"Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

“Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza” (The Sunday Edition, May 3, 2009)

(Reviews were requested by Mike Fegelman, Executive Director, HonestReporting Canada, and two other people.)

You wrote to complain about the broadcast on The Sunday Edition, May 3, 2009, of the short play “Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza.” You said that the play was hateful and anti- Semitic and that it should not have been broadcast on the CBC.

The program's Executive Producer, Marjorie Nichol, after recounting the play's turbulent stage history, said that “Seven Jewish Children” was “a play we felt Canadians would be talking about over the coming weeks. And it is for precisely the play's challenge, difficulty and ability to inspire such a range of strong reaction that we wanted to discuss it on our program.” She also pointed out that the program carried discussion of the play from different perspectives.

You rejected her explanation and asked for a review.


“Seven Jewish Children” is certainly pointed, designed to evoke a powerful reaction in an audience. Whether it is anti-Semitic is a more complicated question. At the risk of being pedantic, we should remember that being anti-Semitic means being against Jews just because they are Jews. Recently some commentators have claimed that political comments directed against Israel or Israeli policies qualify as anti-Semitic. They argue that Israel is surrounded by enemies and criticism of the state gives aid and comfort to those who would harm Israel.

However, a much more substantial number of people feel free, as they should, to criticize policies or actions of the Israeli government, or the views of some Israeli citizens, without feeling that they fall in the “anti-Semite” category. If it were the case that criticism of specific policies, or, perhaps, of the more extreme views of some of the “settlers” were, de facto, anti- Semitic, a significant proportion of the population of Israel would fall into that category.

More recently, the U.S. State Department under the previous administration attempted to deal with the question—and the on-going serious problem—of anti-Semitism. As part of its lengthy and substantial report it quoted a working definition of anti-Semitism first laid down by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC):

“Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

EUMC expanded on that basic definition:

“Such manifestations [of anti-Semitism] could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. Anti-Semitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for ‘why things go wrong.' It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.

The authors go on to list numerous examples of potential anti-Semitism. The one that might apply to the case at issue is this:

Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as a collective—such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.

It is interesting to note that the State Department authors appended this final comment to the list of examples: The EUMC makes clear, however, that criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded in itself as anti-Semitic.

In fact, Israel itself is a robust democracy with vibrant and pointed opinions across the spectrum. In that sense, and in many others, it stands as a beacon of rationality and freedom in a region not noted for either.

Ms. Churchill's play probably fits within the category of “agit-prop” theatre—designed to provoke and move audiences to some kind of political action. The playwright is an active participant in Palestinian support groups. Some critics have accused her of returning to “blood libels” against Jews. What we actually hear are statements, many contradictory, that Ms. Churchill posits might be uttered by some Israeli parents to their children. Were those statements totally outside the bounds of imagining, the critics might be correct. However, in the course of my job I have received comments not dissimilar to almost every one uttered in the course of the short play. Admittedly, some of the more inflammatory comments undoubtedly represent the views of a small minority, but others appear to have more traction within Israeli society.

The point here is that a work of drama is not a work of journalism, although it can be the starting point for a journalistic discussion. But a drama uses facts in different ways. As analogy, would a play highlighting the views of apocalyptic Christians, a minority within the American body politic, be viewed as, ipso facto, anti-American or anti-Christian? I don't think so.

Two prominent American artists, Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, had this to say about charges that Churchill's play is anti-Semitic:

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.”

Others emphatically disagree—in fact, they disagreed on the program at issue. The Sunday Edition used the broadcast as a springboard for a wider discussion. You appear to argue that the discussion could have been held without broadcasting the play. Perhaps, but the format and length of the program allow it to pursue topics in various ways and at various lengths. The Sunday Edition would appear to be the ideal venue for such an airing.

It does no service to the strength and vibrancy of Israel to try to limit sharp and diverse exploration of topics—the kind of exploration that takes place every day in Israel itself.

Some have raised the issue of the notorious Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed as analagous. I disagree. As I wrote in my review of that matter, “freedom of speech applies to those making controversial statements, as well as to those who choose whether or not to report them.” While I implied that a decision to broadcast the cartoons would have been within the bounds of policy, the decision not to did not violate policy since the audience had enough information, including descriptions of the cartoons, on which to form a judgement.

Similarly, producers in this case could have chosen not to deal with the subject at all. But I would argue strongly that they were within their rights, and within policy bounds, to broadcast the controversial material and provide thoughtful commentary and context.

Conclusion

While the play implicitly attacks certain attitudes within the Israeli population, its broadcast within a journalistic format that allowed for elaboration and discussion was within the bounds of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman