MELBOURNE, AFP: “Seven Jewish Children” – The Panel 18May09 May 29, 2009

From left, Randa Abdel-Fatteh, Paul Heywood-Smith QC, Robert Richter QC, Patrick Wolfe (Moderator) Prof Yakov Rabkin, Assoc Prof Bassam Dally, Dr Michael Fagenblat, Prof Dennis Altman

From left, Randa Abdel-Fatteh, Paul Heywood-Smith QC, Robert Richter QC, Patrick Wolfe (Moderator) Prof Yakov Rabkin, Assoc Prof Bassam Dally, Dr Michael Fagenblat, Prof Dennis Altman

The views presented, nevertheless, did stir debate with probing questions from the audience that were directed at various panel members all expertly handled by the moderator Dr Patrick Wolfe of La Trobe University.

Paul Heywood-Smith QC (Adelaide) began by looking at the adult discussions centred around children from the first scene on the Holocaust to the seventh and last on Gaza. He countered the suggestion of anti-semitism or racial vilification by the play’s critics and showed that in fact the first five scenes are quite sympathetic to the Jewish people who created and maintained the new state of Israel.  Those scenes suggest that the children would in time have to “wrestle with” valid justifications for the creation of Israel out of another people’s land when in fact there are none.  Not until child six is discussed, said Paul, do we realise “that something might be wrong”, and then finally with child seven, the disturbing instances of racism against the Palestinians become absolutely apparent.  In this way the play provides the impetus for discussions that we have to have.

Palestinian lawyer and author, Randa Abdel-Fatteh (Sydney) saw the play as a heart-breaking, urgent  “cry of grief, a plea for reconciliation, for an acknowledgement of past injustices.” She explained how hurtful it was to hear Australia’s Prime Minister Rudd celebrate Israel’s 60 year anniversary of its creation when her own grandmother had been denied the right to die in her homeland only one month earlier and how one despairs when the Palestinians are not only ignored, but denied legitimacy.  They have been dispossessed of their homeland and their very victimhood is questioned.  After all these years, they are still waiting for an apology – “for the villages depopulated, the massacres committed, the refugees created.” The play is helping to change the discourse on the conflict by exposing “the delusional self-righteousness of a people who have suffered horrific persecution attempting to protect themselves by persecuting another people.” Only by acknowledging Palestinian suffering and making amends can the healing process begin.

Associate Professor Bassam Dally said that after reading the play, he decided to bring a personal reflection to the evening’s discussion.  He had many in the audience visibly moved by his anecdotal account of growing up as a Palestinian in the Galilee area when it was under Israeli military rule.  Knowing nothing of history then, he told his mother they had to mount a flag on the roof to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day.    Only 10 years old, he soon learned  that things were not as they seemed after his mother explained  the harrowing Palestinian narrative of dispossession –  the complete upheaval of Palestinian society as many fled in terror, the loss of homes and land, families and friends.  Now, his own 10 year old daughter is asking  questions “Why are we always delayed at airports? Why can’t we build a house on land in Israel that you say belongs to your grandmother?  Does the new prime minister of Australia like Palestinians?”  Bassam ended with his own “tell her” wisdom:  “I tell her Arabs and Jews lived peacefully in the holy land for centuries, that there are good and bad people everywhere, if you deny people their suffering, they deny you your suffering . . . I tell her one day justice will prevail, people will remember al-Nakba, people will forgive, and new happier memories will replace the old painful ones.”

Dr Michael Fagenblat,  in an effort to provide seven responses to the seven Jewish children referred to in the play,  opened by saying that he was in the minority amongst Zionists in believing “that the war in Gaza was a total mistake from beginning to end.”  He also rejected the criticisms of antisemitism, but urged the audience “to see through the sentimental psychologism of the play” because the political insights are “childish”.  The children effectively stand for a complete exposure of the moral conscience of the Jews.  In other words, if only  parents had faced up to their own conscience, they would never have done what they did.  “This,” he said,  “is a ridiculous perspective from which to make a serious comment about the Israel-Palestine conflict.”    He rejected the idea that the creation of Israel was compensation for the Holocaust and was troubled that this was a play about Jews that left the Palestinians invisible and simply victims with no agency in this history.  Even more concerning for him was what he sees as the polarisation of the discourse by Zionists and anti-Zionists rather than accepting the “deeply implicated nature of this conflict, of the shared responsibility . . . and the shared destiny of the people who live there” which he believes is likely to drive the protagonists into their respective corners “and pit them further against each other than either can practically afford.”

Robert Richter QC said that the play is a play for Jews, but it is important for it to be seen by all.  That an injustice occurred in 1948 and in 1967 is undeniable, although how to mitigate it without creating a further catastrophe, namely the destruction of  Israel is another matter. While the play might provoke painful soul searching, it is very acceptable for it to do so.  He explained that the Jewish psyche if untreated will continue to be afflicted by the grievous damage caused by the Holocaust which understandably has created a rolling nervous breakdown.  However, only a just outcome of the current conflict holds any hope for the future and that cannot be achieved in terms of victory or catastrophe.  People without a sense of justice do not deserve any victories and while Israel has a right to defend its citizens against mortar attacks, the scale and magnitude of what happened in Gaza has caused people of conscience to ask “can this do no more than sow a bitter harvest?”  Israel, he said “has to remove the moral dilemmas of occupation and has to look to the morally defensible position which a genuine  two-state solution offers.”

Prof Yakov Rabkin said that any Jew with a deep commitment to Judaism’s moral values would understand that the play exposes the contradictions of Zionist ideology.  “They are torn between the values of social justice that permeate the Jewish tradition and their semi-automatic loyalty to the State of Israel. . . How to explain to a child the destruction of Palestinian homes and the uprooting of their olive groves?”  By describing the Palestinians as “intrinsically nasty”, the quest for peace then becomes a real dilemma and has “finally produced a government that the Israeli media openly call fascist.  It has divided even left-wing Zionists: some repudiating Zionism while others have taken on the mantle of fascism.  In closing, he quoted Israeli novelist Amos Oz who decries the very immorality that the play “Seven Jewish Children” brings to the fore: “Our sufferings have granted us immunity papers, as it were, a moral carte blanche. After what all those dirty goyim [non-Jews] have done to us, none of them is entitled to preach morality to us. We, on the other hand, have carte blanche, because we were victims and have suffered so much. Once a victim, always a victim, and victimhood entitles its owners to a moral exemption.”

Prof Denis Altman said that he regretted a play that was only about Jews “as the basis for the dialogue we need to have.”  There is the great danger that people will see the Palestinians and Jews as frozen in time and space continuing into perpetuity as the same people.  ‘The reality”, he said, “is that a genuine peace will only occur when people on  both sides recognise that they will have to give up things that they believe are intrinsic to their identity.”  There has to be, he said, “a whole re-imagination of what it means to be Israeli” just as the Palestinians will also have “to make a big leap of faith.”  Remembering the evening’s focus on Nakba, he said that ultimately, everyone would have to be committed to a genuine reconciliation.  And that reconciliation “depends upon a gamble of generosity, a willingness to re-imagine who one is in the hope that together we can construct something better than currently exists.”

The audience was then invited to ask questions which members of the panel answered.


Again, our thanks go to all the participants.  Without them rallying at such short notice, we would never have had such a meaningful event.   Not only did we succeed in opening the narrative on Palestine to a whole new audience of Australians, but that audience also donated $2000 for Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) Gaza Appeal as requested by the playwright Caryl Churchill.  We hope that this will create a ripple effect and really  bring the plight of the Palestinians into the Australian mainstream.  It would not be before time.

The entire evening was videoed and will be available on dvd at $10 each (including postage and handling).   An order form is attached.

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