OPINION: Caryl Churchill’s theatre award withdrawal is delicious karma

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OPINION: Caryl Churchill’s theatre award withdrawal is delicious karma

Jenni Frazer on the decision to withdraw a lifetime achievement award to the author of the "antisemitic" play Seven Jewish Children.

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

The play Seven Jewish Children
The play Seven Jewish Children

On the whole, as I have said here before, I am against boycotts. I don’t think the answer to those boycotting us – Jews or Israel – is to boycott them. Let us ascend the moral high ground for a brief moment, and feel superior to those whose answer to their political disapproval of the Jewish state is to escalate the entire debate, by boycotting Israel and everything to do with it.

So I was marginally amused to learn of the shock ’n’ horror of some members of the arts establishment at the withdrawal of a lifetime achievement award to the playwright Caryl Churchill. It is a German theatre award, which do please bear in mind as you read on.

Jenni Frazer

If the name Caryl Churchill rings bells, it should. She is the author of Seven Jewish Children, the winsome play once infamously staged at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Not Zionist or Israeli children, note, but Jewish children.

The play, lasting a whole 10 minutes (and people paid for this, remember), was written in 2009 in the aftermath of that year’s Gaza conflict, Operation Cast Lead.

Many members of the Jewish community – including theatre critic John Nathan – believed the play to be antisemitic. It scarcely added to the difficult reputation of the Royal Court among Jewish theatre-goers, only marginally re-balanced by this summer’s Jews. In Their Own Words, by The Guardian writer Jonathan Freedland.

I know John Nathan well and I also know that he does not lightly use the word “antisemitic” to describe a theatrical offering, so I pay attention when he does.

I do not number Caryl Churchill among my acquaintances and it is perfectly true that she is the author of more than 30 stage works, so Seven Jewish Children does not represent the entirety of her work.

Nevertheless, when the German jury responsible for giving Churchill the £65,000 award (announced in April) reviewed her career, they found she had been chosen for the award “in recognition of her life’s work”.

But, they added: “We have meanwhile become aware of the author’s signatures in support of boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS]. The play Seven Jewish Children can also be regarded as being antisemitic. Therefore, to our great regret, the jury has decided not to confer the prize this year.”

The award is funded by the Baden-Württemberg ministry of science, research and arts. Its minister, Petra Olschowski, backed the withdrawal of the prize. She said: “In Germany, we have a special historical responsibility. That is why we as a country take a clear and non-negotiable stance against any form of antisemitism. This is all the more reason why a prize funded by the state cannot be awarded under the given circumstances”.

It is instructive, if anyone has the time or patience, to look through the list of usual suspects who have signed an open letter denouncing the German jury’s decision. Here we see the great and the not-so-great, people of whom I once thought better: Juliet Stevenson, Stephen Frears, Harriet Walter.  There’s Jenny Manson of Jewish Voice for something. There’s the inevitable anti-Israel Israeli professors. And, oh, look, there’s none other than Jewish theatre and film director Mike Leigh, who has bought into the whole “Israeli apartheid” thing, hook, line and sinker in defence of Churchill.

It’s not as though she actually got the money and then it was taken away from her. No. A German arts jury, not Jews, decided she had taken matters too far in support of Palestinians. It is perfectly possible, as the pages of this newspaper reflect every week, to condemn some political stances of Israel without going down the whole BDS route.

So in an act of supreme karma, the boycotter has been herself boycotted.


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