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Jews. In Their Own Words review – appalling revelations in a gallop through centuries of bigotry | Theatre

TIronically, a literal drama about anti-Semitism was born out of an anti-Semitic example in the theater now showing, and opens with reference to that episode. A man emerges from a flash of light, invoking the birth of mankind, to be told he is Herschel Fink, the apparently Jewish name initially given to the greedy billionaire in the play Rare Earth Mettle, produced at the Royal Court in 2021.

Based on an idea by actress Tracy Ann Oberman and written by Guardian journalist Jonathan Friedland, the play aims to examine anti-Semitism within liberal institutions like this place and more certainly the political left that paints itself as the enlightened, anti-racist “good guys” but harbors unconscious bigotry.

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It’s a hilarious start to a production, directed by Vicki Featherston and Audrey Sheffield, that comes with gritty theater, songs, and satirical jokes, albeit backed by a killer serious investigation into how this older form of hate persists. Jews from that opening hole take us through centuries of prejudice and persecution, as comprehensively as possible in less than two hours. Friedland conducted diligent research: 180,000 words drawn from interviews and 12 voices ranging from prominent Jewish figures – among them Margaret Hodge, Howard Jacobson and Oberman – to members of British society whose accounts are just as powerful, all just as strong. It is played by seven alternating agility actors.

Touching many bases... Jews.  In their own words.
Touching many bases… Jews. In their own words. Photo: Manuel Harlan

It brings a host of important, horrific and often overlooked facts, experiences, and arguments to the stage, but ends up running through centuries of terrain, packing in so much without enough unpacking and touching so many bases that some parts may sound like soundtracks.

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The play isn’t always down-to-earth and feels as though it’s trying too hard to give the literal a dramatic edge, performing mime in medieval mystery style as the characters narrate the origins of anti-Semitic metaphors, from the myth of Jewish money-lending to the horrific fantasy of blood libel (which links Jewish rituals with blood non-Jewish children).

The play gains strength when it is dropped for a simpler, more serene form of storytelling, around a table, one character after another – talking about a swastika carved into his family’s car, or growing up in Iraq and listening to radio drama with an attack. Jewish stereotypes, of occasional but gruesome abuse in schools, taxis and offices. These are moments more dripping, full of strength, and we desire less so that we can have more, with one argument or experience due to its full entitlement.

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The play’s larger setting somewhat undermines its central goal of focusing on left-wing anti-Semitism as well. It shows us just how ubiquitous this type of racial bigotry is, far from partisan politics, though we certainly get disturbing accounts from Hodge (played by Debbie Chasin) and former Labor shadow minister Luciana Berger (Luisa Klein) about inaction. And the blackout they did. experienced, along with the vile intersections between misogyny and anti-Semitism on social media.

A blood libel test... Jews.  In their own words.
A blood libel test… Jews. In their own words. Photo: Manuel Harlan

But the drama shows more convincingly how anti-Semitism is spread across culture and history and embedded in language itself. Stephen Bush (Billy Ashcroft) He makes a valuable point about the distinctly liberal left’s skepticism about money and power – a loaded association given the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jews who run the media and hold all the wealth and power. Other anti-left arguments, however, seem more general: that the left supports the underdog and thus stopped supporting Israel after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war (“the emotional left…cannot sympathize with anyone who wins”). The Guardian, he suggests, is guilty of the same thing.

Bush also points out how the left does not imagine that Jews are black and it is unfortunate, in light of this statement, that there are limited visions of being a black British Jew here – Bush is the only character of mixed heritage, although there is the story of Iraqi refugee Edwin Shukr (Hami Yoreham).

There is a very powerful yet very brief look at the inherited traumas and legacy of the Holocaust, with sad stories of packed bags left behind in the door decades after World War II and a pediatrician talking about having a “mobile profession” in a state that has to flee, which is deeply heartbreaking.

He presents Israel as a subject but also avoids it. “What does the external conflict have to do with me?” One character says and others talk about how they are constantly called upon to give their views on the conflict in the Middle East. The play revives an old charge against Caryl Churchill’s controversial 2009 play, Seven Jewish Children, written shortly after Israel’s bombing of Gaza (which killed more than 200 Palestinian children). Jacobson (Steve Forrest) remembers seeing it and feeling as if the audience was “encouraged by the jeers of Jews”. We hear how the play evokes myths about blood libel, as well as confusing the terms “Jew” with “Israeli” (Churchill and her play’s director, Dominic Cook, vigorously defended the play against these accusations).

Disturbing novels ... Debbie Chasin echoes the words of politician Margaret Hodge.
Disturbing novels … Debbie Chasin echoes the words of politician Margaret Hodge. Photo: Manuel Harlan

One character says: “Criticize what you want – the prime minister, settlement policy, this war, this military strategy.” “Most Jews agree with you. But don’t do it in a way that criticizes the Judaism of Israel.” The ambiguity of this statement invites further discussion that we do not get, along with tentative statements about the intersection between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism leaving the debate hanging. Instead, the drama departs from an exploration of how protest and sympathy for Palestinians can be legitimately expressed through Jewish voices in public spaces, and art, which, according to Cook, was the object of his play.

In the end, her investigative intent is there but her remit is simply too great, running on the next topic and then the next. But there is, even in this, a sense of greater and valid uneasiness: this seems like a play given a rare opportunity to express its very urgent and important issues, which makes covering all the ground at the time frenetic. It has been granted.

At Jerwood Theatre, Downstairs, Royal Court, London until October 22.

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