The unconscious historical experience of the Royal Court theatre

When it comes to the Jews, some "anti-racists" reach for a get-out-of-jail-free card

In Rare Earth Mettle by Al Smith, a new play about to be staged by the Royal Court theatre in London, what appears to be a unscrupulous billionaire character reportedly based on Elon Musk was given the name Hershel Fink.

Hershel Fink is a caricature Jewish name. The character in the play is not Jewish. Elon Musk is not Jewish. So why was this character given a caricature Jewish name?

The only plausible answer is that, for the author, the name presumably conveyed the acme of rapacious billionairedom — the image of the rich plutocrat Jew. And to this caricature antisemitic stereotype, the achingly right-on Royal Court just nodded along.

As soon as members of the Jewish community protested, however, the theatre reacted with speed. It instantly changed the character’s name to Henry Finn and fell over itself to issue a grovelling apology. It said: 

We and the writer are deeply sorry for harm caused.

Yet no-one involved in the play’s production appears to have spotted this harm. Why was this?

The theatre says it was the result of “unconscious bias”. But there’s nothing unconscious about giving a horrible character an entirely gratuitous Jewish name. It was a conscious decision to issue a knowing signal to an audience in the mutually assured assumption that rich Jews are the quintessence of the malign.

“Unconscious bias” is a form of “false consciousness”, the Marxist term generally used to convict people of thought crimes of which they are innocent. Since by definition they are unaware of the thoughts that are deemed criminal, they can never prove that they don’t harbour them.

In the case of the Royal Court’s play, however, “unconscious bias” is being used conversely as an excuse. Neither playwright nor theatre can be accused of antisemitism, it follows, because they didn’t consciously … well, what, exactly? Intend to make an anti-Jewish point? Know the choice of name was deeply offensive?

Some who choose to spy here the workings of “unconscious bias” have suggested that antisemitism runs so deep, people aren’t aware they are practising it. And if they don’t know, well they can’t really be very culpable, can they?

This is self-serving rubbish.  Of course antisemitism runs more deeply than any other kind of bigotry. It has taken different forms over the centuries in most parts of the world and given rise to the persecution, exclusion and slaughter of millions of Jews simply because they were Jews.  

But would one say that Stalin’s communists, Hitler’s Nazis or the medieval Catholic church, all of which persecuted, excluded and slaughtered Jews because of the deepest possible anti-Jewish hatred which they just assumed to be part of the natural order, therefore acted out of “unconscious bias” and somehow floated above personal blame? Or would one say their antisemitism showed that these regimes were monstrous and rotten to the core?

The “get-out-of-jail-free” card of “unconscious bias” is used today by some who present themselves as fighters against racism and antisemitism. They deploy it in order to sanitise the demonisation of Israel through the double standards, falsehoods and blood libels to which they either themselves lend support or which they conspicuously fail to challenge as the contemporary iteration of the oldest hatred. 

They thus pull the neat trick of being lionised by the equally “unconsciously-biased" media as a hater of Jew-hate while simultaneously being lionised as a hater of Israel.

Indeed, it appears that the Royal Court uses a company called Sour Lemons — which advertises itself as 

Dismantling systemic racism in the creative and cultural sectors

— to provide the theatre with anti-racist advice and training. As the Hershel Fink debacle unfolded, Sour Lemons hastily tweeted:  

We’re sad and sorry to hear this has happened. We’re not involved in any artistic decisions at the royal court & were not advised in this matter or the response. Tomorrow we’ll share our official response. We stand in solidarity with any Jewish people harmed by their actions &will centre their lived experience in any actions taken [sic].

Yet in 2013 the company’s founder and CEO, Sade Banks, tweeted:

I’ve been awake for 2 hrs researching companies to boycott to support Palestine. There are so many, it makes me feel a bit sick.

The Israel boycott, which singles out Israel alone for demonisation, delegitimisation and destruction, is a species of antisemitism. Perhaps this agency is also subject to “unconscious bias”? Perhaps “unconscious bias” is infectious, like coronavirus?

In its anxiety to flagellate itself over “Hershel Fink”, the Royal Court says it is “looking towards the dialogue that will help us reflect on the process that enabled the name to remain,” and how it could have “mitigated this unnecessary harm”.

Perhaps it might usefully reflect on the fact that this is hardly the first time it has been caught up in controversy over antisemitism.

In 1987, it had scheduled performances of Jim Allen’s play Perdition. This play claimed falsely that Zionists collaborated with the Nazis, a favourite trope of those who seek to demonise Zionism by equating it with Nazism.

The play echoed the true story of Rudolf Kasztner who unwisely bargained with the Nazis for the lives of Hungarian Jews but who was exploited and out-manoeuvred by the architect of the Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann.

In hideous contrast, Allen’s play accused a Kasztner figure of deliberately collaborating with Eichmann to send half a million Jews to the gas chambers in exchange for saving a handful of prominent Jews who would go on to build the state of Israel. The message was that the Zionist project was more important to Jews than saving Jewish lives.

Said Allen: 

The play argues that there was a deliberate and knowing strategy by the Zionist movement to sacrifice European Jews in return for getting a state of Israel. Morally, in this argument, the people who created the state of Israel were no better than the Nazis and actually collaborated in the Nazis crimes and therefore Israel has no legitimacy.

This was a set of grotesque and malignant falsehoods. The prospect of Perdition being staged created such an outcry that the theatre’s artistic director, Max Stafford-Clark,  cancelled it two days before it was due to open.

The actress Tracey-Ann Oberman, who discussed the play as part of her drama course at Manchester University in the late 1980s, quoted in the Telegraph a line from the original text (which was cut):  

The road to Golgotha runs along Park Avenue, where rich American Jews hurl tax-deductible donations [to Israel] from their fur-lined dugouts. 

After the cancellation, Stafford-Clark said the theatre did not accept that the play was antisemitic, only that it could cause great distress to “sections of the community”.

Doubtless it was just another example of “unconscious bias” at the Royal Court.  

In 2009, the theatre put on Caryl Churchill’s ten-minute  playlet, Seven Jewish Children.  Ostensibly a reaction to an Israeli military strike on Gaza a few months previously, it was actually an attack on Judaism and the Jews.

This vicious diatribe accused the Jews of inflicting upon others, through the State of Israel, the exterminatory treatment that had been meted out to them during the Holocaust.

It presented Israeli Jews as monsters who killed Palestinian Arab babies intentionally:

Tell her we killed the babies by mistake. Don’t tell her anything about the army. 

And it rooted this psychopathic trait in Judaism itself with a key reference to the “chosen people”. Written as a kind of litany, it went on:

Tell her there's dead babies, did she see babies? Tell her she's got nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves. Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them, tell her I'm not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them, tell her we're the ones to be sorry for, tell her they can’t talk suffering to us. 

Tell her we're the iron fist now, tell her it's the fog of war, tell her we won’t stop killing them till we’re safe, tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen, tell her they're animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out, the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I don't care if the world hates us, tell her we're better haters, tell her we're chosen people, tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? Tell her all I feel is happy it's not her. Don’t tell her that.

In the Middle Ages, “mystery plays” which portrayed the Jews as the demonic killers of Christ helped fuel the murderous pogroms against the Jews of Europe. With Seven Jewish Children, I wrote in my Spectator blog at the time, the Royal Court was staging a modern “mystery play”.

But hey, it must have been just another case of “unconscious bias”.

Clearly, the Royal Court theatre is subject to unconscious historical experience. 

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