21 October 2022

‘Jews in Their Own Words’:
chilling true stories of
antisemitism in Britain

Jonathan Freedland’s play, ‘Jews In Their Own Words’, is coming to its end at the Royal Court in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

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.

Shabbat Shalom

The voices in Jonathan Freedland’s verbatim play need to be heard long after it ends its staging at the Royal Court Theatre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying for World Peace and with USPG:
Friday 21 October 2022

The reredos in the Unitarian Church, Dublin, is inscribed with the Beatitudes, one on each panel … the Week of Prayer for World Peace invites prayers today on the theme of ‘Role of Peace Makers in Wars’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Before today gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

This year, the Week of Prayer for World Peace is from 16 to 23 October. In my prayer diary from last Sunday until next Sunday, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, A reflection from the programme for the Week of Prayer for World Peace (16 to 23 October);

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Peace in the languages of the world … the Church of Saint Botolph without Aldgate in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 12: 54-59 (NRSVA):

54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

57 ‘And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 58 Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. 59 I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.’

The Week of Prayer for World Peace takes place this year from Sunday 16 October 2022 to Sunday 23 October 2022

Week of Prayer for World Peace 2022, Day 6:

The week of Prayer for World Peace takes place from the second to third Sunday in October each year, which this year is from last Sunday (Sunday 16 October 2022) to next Sunday (23 October 2022).

The Week of Prayer for World Peace is supported by a wide range of organisations, many of which I have engaged with over the years, including the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, Christian CND, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pax Christi, and Quaker Peace and Social Witness.

Day 6: Role of Peace Makers in Wars:

Let us pray for all working for peace often in dangerous situations.

‘If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
there must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
there must be peace between neighbours.
If there is to be peace between neighbours,
there must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
there must be peace in the heart.’
– Lao-Tse, Taoist tradition prayer for peace

‘May peace be your virtue,
May peace be your property,
May peace be your prayer.
May you bring peace to all those you meet, you talk to, you live with.
May you even bring peace to the person you hate, your enemy.’

‘May your friends enjoy your peaceful disposition
and may your enemies enjoy your peaceful opposition.
May this world be based on one word: peace.
As God has shredded Himself into all souls
and piece by piece we get together into this beautiful world.
May we pray in our hearts this day for world peace. Sat Nam.’
– Sikh tradition Taken from a blog of Sikh Dharma International

‘I desire neither earthly kingdom, nor even freedom from birth and death. I desire only the deliverance from grief of all those afflicted by misery. Lead us from the unreal to the real; from darkness to light; from death to immortality.’
– Hindu Peace Prayer

The United Nations Peace Garden at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, remembers UN peacekeepers … the Week of Prayer for World Peace invites prayers today on the theme of ‘Role of Peace Makers in Wars’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer (Friday 21 October 2022):

The Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
increase in us your gift of faith
that, forsaking what lies behind
and reaching out to that which is before,
we may run the way of your commandments
and win the crown of everlasting joy;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

We praise and thank you, O Christ, for this sacred feast:
for here we receive you,
here the memory of your passion is renewed,
here our minds are filled with grace,
and here a pledge of future glory is given,
when we shall feast at that table where you reign
with all your saints for ever.

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘World Food Day.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us pray for farmers in the Global South who are having to adapt to changing climates because of global warming.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘If there is to be peace in the nations, there must be peace in the cities’ … peace at night along the River Thames between the City of London and Southwark (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

‘Ring For Peace’ … the peace bell at Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York … the inscription reads, Sit Nomen Domini Benedictum, Blessed be the name of the Lord (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)