, if not all, the actors are Jewish."[17] The play was directed by Dominic Cooke who is Jewish himself.[7][9] Some of the original cast gave a performance of the play introdced by Churchill herself as part of the Two Plays for Gaza fund-raising event at the Hackney Empire on the 21st of May 2009.[38]

At the Royal Court the play was staged following Marius von Mayenburg’s The Stone, a play about a German family who live in a house taken from vanished Jews and who grapple with the Nazi past of their family and nation.[20]

Other productions

The play was performed at the Brecht Forum in New York on 16 March in an evening which also featured the words of Rachel Corrie, and a talk by members of the organization Combatants for Peace. A donation for medical aid to Palestine was taken at the end of the play's performance, which featured Kathleen Chalifant.

A copy of the play was sent to the BBC. Jeremy Howe, the commissioning drama editor for Radio 4, said that both he and Mark Damazer, the channel's controller, considered the play a "brilliant piece", but agreed that it could not be broadcast because of the BBC's policy of editorial impartiality.[39]

A rehearsed reading took place at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne on 18 May 2009 at a fund-raising event for Australians for Palestine [40]. As a result of her participation, the Jewish actress Miriam Margoyles had an invitation withdrawn to perform in front of residents at a home run by the Australian Jewish Care.[41] Max Gillies who is married to prominent Australian Jewess Louise Adler was another performer in the reading.

A Hebrew translation of the play was staged in Tel-Aviv on 11 June 2009. It was directed online via Skype and video by Samieh Jabbarin, who has been under house arrest for four months [42]. The play was also performed at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, directed by a Palestinian student as part of an advanced directing class.

In May 2009, the city of Liverpool withdrew public funding from a theatre festival that had scheduled Seven Jewish Children after the producers refused to also perform another play, Seven Other Children by Richard Stirling of Evergreen Theatrical Productions. Development coordinator for the festival Madeline Heneghan remarked that since "The program is planned months in advance." the request was "unrealistic at this point". [43]

The Rude Guerrilla Theatre Co. of Orange County, California, announced that it will be producing the play.[44] The New York Theater Workshop and the Public Theater are said to be considering a New York City production.[26] Both of them have performed plays by Churchill before.[26]

Canadian group Independent Jewish Voices sponsored the play's Canadian premiere in Montreal with 3 performances. [19]

Gustavus Adolphus College ran the show for 2 weekends from October 30, 2009 to November 7, 2009. It was performed after another one of Caryl Churchill's plays Far Away (play), as well as a response to this play called Seven Palestinian Children by Deb Margolin.[45]

Plays produced in response

On March 25, 2009 Theater J and Forum Theater in Washington, D.C., followed their readings with a reading of Seven Palestinian Children[46] a response by Deb Margolin; the script is available online.[47] The performance also included a reading of "The Eighth Child" by Robbie Gringras. [48]

London's New End Theatre produced Seven Other Children, a new play by Richard Stirling.[49]

The New York playwright Israel Horovitz wrote a new short play entitled What Strong Fences Make, arguing "another voice needed to be heard" against Churchill's play, that he claims as "offensive, distorted and manipulative". Horovitz has offered to allow any theatre that wishes to produce What Strong Fences Make free of royalties, as long as a collection is taken up following all performances for the benefit of ONE Family Fund, a charity that assists children wounded in attacks on Israel.[50][51]

See also


  1. Seven Jewish Children, a production of the play by The Guardian, with Jennie Stoller.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Kusher, Tony and Solomon, Alisa. "Tell her the truth, The Nation, 26 March 2009.
  3. Higgins, Charlotte. "Is Caryl Churchill's play Seven Jewish Children antisemitic?", The Guardian, 18 February 2009.
  4. Carol Rocamora "The power of theater: Eight minutes about Seven Jewish Children", Broad Street Review, 16 May 2009
  5. 5.0 5.1 Caryl Churchill (2009) Seven Jewish Children, p.2, London, Nick Hern Books
  6. Caryl Churchill (2009) Seven Jewish Children, p.7, London, Nick Hern Books
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Nathan, John (February 12, 2009). "Review: Seven Jewish Children". The Jewish Chronicle. 
  8. Healy, Patrick. Readings and Talks for Pro-Gaza Playlet, The New York Times, March 15, 2009.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Royal Court Theatre information on play
  10. Nathan, John. "Seven Jewish Children - A Play for Gaza, at the Royal Court: Hot Topic", Theater News Online, January 29 2009
  11. Caryl Churchill (2009) Seven Jewish Children read by Jennie Stoller, Guardian Online, April 25, 2009
  12. Brown, Mark, Churchill's Children: Guardian reading for Caryl Churchill's Gaza play, The Guardian, April 25, 2009
  13. The Guardian, 1 May 2009, The blood libel brought up to date
  14. Billington, Michael. "Seven Jewish Children Royal Court, London", The Guardian, Feb. 11, 2009
  16. "Seven Jewish Children at Royal Court, SW1, The Times, February 13, 2009 [1]
  17. 17.0 17.1
  18. Higgins, Charlotte. The Guardian, 18 February 2009 Is Caryl Churchill's play Seven Jewish Children antisemitic?
  19. 19.0 19.1
  20. 20.0 20.1 Hart, Christopher. "The Stone and Seven Jewish Children: A Play For Gaza, The Sunday Times, February 15, 2009
  21. "Reality bites the idealists", Jan Dalley, Financial Times February 13 2009 [2]
  22. Wall Street Journal
  23. "Say it, but not so loud, The Observer, February 15, 2009 [3]
  24. "The Royal Court Theatre's Blood Libel", Jeffrey Goldberg, Atlantic Monthly 09 Feb 2009 [4]
  25. 25.0 25.1 "Outrage over 'demonising' play for Gaza," The Jewish Chronicle, Leon Symons, February 12, 2009 [5]
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Healy, Patrick. "Workshop May Present Play Critical of Israel", The New York Times, 17 February 2009.
  27. Walker, Tim. Caryl Churchill is accused of 'anti-Semitism'", The Daily Telegraph, 13 Feb 2009.
  29. "Prominent Jews accuse Royal Court play of demonising Israelis; A coalition of prominent British Jews has condemned the Royal Court Theatre for showing a play that is said to demonise Israelis," Martin Beckford, The Daily Telegraph, 18 Feb 2009 [6]
  30. Israel Horovitz, Jerusalem Post, April 19, 2009, Why I wrote 'What Strong Fences Make'
  31. 31.0 31.1 Whittle, Peter. "Islam: The Silence of the Arts; The arts are increasingly censoring themselves when it comes to Islam," 2007, New Culture Forum
  33. Romain, Jonathan. "Selective bravery is not very brave", Guardian, 20 February 2009
  35. Howard Jacobson, "Let’s see the 'criticism' of Israel for what it really is", The Independent, 18 February 2009
  36. Churchill defends ‘anti-Semitic’ play by Terri Judd, 21 February 2009
  37. Caryl Churchill, "My play is not anti-Semitic", The Independent, 21 February 2009 Letters: Jacobson on Gaza:Jacobson and Gaza: the debate continues
  38. Tony Benn introduces Two Plays for Gaza advertisement for evening on Stop the War Coalition website.
  39. Ben Dowell. "BBC rejects play on Israel's history for impartiality reasons", The Guardian, 16 March 2009, accessed 31 March 2009
  40. Andra Jackson Controversial play about Israel has desired effect, The Age May 19, 2009
  41. Sophie Tedmanson Miriam Margolyes rejected over appearance in 'anti-Semitic' play, The Times, May 12 2009.
  42. Shohat, Zipi. "Controversial play 'Seven Jewish Children' to go on stage in Tel Aviv". Retrieved 2009-06-12. . The play was directed by the Palestinian director Samieh Jabbarin via Skype from his house detention in Umm al-Fahm.
  43. Haaretz, 17/05/2009, Liverpool cuts funding for festival that includes 'anti-Semitic' play, Cnaan Liphshiz [7]
  44. "OC theater to stage controversial Gaza play", Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times February 18[clarification needed], 2009 [8]
  45. [|Behrends, Al] (October 16, 2009) "Far Away, Seven Jewish Children, and Seven Palestinian Children begin Theatre Season at Gustavus Adolphus College" (in English) Gustavus Adolphus College Retrieved November 6, 2009 
  47. [9]
  48. Aaron Leibel, Washington Jewish Week, D.C. Jewish theater director defends reading of anti-Israel play
  49. Jerusalem Post, May 10, 2009, Playwright counters anti-Israel play
  50. Jerusalem Post, 19 April 2009, US, UK Playwrights Write Separate Responses To 'Seven Jewish Children'
  51. What to tell the children, May 7, 2009, Socialist Worker

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