Playwright Julia Pascal told David Hennessy about her new play that explores Jewish- Irish identity and how Michael Collins inspired Jewish nationalism.
Award- winning playwright Julia Pascal has been known to write about unrepresented voices such as women, immigrants and refugees.
Julia Pascal was the first female director at the National Theatre with her stage adaptation of Dorothy Parker’s prose and poetry.
A Jewish atheist, her plays include The Holocaust Trilogy and Crossing Jerusalem.
In her latest play she looks at the effect Michael Collins and Irish nationalism had on Jewish nationalism and explores Jewish- Irish identity, something that has been rarely written about but was the background her father came from.
Pascal Theatre Company bring the world première of 12:37 to Finborough Theatre this week.
Julia has herself described the play as, ‘A secret history of how Irish nationalism influenced Jewish nationalists’.
It was at 12:37pm on 22 July 1946 that the King David Hotel in Jerusalem was bombed.
Ninety-one people were killed, forty-six wounded.
The explosion was carried out by right-wing Zionists, targeting the headquarters of the British in Palestine.
It was a terrorist attack that sent shockwaves through the British establishment.
Two years later the British would leave Palestine and the state of Israel was proclaimed.
But the region remains troubled to this day with tensions rising now due to fresh bomb attacks.
12:37 is the story of two Irish Jewish brothers who journey from Dublin to combat antisemitism on the streets of East London before ending up in Palestine around the time of the bomb blast that would be heard around the world.
It is a story that merges Julia’s family background with the stories of men who fought with the Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary organisation.
The cast features the Irish actors Lisa O’Connor, Danann McAleer and Eoin O’Dubhghaill who is a native Irish speaker and features in Arracht.
“It’s hidden stories that interest me,” Julia tells The Irish World.
“Dublin was part of my childhood landscape, but I’ve not written about it in a major play before.
“My father’s family were socialists but they were also Zionists, so I took the early part of their life growing up in Dublin as junior doctors and I allowed them to be infused with Irish nationalism, which in fact they were, they were highly political.
“And then from there on, I took the experience of men that I’d interviewed who had been in the Irgun. They had been right wing Jewish nationalists who had fought against the British and they told me that they were very much influenced by Michael Collins and Irish nationalism which I didn’t know.
“So I put together the stories of those men and imagined my father and his brothers’ journey into their story.”
Julia has also been inspired by the story of Robert Briscoe, the son of Jewish- Lithuanian parents who came to Ireland. Robert fought in the Irish War of Independence and would serve as a TD but he found himself conflicted during the Second World War.
“I suppose I’m interested in showing the Dublin Jewish community because it’s hardly written about.
“And I’m thinking about Robert Briscoe, the importance of Briscoe and his relationship with De Valera also in this period is a play I’m thinking about writing: The Jewish Briscoe who wants to get his family out of Europe because they’re going to be murdered by the Nazis and De Valera says no because Jews weren’t allowed in to Ireland because Ireland was neutral.
“And Briscoe was forced to confront, ‘Am I an IRA man or am I a Jew? Which one comes first?’ And in his memoirs he says, ‘I’m an IRA man and that comes first’.
“And that’s very interesting to me. That conflict of identity and how he dealt with it.
“So I feel quite plunged into this history.
“It’s quite interesting because today’s news is about the rise of the right, the probable return of Netanyahu.
“So although it’s written about that period, it actually feels terribly current.”
The play raises complex and controversial questions around Jewish violence, homeland and national identity in a play that is both historical epic and an intimate family drama.
“There’s that whole ambivalence: Am I Irish? Am I British? Am I Jewish? What’s my identity?
“That question of identity runs all through the play.
“What is a nation? What is a people? Is it a language? Is it a music? What are the stories we tell each other?
“How do we identify? What is it to be a man?
“The thing that comes up quite strongly, and I’m telling the Irish actors who are Catholics, about this concept of the new Jew.
“The stereotype of the Jew was a little weak man who’s almost effeminate and doesn’t have much agency and ends up as a victim in the Holocaust and gets replaced with the concept of a new Jew who’s this physical agricultural worker who’s also the soldier.
“What is it to be a man comes up.
“What does it mean to be a man?
“So there’s a very 20th century concept of getting out of poverty through fighting.”
Pascal has had controversy in the past.
The Jewish community found her play Crossing Jerusalem to be critical of Israel.
She thinks some parts of the community will not like her telling this story either.
“I don’t think they’ll like it that I’m putting on this play because it does draw attention to Jewish terrorism against the British. It’s not comfortable, I think.
“Jews in England and Britain have been taught to keep the head down, not to talk about it, not to make trouble and certainly not to draw attention to these acts of violence against the British because it could reinforce the stereotype of the Jew as a dangerous person.
“But contextually and historically, I think it’s important to look at that, particularly to look at how nationalism amongst different nations influenced each other.”
Julia says it is hard to be a Jew with layers of antisemitism subconscious now.
“As a Jew in England, you’re sometimes blamed for what Israel does which is not particularly pleasant because I’m not an Israeli, I’m a Jew and they are two different people.
“There’s that kind of prejudice against Jews, which is you’re responsible for violence against Palestinians.
“And then there is a secondary level of antisemitism which is rooted in Christianity, ‘You killed our lord and you deserve to suffer in the Holocaust’.
“And there is a third level, I suppose, which is the Holocaust deniers, ‘It never happened anyway, you’re inventing it to get sympathy’.
“So it’s a heavy burden.
“My French Catholic husband bought me a Star of David which I never wear because I think it could be risky.
“I don’t proclaim it.
“If you look at my work, it is very clear and I don’t hide things but I think there’s a level of fear.
“If I go to New York, for instance, I don’t feel it. If I tell people I’m a Jew in New York, there isn’t that little beat that you get in England when people don’t quite know what to say.
“In New York, it’s like being Italian or Irish. Nobody cares. Whereas in England, there is a residual antisemitism as I feel there is residual anti Irishness, I think the two are embedded in English history.
“So there are all sorts of layers of antisemitism and othering.
“It is endemic in literature. People have it within the blood cells without knowing.
“People will say things and you let it go because you’re working with them and they’re quite high powered people.
“And it happens so much you let go, you don’t call it out. Whereas if you were black, that wouldn’t be happening.
“It is that kind of perception of the Jew as all powerful, controlling figure who runs the world who’s either a capitalist who’s sucking the blood out of people or a communist in the early 20th century and destroying Soviet Russia?
“So it’s not fun.
“And I found parallels in the Irish experience as my father’s an Irish Jew.
“The stupid stereotypes about Irish people, I can’t bear it. It just drives me crazy.
“I see it as the same kind of English, racist behaviour against Irish that is subconscious, even, it’s in the air and I don’t like it. That’s also why I have written a play to show these connections.
“Being a Jew in England is not easy. Not at all and I was brought up to hide it.
“Not that we could hide it, but not to be proud of it. So it’s uncomfortable to be a Jew, I have to say just as I think it was uncomfortable to be Irish in London in the 80s, and 90s.
“So you carry the burden of your group’s history.
“I mean, I had it in primary school, ‘You killed Jesus’. And I said, ‘No, I didn’t. I wasn’t born’.
“And I’ve had it since. And I’ve had it from all layers of society. The very well educated to the least educated.
“It’s not a question of education. It’s in the air. Everyone assumes you’ve got money, and I live in a council flat and I never have any money.
“I work in theatre, of course I’ve no money.
“My Irish Jewish family were penniless.
“So this concept of Jews and money is also a stereotype as well. It’s rubbish.
“It’s time to stop the stereotypes and smash open the English domination of the two peoples. I hate it.
“I think there are so many connections, or perhaps it is those connections that attract me and make me write the play and connect the Irish and the Jew onstage in this way.
“And I guess I want to identify myself as a second generation Irish writer in terms of embracing this Jewish Irish history.
“Because I have the Irish resonance in my life, the Irish resonance totally merges with my Jewish resonance.
“And I suppose this play in a way encapsulates that.
“There are no easy answers, of course nor should there be.
“I suppose another theme is the Jew as a healer, or as an active man of violence.
“Because they’re doctors, the two of them, and one of them becomes an activist against the British. You have this conflict of the healer becoming a killer, it is also an uncomfortable part of the narrative.
“I’m sure many of the men I spoke to were planting bonds and were very much involved but I had to promise never to reveal their names- which I never did- but they were British Jews, who had obviously been involved in violence and when I interviewed them living in London as respectable members of the community with these hidden histories, they were still frightened to talk about it, because I suppose they fear retribution.
“There’s a theme of killing that goes through it.
“The first scene is based on my father and his brothers.
“My grandfather was dying of cancer of the stomach.
“I remember my father telling me that they knew he was suffering a great deal.
“They were junior doctors and they spun this coin to see who would give him a morphine shot and put him out of his misery, a mercy killing.
“So it starts with that.
“Another thing my father told me was that when they were doctors in the 30s, when babies were born with deformities, they would leave them on the sink with the window open and let them die.
“So there was a common culture that was never spoken about, of babies who were not considered perfect, a kind of euthanasia that went on.
“So these issues get discussed within the play and they drip feed into the morality of planting a bomb and killing Christians, Jews and Muslims in the King David Hotel.
“They did actually send a warning which of course was ignored by the British, as with the IRA that happened, warnings were given but they were ignored.
“So it’s full of debate and, and questions about the morality of this, but the necessity for a homeland.
“But then the famous line, A land without a people for a people without a land and one of the characters says, ‘But it’s not empty, is it?’
“So the other people who lived in Palestine before it became a Jewish state is also reflected on.
“At the end of the play, you realize this is not a perfect state, then all hell is gonna break loose.
“So it’s not a play that promotes Zionism or decries Zionism, it just opens up the questions of why this movement happened at this time, and who were the influences behind it?
“And curiously, how Irish nationalism fed into the Jewish debate around nationalism and actions.”
Julia describes the tense atmosphere in Israel as similar to what she experienced in Belfast during the Troubles.
“There were soldiers everywhere. You see soldiers all the time.
“And it’s quite a shock to see young people with machine guns strapped around them waiting at the bus stop.
“I guess you get used to it.
“Yeah, it’s an anxious country.
“I see stress. I see anxiety. I see worry.
“It’s not the peaceful nation that was in the dreams of the Zionist pioneers.
“There is always a very high state of alert and you are on alert.
“I was there during the bombings, but I didn’t see any.
“I was lucky. I have been in Jerusalem when there have been knifings but luckily, I was not knifed.
“But there’s always that sense.
“I’ve been in Belfast during the troubles.
“It’s the same. I’ve been on the Falls road. I lived with an Irish Catholic writer for a while and I think I absorbed that nationalism and that intelligence and that acuity, and that danger.
“And that perhaps has influenced the way I’ve written this as well.
“But it’s there in Israel, you’re always on your guard.
“You never know what’s going to happen.
“We rarely feel that kind of thing in England except after the 7/7 bombings.
“It’s a charged atmosphere.
“I did feel it in Belfast. And I do feel it in Israel.
“You feel as though you are living on the edge and in a way that’s an intensity that’s quite exciting.
“Although it’s dangerous and life threatening, you know you’re alive. It’s both uncomfortable and highly stimulating. I guess like men must have felt in the Second World War.”
Is it hard to write something like the Holocaust trilogy, opening up such a dark day in the history of your people?
“It feels like an act of defiance.
“Because the world seems to say, ‘Shut up, you Jews have talked enough about that’.
“But that’s a bit like saying to the descendants of slaves, ‘Oh, shut up about slavery’, which we don’t. Or the famine. I think in Ireland, we’re still feeling the ripples of that.
“We’re feeling slavery, we’re feeling the Holocaust. I think all these have a ripple effect so to write about them seems to defy those who want to shut us up.
“I think we have to write about it.
“So I don’t feel depressed, I feel it’s an act of war for me, against those who want to shut us down and silence or deny the Holocaust.
“I have a friend in her 90s who escaped from a ghetto in Poland. And she’s very depressed at the end of her life when she meets all these Holocaust deniers because her parents were murdered in Treblinka.
“And it’s as if they deny everything she is. So it’s not depressing to me at all.
“I feel I’m doing a good act to honour those who have died. Not that you can, I mean, it’s a drop in the ocean.
“I find that quite empowering.”
12:37 runs at Finborough Theatre until 21 December.
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