Once even Jews would utter the word ‘Jew’ in a whisper. Now it is up in lights
It could almost be an anxiety dream: your name up in lights alongside the word “Jews”, resplendent on the outside of London’s Royal Court theatre. And yet I’ve looked and looked again and I have not imagined it. It’s there.
Putting aside the fact that I have never written a play before, it’s a jolt to see that combination of words outside that particular theatre. Relations between the Royal Court and much of Britain’s Jewish community have been strained for several decades. In 1987, the Royal Court was set to be the home of Perdition, a play that alleged collusion, born of a supposed ideological affinity, between Zionism and nazism. In 2009, it was the venue for Seven Jewish Children, a short play that has the distinction of being the only work by a major producing theatre ever described by the Jewish Chronicle’s drama critic as antisemitic (a charge denied by the playwright, Caryl Churchill). And last year, word came of Rare Earth Mettle, a new work at the Court featuring a predatory billionaire capitalist with the ostentatiously Jewish name of Hershel Fink. Instantly the theatre stood accused of reheating a hoary and antisemitic stereotype.
Indeed, it’s the fictitious Mr Fink whom I have to thank for my playwriting debut. The firestorm touched off by that planned name (after the outcry, the character became “Henry Finn”) led the Court’s artistic director, Vicky Featherstone, to give me a call. She did not seek to make excuses or defend herself. Instead, in that conversation and several others, she said that she and her colleagues had clearly erred. She wanted to know more about antisemitism: how it worked, how it got missed, how it seemed to lurk even among those who, like the Royal Court, prided themselves on being firmly antiracist.
She told me that she had long been in discussion with the actor Tracy-Ann Oberman about commissioning a play on antisemitism on the left. During the period when Jeremy Corbyn served as Labour leader, and as antisemitism within the party became a point of often bitter controversy, a member of the Court’s board had offered a similar thought. After Hershel Fink, said Featherstone, the necessity of such a project was not in doubt. Would I take it on?
I was wary. What if this was no more than a gesture to get the theatre out of a PR hole? But Featherstone struck me as being much more in earnest than that. Besides, in recent years, Jews like me had been asking progressives to take the subject of antisemitism seriously, to listen to Jewish concerns. And now here was a progressive institution, one with great standing, doing exactly that. I at least had to give it a chance.
It also felt like the right time. The heat of those Labour wars had diminished somewhat; there was a chance to reflect on the phenomenon more widely and deeply, looking at not merely one political party in a single four-year period, but at the broader culture and long history of the UK’s complex attitude to its tiny Jewish minority, numbering somewhere between 260,000 and 290,000 people.
Tracy-Ann’s vision had always been for a vibrant, entertaining piece of theatre, complete with music, humour and song – and a dose of what you might call English irony – but where the text would be verbatim: though the words would be spoken by actors, they would be drawn entirely from interviews. We wanted to listen not only to those who, admittedly, have a platform but only seldom get to talk fully and candidly about the experiences that shaped them – but also to those Jews who rarely get heard. So I set about interviewing a dozen people, including a social worker, Victoria Hart, as well as the Labour MP Margaret Hodge; a doctor, Tammy Rothenberg, as well as political journalist Stephen Bush; a painter and decorator, Phillip Abrahams, as well as the novelist Howard Jacobson; a former student leader, Hannah Rose, and an expert on antisemitism, Dave Rich, as well as Tracy-Ann herself.
The result is, I hope, a mix of stories and perspectives that will never have been heard before on the London stage. Among them is the first-hand testimony of an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jew, recalling the day he was violently beaten on an English street. Or the odyssey of Edwin Shuker, who fled to this country in 1971 as a refugee from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Or the former MP Luciana Berger giving the most complete account yet of the journey she made from young Labour idealist to the target of a daily onslaught of racist, misogynistic and mortally threatening abuse, before losing the job she “lived and breathed and loved”.
Of course, not everybody will be happy with the choice of interviewees. Some will expect a stage show to operate like a survey, representative of every corner of British Jewish opinion. But no play could do that. Besides, as Bush points out, there was much less disagreement among British Jews during those bruising years of 2015 to 2019 than you might have guessed, at least if TV discussion programmes were your guide. Again and again, two opposing Jews would be brought on to debate antisemitism on the left, as if Jews were split down the middle on the matter. In fact, polling evidence suggests a striking degree of unanimity: 86% of British Jews regarded Jeremy Corbyn as antisemitic, according to a Survation study in September 2018, with just 8% disagreeing. Purely as a matter of numbers, explains Bush, “the positions of pro-Corbyn Jews were overcovered” in that period. There was no need to repeat that mistake.
The 12 conversations yielded all kinds of surprises. I did not ask every interviewee the same questions, except one. I wanted each of them to tell me where their grandparents or great-grandparents came from. The answers – Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Holland, Russia, Iraq and more – confirmed how much British Jewry remains a community of immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. When I put that question to Hodge, it elicited a family story that forms what might be one of the most moving passages in the play. After you have heard it, you will understand why Hodge’s father advised her always to keep a packed suitcase by the front door – and you might shudder when you remember the way that formative experience of hers was mocked when she recalled it during an especially rancorous phase in Labour’s civil war.
I was also struck by how even those who did not have a direct connection to the Holocaust had been shaped by it. Rothenberg speaks of “inherited trauma”, and several of the others talked of the psychological mark that event had made on them, the way it had left them alert to signs of danger in ways that, they felt, the wider society – including self-styled progressives – barely understood.
Arresting too was the way even the historic, centuries-old motifs and themes of antisemitism intruded into these Jews’ daily, even intimate, lives. Take, as just one example, the musty myths that surround Jews and money. Hart recalled the day when a colleague, a proudly antiracist social worker, told of her reluctance to help a Jewish woman in need: this colleague was sure the woman concerned had money, but was hiding it. “I know she must be lying because they’ve all got money,” she declared.
The stories kept coming: ideas about Jews that you would find in books of medieval history – some of them nearly a thousand years old – barging into the lives of Jews living in Britain in 2022. It soon became clear that an issue that was frequently debated on the pages of newspapers or in TV studios or on social media, often in the terms of an abstract, theoretical discussion about language and its resonances, was all too real and all too concrete for the people who were being talked about.
Eventually, I had 12 transcripts containing about 180,000 words in front of me. I read them and reread them, marking passages and noting the recurring themes among these 12 individuals. And though I had myself thought about this subject for many years, I gradually saw it with a new clarity, one that had come from listening to those dozen people.
Antisemites carry with them an imagined version of the Jew. It might be a renaissance painting of Judas Iscariot, his purse bulging with silver, or it could be the supposed string-pullers of the house of Rothschild. It might be Shakespeare’s miser Shylock or Dickens’ miser Fagin. It might be the alien lizards imagined by David Icke or the wicked manipulators of weather, wielding their “Jewish space-laser”, dreamed up by the Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor-Greene. It might even be a capitalist predator called Hershel Fink. The fantasies about Jews adapt to each age, and can find a home on the right and left. But the presence of these fantastical, diabolic Jews in the global imagination – often embedded so deep in the culture that we hardly notice them – is a constant.
And the impact is felt by real Jews trying to live real lives. Their fate is to be seen through a lens clouded by centuries of myth and imaginings, and as the stories told in this play illustrate, the consequences can be painful – and even bloody.
For all that, the process of making this play has not been bleak. “It felt very validating,” Rothenberg told me, to be listened to and “to know that someone, somewhere, is taking this very seriously”. For Hart: “It’s been cathartic to speak openly about antisemitism. The people of ‘the left’ have always been ‘my people’ until suddenly they were not. And that’s been a lot to carry.” One member of the all-Jewish cast says she has found the whole project “freeing”.
Indeed, several have remarked on the novelty of working on a production where so many of those involved, behind the scenes as well as on stage, are fellow Jews – where they are not the only one, where they don’t need to be an ambassador for all the others. “I’ve almost not allowed myself to be Jewish, when acting, until now,” says Turkish-born actor Hemi Yeroham. He also notes how seldom stories like his – of non-Ashkenazi, non-European Jews – get heard: “Most Jewish theatre is around Ashkenazi culture. The Mizrachi or Sephardi part of the Jewish story is almost nonexistent.” Now he is playing Shuker, a man who, like him, is from a Jewish community that endured for centuries, but whose experience is scarcely discussed.
For my part, I find two sources of optimism in this venture. The first begins with the fact that the British Jewish community for many years believed that, for its own safety, it ought to keep its collective head down. As we hear in the play, even now plenty of Jews hesitate before disclosing that they are Jewish, wary of the response: they think hard before doing so, weighing up the risks. Yet here is a group of 12 Jews who have been willing to speak frankly and very personally, sharing feelings many had long buried, and to do so in public. That is confirmation of a trend that was visible during that 2015-2019 period, when Jews chose to defend themselves loudly and proudly, breaking from a past of quietism and fear. Once even Jews themselves would only utter the word “Jew” in a whisper. Now it is up in lights.
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It is there not solely because Jews were willing to speak, but because an institution once deemed closed to Jewish concerns was ready to listen. I don’t know how many minds will be changed by this show, or how many barriers will come down. But the fact that in an era of polarisation, culture wars and unbridgeable divides, this show happened at all – that might just be a cause for celebration.
Jews. In Their Own Words is now previewing at the Royal Court theatre, London
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