21 October 2022
‘Jews in Their Own Words’:
chilling true stories of
antisemitism in Britain
Jonathan Freedland’s verbatim play about antisemitism, Jews. In Their Own Words is coming to its end at the Royal Court in London. This drama about antisemitism was inspired by a play last year in which Hershel Fink is an avaricious billionaire in the play Rare Earth Mettle and has a Jewish-sounding name.
In this play, the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland examines antisemitism inside liberal institutions from the theatre to the political left and shows how unconscious bigotries continue to be harboured among people who regard themselves as enlightened and anti-racist.
The play is directed by Vicky Featherstone and Audrey Sheffield, and its songs and wry jokes are underpinned by a serious inquiry into how it is that this most ancient form of hate still persists.
In his research, Jonathan Freedland compiled 180,000 words drawn from interviews with eminent Jewish figures – including Margaret Hodge, Howard Jacobson and Tracy-Ann Oberman – and Jews who are everyday members of British society. Their powerful accounts are brought on stage by seven alternating actors.
Britain’s Jewish minority numbers somewhere between 260,000 and 290,000 people. But the stories of those 12 British Jews are representative and painful. They recount the origins of antisemitic tropes and myths, including the moneylending Jew and blood libel.
The characters speak of their life experiences, such as a swastika etched into a family car, growing up in Iraq listening to radio dramas with offensive Jewish stereotypes, and abuse in schools, taxis and the workplaces.
The text is verbatim: although the words are spoken by actors, they are drawn entirely from interviews. They include social worker Victoria Hart, the Labour MP Margaret Hodge, a doctor Tammy Rothenberg, political journalist Stephen Bush, painter and decorator Phillip Abrahams, novelist Howard Jacobson, and former student leader Hannah Rose. An ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jew recalls the day he was violently beaten on an English street.
The play focuses on left-wing antisemitism too and how it has it has spread beyond party politics. Jonathan Freedland has written in the Guardian how 86% of British Jews regarded Jeremy Corbyn as antisemitic, according to a study in 2018, with just 8% disagreeing.
Margaret Hodge (played by Debbie Chazen) and the former Labour shadow minister Luciana Berger (Louisa Clein) recall their experiences of inaction and obfuscation and of misogyny and antisemitism on social media. Margaret Hodge tells how her father advised her always to keep a packed suitcase by the front door.
Stephen Bush (Billy Ashcroft) speaks of the liberal left’s characteristic suspicion of money and power, a loaded association given long-held antisemitic conspiracy theories around Jews running the media and holding all wealth and power.
Other characters say they are constantly asked for their responses to the conflict in the Middle East. People who attended Caryl Churchill’s play, Seven Jewish Children, written shortly after Israel’s bombing of Gaza in which more than 200 Palestinian children were killed, and how they felt the audience was being encouraged to boo the Jews.
‘Criticise what you want – the prime minister, the settlements policy, this war, this military strategy,’ says one character. ‘Most Jews would agree with you. But don’t do it in a way which criticises the Jewishness of Israel.’
There is also an powerful look at inherited trauma and the legacy of the Holocaust. Dr Tammy Rothenberg spoke of the ‘inherited trauma’ from the Holocaust, and many others spoke of the psychological mark it made on them.
One person recalls the day a colleague, a proudly antiracist social worker, told of her reluctance to help a Jewish woman in need. She was sure the woman concerned had money, but was hiding it: ‘I know she must be lying because they’ve all got money.’
Many Jews hesitate before disclosing that they are Jewish, wary of the response. They think hard before doing so, weighing up the risks.
The 12 conversations confirm how much British Jewry remains a community of immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.
The Turkish-born actor Hemi Yeroham notes how we seldom hear stories like his – of non-Ashkenazi, non-European Jews: ‘Most Jewish theatre is around Ashkenazi culture. The Mizrachi or Sephardi part of the Jewish story is almost non-existent.’
Jonathan Freedland has written in the Guardian how 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’s miser Fagin. It might be the alien lizards imagined by David Icke or the wicked manipulators of weather, wielding their ‘Jewish space-laser’, concocted by the Republican congress member Marjorie Taylor-Greene.
‘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.
The voices in this play need to be heard long after it ends its staging at the Royal Court Theatre.