'Seven Jewish Children' – 2
25 Mar 09

Editor’s note: Index on Censorship is committed to facilitating open and vigorous debate. We will endeavour to correct factual inaccuracies wherever they occur.

An article posted on our website on 17 March inadvertently accused the Jewish Chronicle of deliberately ‘outing’ and ‘naming and shaming’ members of the cast of the play Seven Jewish Children, ‘with the intention, it would appear, of impacting on their future careers’ .
We accept that this is untrue.

The following is a corrected version of the original story.

This is a guest post by Sonja Linden

The BBC has declined to broadcast a radio version of Caryl Churchill’s ten-minute stage play Seven Jewish Children on the grounds of impartiality.

The play, written in response to the Israeli onslaught on Gaza and as a fundraising event for the victims of this onslaught, has been described by critics not just as unbalanced but ‘anti-Semitic’. I have seen the play and choose to disagree. My response was underscored by the fact that a Jewish actor friend of mine, who is highly sensitive to criticism of Israel, agreed to take part in the play. Her sensitivities are linked to the fact that she was in the Warsaw Ghetto as a child, and that she spent five formative years in Israel, when it was a nascent state in the early 50s. She told me how keenly she had scrutinised the text before accepting the role but that it was her considered opinion that the statements in Churchill’s play had veracity, and that the play was not anti-Semitic. She was deeply shocked, subsequently, not just at the critique of the play as anti-Semitic, but at the viciousness of the attacks on it in the Jewish press, in particular the Jewish Chronicle.

The increasing viciousness and vituperation of such attacks, in particular attacks by Jews on fellow Jews, such as myself, who dare to hold Israel publicly to account on ethical and human rights grounds, is not only disturbing but begs a number of questions. One of them is the issue of creeping censorship. The cry ‘anti-Semitism’ as a gagging tool in the face of criticism of Zionism or Israel is an issue that needs serious examination.

A small example of the latter is the response I recently had from the artistic director of a leading regional theatre in the USA concerning my play Welcome to Ramallah, co-written with Adah Kay. Impressive as the play was, he said, it would be difficult to get it produced by any mainstream theatre in the States. Personally, he added, he could not get it past his own audience.

This is precisely the line taken by the BBC as regards Caryl Churchill’s play: ‘After due consideration we felt it would not work for our audience’. It’s a statement that needs unpacking. What exactly does it mean? Who is this monolithic audience for whom it ‘would not work’? Does every play have to ‘work’? Surely there must be allowance made for some plays to work less than others? What about the more cryptic plays of Beckett? Do they ‘work’ for what the BBC perceives to be its audience? It is clear that the gauge here is one of content rather than accessibility. In this context a play is deemed not to ‘work’ if it invites a hostile response on the grounds of its contents, as witnessed during the Royal Court’s production of the play. But does such hostility matter? Can the broad shoulders of the BBC not support a degree of flak? It would appear that Seven Jewish Children has been rejected out of fear of furore, a furore that it is ironically even more likely to invoke by its very rejection, as happened very recently with the BBC’s refusal to broadcast a humanitarian appeal for Gaza, also on grounds of impartiality.

There are a number of further questions here also. Should a play not be judged primarily on its artistic merit? Radio 4 Controller Mark Damazer and Radio 4’s drama commissioning editor Jeremy Howe both agreed that it was a ‘brilliant piece’. Should a piece of art be required to be balanced? And if the BBC feels that this is its mission, even in the realm of art, what are the implications of Mark Damazer and Jeremy Howe’s view that ‘it would be nearly impossible to run a drama that counters Caryl Churchill’s view’. Why? Surely a counter-play could be produced? Caryl Churchill only needed a weekend apparently.

If ‘balance’ is indeed the BBC’s key criterion here, why not build a discussion programme around the broadcast for a mixture of responses? And, crucially, what is the BBC so frightened of that it cannot risk a ten-minute radio play by one of Britain’s leading and internationally renowned playwrights?

Sonja Linden is a playwright and founding artistic director of iceandfire theatre