Guardian theater review: Israel criticism as artistic criticism

“Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real and imagined wrong-doing committed by a single Jewish person or group is anti-Semitic”EU’s Working Definition on Anti-Semitism

I admit it. I know next to nothing about theater.  In fact I likely know as little about this art as Guardian theater critic Michael Billington knows about Israel. So, while I won’t engage in a critique of Billington’s artistic criticism, I do feel quite capable of fisking his amateur political analysis of the UK production of “Reading Hebron” (Guardian, Feb. 14)

Reading Hebron is “a play by Toronto-based Jason Sherman about a massacre that took place in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron in 1994.”

Billington opines:

“Sherman starts with an official Israeli inquiry into the facts: that in February 1994 Dr Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn-born Jewish settler, walked into the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and shot 29 Palestinians at prayer and injured at least 125 more. Despite oddities in the evidence, such as the fact that only one of six Israeli guards was in place at the time, the commission concluded that the massacre was the action of a lone shooter.”

I honestly don’t know what “oddities” Billington is talking about and quite frankly never read anything even suggesting that Goldstein didn’t act alone, yet we’re treated, in the writer’s opening salvo, to the suggestion that their may have been a conspiracy.  Are we to believe that the commission withheld evidence which would have implicated the IDF, or the Israeli government in the massacre of innocent worshipers?

Billington continues.

“The main thrust of Sherman’s gripping play concerns an attempt by the fictional Nathan Abramowitz to get at the truth about the shooting and to decide “whether those of us who allowed it to happen are as guilty as Goldstein”

So, now the moral urgency of the production is clear.  “Those of us” (Jews other than Goldstein) “allowed” the shooting to happen, and may therefore be as guilty as the murderer himself – a logically incomprehensible moral causality, and bigoted in its suggestion that individual Jews in the diaspora should be held responsible for the actions of individual Jews in Israel.

“But at the heart of the play lies the self-doubt and moral rage of Nathan, a secular Jew who has never visited Israel but who feels implicated in its policies.” [emphasis mine]

Indeed, at one point in the play Nathan attends a Passover Seder with guests which include three paradigms of objectivity and fairness – Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi – to offer their sage and, no doubt, nuanced meditations on the state of the Jewish and Israeli soul.

Of course, the notion that Jews in the diaspora should be “implicated” (a quite telling word choice) in the actions of the democratic Israeli state is not simply anti-Semitic, it also is a principle which has much wider implications.  If a Jew who’s never been to Israel, but merely shares a historical religious connection to the nation, is to feel so “implicated” one would have to wonder if a Chinese American should feel implicated in the crimes by the totalitarian regime in Beijing, or whether an African-American should somehow feel responsible for the political decisions made by various state actors in that continent.

Finally, Billington asks:

“It leaves us pondering one question: with Israeli-Palestinian peace-talks permanently stalled, has anything seriously changed since the massacre?”

Why, yes, much has changed since 1994.  A deadly campaign of terror from 2000 to 2004 left over 1200 Jewish citizens of Israel dead – victims of suicide attacks and other forms of violence directed against civilians and routinely sanctioned by Palestinian authorities, the state-run media, and religious leaders (not to mention more than a few sympathetic journalists and “intellectuals” in the West).

Unlike in Israel, where the deadly rampage by Goldstein was both anomalous and universally condemned, Palestinian society didn’t seem too keen on engaging in such self-criticism over the moral implications of their violent intifada, and we will likely never see a play, or some other form of artistic expression, questioning their societal culpability, one which engages in serious self-reflection.

Michael Billington, like so many of his colleagues at the Guardian, has grown up believing as much in the romanticized version of “Palestine”, as in the crude caricature of the Jewish state – what Jonathan Spyer characterizes as a place which bears little or no resemblance to the nation for those who actually live there: “mythical Israel…a place of uninterrupted darkness and horror, in which every human interaction is ugly, crude, racist, brutal.”

I can’t comment on Michael Billington’s adeptness at artistic criticism, but I certainly can hope that he, and his colleagues, will one day engage in the same level of self-criticism they are constantly demanding of me, my religion, and my nation.

10 replies »

  1. Billington’s Anti-Semitic Blood Libel

    Michael Billington on Caryl Churchill’s play, Seven Jewish Children:

    “What she captures, in remarkably condensed poetic form, is the transition that has overtaken Israel, to the point where security has become the pretext for indiscriminate slaughter.”

    Billington Endorses the Mass-Murder of Jews

    About “My Name is Rachel Corrie”, Billington writes:

    “Theatre has no obligation to give a complete picture. Its only duty is to be honest. And what you get here is a stunning account of one woman’s passionate response to a particular situation. And the passion comes blazing through in Corrie’s eloquent reaction to her father’s inquiry about Palestinian violence. As she says, if we lived where tanks and soldiers and bulldozers could destroy our homes at any moment and where our lives were completely strangled, wouldn’t we defend ourselves as best we could. The danger of right-on propaganda is avoided by the specificity of Rickman’s Theatre Upstairs production.”

    Melanie Phillips responds to that last piece as follows:

    “For a moment, I thought Billington was saying that if we lived in a situation where terrorists could blow children and teenagers to bits in pizza parlours and on buses we would of course defend ourselves as best we could. Silly me; he’s endorsing the side of the killers, of course. Thank heavens he‘s avoided the dangers of ‘right-on propaganda’.”

  2. Howard Jacobson on Billington’s review of Seven Jewish Children (see post above for link):

    “If one could simply leave them to it one would. It’s a hell of its own making, hating Jews for a living. Only think of the company you must keep. But these things are catching. Take Michael Billington’s somnolent review of the play in the Guardian. I would imagine that any accusation of anti-Semitism would horrify Michael Billington. And I certainly don’t make it. But if you wanted an example of how language itself can sleepwalk the most innocent towards racism, then here it is. “Churchill shows us,” he writes, “how Jewish children are bred to believe in the ‘otherness’ of Palestinians…”

    It is not just the adopted elision of Israeli children into Jewish children that is alarming, or the unquestioning acceptance of Caryl Churchill’s offered insider knowledge of Israeli child-rearing, what’s most chilling is that lazy use of the word “bred”, so rich in eugenic and bestial connotations, but inadvertently slipped back into the conversation now, as truth. Fact: Jews breed children in order to deny Palestinians their humanity. Watching another play in the same week, Billington complains about its manipulation of racial stereotypes. He doesn’t, you see, even notice the inconsistency.

    And so it happens. Without one’s being aware of it, it happens. A gradual habituation to the language of loathing. Passed from the culpable to the unwary and back again. And soon, before you know it…”

  3. I am both an actor and a playwright, and personally, I think it’s quite fair to critique an artist who is creating agit-prop, and fair to criticize a critic who praises agit-prop simply because it tows a certain ideological line.

    Theatre at its best, portrays the complexity and contradictions that exist in the culture it portrays– in fact, that’s what makes great drama (and comedy.) Agit-prop can sometimes be interesting theatre, but it’s rarely ever great theatre, and a critic who can’t tell the difference is not only a bad critic, but an uninteresting critic.

  4. “Reading Hebron is ‘play by Toronto-based Jason Sherman about a massacre that took place in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron in 1994.’ ”

    Maybe someone should write a play “Comprehending Hebron,” about a massacre that took place in British-occupied city of Hebron in 1929. An act of not one lone gunman but a whole mob of jihad-rampaging Muslims, before the Jewish State was declared, before even the Arab “Palestinian nation” was invented, and the grievance was not about “robbing a stateless nation of their tiny patch of land,” but about the affront of Jews living on Islamic territory without accepting their status under the apartheid system of dhimmi law.

    Billington, like the entire Guardian staff, is the lineal descendant of those of the British administrators who turned a blind eye to the massacre of Jews. (Not all of them, of course: Well should the memory of Orde Charles Wingate, for example, be cherished.)

  5. Isn’t this just a continuation of Georgina Henry’s anti-Semitic campaign to eliminate the Israeli people?

  6. Suggestions for plays:

    The bombing of Pan Am 103
    The “compassionate” release of the bomber of Pan Am 103 by scottish/british
    The beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl
    The bombing of London on 7/7/05
    The libyan sniper who murdered policewoman Yvonne Fletcher
    The Mumbai India islamofascist massacre

    neville chamberlain and current day appeasers like gorgeous george gallowsway.