Ten touchy minutes on Gaza

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British playwright Caryl Churchill's 10-minute play on Gaza is in Toronto this weekend. It played in Montreal two weeks ago. The Quebec Jewish Congress called it "anti-Semitic and full of hatred." B'nai Brith says it is "clearly aimed at maligning Jews" and asked Toronto's mayor to cancel the show. If someone says "clearly" about a thing, it's usually a sign that it's wide open to interpretation. It's the equivalent of "frankly."

You can find Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza online. I'd say it clearly raises just one morally touchy point: Can Jews who were victims be oppressors? More broadly: Can those sinned against, sin profoundly against others? That's not new or especially unsettling. We know that many bullies were bullied and most abusers were abused. The playwright may have a political position on Gaza, but what a play does best is raise moral questions to ponder. You can't cover complex political specifics in 10 minutes.

In general, I find Caryl Churchill's writing didactic and undramatic (which may be her point). But what I find stunning in this play is how she poses her moral issue: Parents discuss, at various historical moments, what to tell their kids about the world they find themselves in. That is dramatic. It raises the mystery of intergenerational identification: how individuals take up group identities in "imagined communities" -- Benedict Anderson's term -- that they had no role in forming, then embrace them so that these identities often dominate their lives. It's uniquely human. No other animal does such a thing.

People may have direct experience of the history and culture they identify with, like the Tamils who've been blocking traffic in Toronto, or Holocaust survivors. Then again, they may not. A friend once asked me to teach his kids Hebrew so that "when they grow up, they'll know why people hate them." He's never met anti-Semitism himself; his life is a long success story.

Nor can actual experience predict results. I have an aging friend who was in Auschwitz. I've never felt disapproval from her over the critical things I've written on Israel, yet I've felt it strongly from her kids. Perhaps having really been there can put you in a more nuanced space than those who have only heard about it. Their sense of things may be more abstract and stark.

Communities also argue over who gets imagined into them. This week, Toronto's Koffler Centre of the Arts, "as a Jewish cultural institution," repudiated a show it had supported by 30-year-old artist Reena Katz when it learned online that she is related to a group they said favours "the extinction of Israel." Ms. Katz says they're dead wrong on her politics and besides, they don't have a right to read her out of her community: "I am as Jewish as they come." I consider this the question of the play: What do you say to the next generation, and what will they make of it, no matter what you say?

All issues of group identity are fraught. That's why they make good drama. An extremely tolerant friend of mine, who has been "subjected to anti-racism training (sometimes voluntarily) and made to talk about my white privilege," always "ended up having racist thoughts that I never had before." I wonder about the play's Toronto cast. Many aren't Jewish. Was this a way for them to get in on this debate without being accused of anti-Semitism? It's true that none of them lives in Israel or went through the Holocaust, but that's true of most Jews as well. Just what moral rights does identity confer?

The play's last line (I don't think this spoiler requires an alert) is: "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." That's clear only in its complexity. But you may disagree.

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