Wednesday, April 8, 2009

There is something perverse and masochistic about a self-described “pro-Israel” group going out of its way to lend support to the airing of luridly anti-Semitic propaganda.

Yet that’s what happened last month when J Street - the “pro-Israel, pro-Peace” lobby - endorsed the performance of “Seven Jewish Children,” an outrageous new play by the British playwright Caryl Churchill. The 10-minute drama has been staged in major cities across the United States, including Washington, where Theater J, a production company affiliated with the city’s Jewish Community Center, hosted readings last month.

“Seven Jewish Children” draws a direct line from Nazi Germany’s mass murder of European Jewry to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. This theme is an old trope in the quiver of rabid Israel-haters.

Rushing through 60 years of history, the play depicts a group of adults speaking in hushed tones about how they ought to address a Jewish girl who remains offstage. “Don’t tell her they’ll kill her,” one of the characters says, presumably sometime in the 1940s. Minutes later, transported to modern-day Israel, the adults discuss what they should teach the child about Palestinians: “Tell her they’re filth,” “Tell her they’re animals living in rubble now,” and so on.

The Jewish girl who begins as Anne Frank ends up as Baruch Goldstein-in-training. (Goldstein was an extreme right-wing Israeli who murdered 29 Muslims praying at a West Bank mosque in 1994.)

“The decision to feature ‘Seven Jewish Children’ at Theater J,” read a statement issued by J Street in the defense of its production, “should be judged not on the basis of the play’s content but, rather, on its value in sparking a difficult but necessary conversation within our community. To preclude even the possibility of such a discussion does a disservice not only to public discourse, but also to the very values of rigorous intellectual engagement and civil debate on which our community prides itself.”

It is “Seven Jewish Children,” in spreading the anti-Semitic blood libel, that “does a disservice to public discourse,” not complaints over the propriety of its production (which should not be confused with a call to ban it). Would J Street similarly support production of a play depicting Palestinians as bloodthirsty murderers?

Contrast J Street’s support for the production of “Seven Jewish Children” with its stance on the controversial Rev. John Hagee. Last year, the group launched a campaign criticizing the pastor and his affiliation with pro-Israel organizations. Mr. Hagee is indeed an incendiary man, and J Street spoke for many Jews (this one included) when it questioned his coziness with some Israel advocacy groups.

But it says something about J Street’s motives when it trips over itself to attack a politically conservative ally of Israel but rushes to defend a play comparing Israel to Nazi Germany. The last several years have borne witness to a disturbing rise in global anti-Semitism along with a concerted effort by radical Muslims around the world, in league with leftist intellectuals in the West, to undermine the very legitimacy of Israel’s existence and its right to defend itself from terrorism and the eventual Iranian bomb. “Seven Jewish Children” is but the latest volley of this shameful campaign.

J Street attempts to cover itself with a fig leaf of moral deniability by saying it “takes no position on the content” of “Seven Jewish Children” but insists that its performance is a good thing nonetheless because it will encourage “a difficult but necessary conversation.”

If you don’t understand this distinction between the play’s anti-Semitic message and the desirability of putting it on, it’s because there is no distinction. Just the opposite: To J Street, the inflammatory message of “Seven Jewish Children” is precisely what makes it worthy of production.

Instead of admitting this, J Street engages in a feeble and transparent attempt at having it both ways, distancing itself from the disgusting content of the play while encouraging the spectacle of pain that will follow in its wake.

J Street says “Seven Jewish Children” will contribute to debate about Israel. Which part of it contributes to what part of the debate? The part where the Jews celebrate the killing of Arab children? Or is it the part where they use the memory of the Holocaust to justify the wanton slaughter of Palestinians?

There is nothing wrong with voicing legitimate criticism of Israel. But in such perilous times for the Jewish state, it’s appalling that an ostensibly “pro-Israel” organization like J Street would transmogrify the worthy Jewish tradition of self-criticism into a spectacle of self-loathing.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor of the New Republic and a contributing writer to the Advocate.

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