As a white American Ashkenazi Jew who moved to London seven years ago, I have spent much of that time struck by how deeply embedded antisemitism is in the UK.
It was in England that I first experienced consistent, embodied antisemitism as a thing of the present, rather than a nightmare of the past. As a director and dramaturg, it has been painful realising that the British theatres with which I am artistically, aesthetically and ideologically aligned may not fully welcome me due to my Jewishness. While I’ve been grappling with this for years, the recent events surrounding Rare Earth Mettle at the Royal Court, and subsequent discourse about antisemitism within and beyond UK theatre, have made me eager to talk about my experiences.
I grew up in Los Angeles and attended undergrad in New York City – two ‘promised lands’, I’ve now realised. I never felt the need to assure people I wouldn’t steal their money, explain Yiddish or Hebrew phrases, or navigate the bizarrely damning compliment that I was ‘so pretty for a Jew!’. Nobody ever checked my nose in profile, or made ‘jokes’ about sending me to the gas chamber-all encounters I’ve had since moving here. The American Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora is only one of many rich (and traumatic) Jewish narratives, but it is one that is represented abundantly in American pop culture. The media I was surrounded by all seemed to tell my family’s story: pogroms, borscht, brisket, and a slew of neuroses, with the potential for bad eyesight, lactose intolerance, and early onset male-pattern baldness. I was able to take for granted that my cultural heritage was both known and, for the most part, understood–a massive privilege that many Jews throughout the world are still not afforded. Of course, I was always aware that the rug could be pulled out from under us at any moment; that another cycle of vicious antisemitism could begin afresh. But mostly, I felt seen, and more importantly, safe.
Then I moved to the U.K.
My first year in England, I experienced nagging but abstracted unease upon realising that three major theatres were putting on productions of The Merchant of Venice with non-Jewish Shylocks, Jessicas, and core creatives. I first felt embodied discomfort, however, as the only Jewish person in a student rehearsal room, when someone drew a swastika and a Hitler moustache on a balloon; I stopped the rehearsal, demanded the facilitator find out who was responsible, and refused to keep working until it had been addressed. Everyone laughed. ‘Oh Emma, you’re so P.C.’ someone sighed. ‘We all do that here, it’s a joke, like at school’. I still don’t know who thought that drawing a symbol that represents the violent hatred and extermination of many marginalised communities—Jews, Roma and Sinti people, queer people, people with disabilities, and more–was funny.
Several years later, I felt that same twinge of discomfort in a professional, prestigious rehearsal room, when a well-meaning gentile actor, playing a Jewish character, subconsciously gestured to me every time they said ‘Jew’, ‘Holocaust’, ‘Nazi’, or ‘Jewish’. They didn’t realise they were doing it. I could catalogue many other micro and macro aggressions, from Sieg Heils to spray-painted swastikas to comments about my supposed ‘blood money,’ not to mention the immense shock of realising that all British Jewish community centres and synagogues had security guards and metal detectors.
In 2019, a group of Jewish artists, including myself, were engaged in informal conversations about antisemitism within UK theatre when we learned that the production company Selladoor was staging William Finn’s seminal queer Jewish musical Falsettos at The Other Palace without a single Jewish person in the cast or creative team. We campaigned on social and print media in an attempt to make Selladoor acknowledge and address our concerns. Adam Lenson has written extensively about Falsettogate. Although The Stage has removed our original open letter, you can see its full text at the bottom of this article. We fought for recognition and accountability, but were met with only gaslighting, erasure, and, eventually, silence. We were wary of complaining too much due to the privilege many Jewish people are perceived as having, not to mention stereotypes about Jews as hysterical and paranoid. I even attended press night to appease the ‘but how can you judge it til you’ve seen it?’ crowd. Reader, I saw it: I felt deeply disturbed and sick to my stomach; I had to leave at the interval. Being laughed at, not with, by a non-Jewish audience, as a group of non-Jews crassly approximated my supposed mannerisms, vocal patterns, and lived experience, was beyond painful. To this day I can’t listen to Act I of the show. Falsettogate was a galvanising experience for many Jewish theatre artists, and it brought us together. But the Powers That Be didn’t even notice, let alone learn lessons about meaningful representation and the importance of including Jews in anti-racist discourse.
Three weeks ago, after the industry spent most of the pandemic claiming it was ‘building back better’, several Jewish artists noticed a promotional email for Rare Earth Mettle by Al Smith at the Royal Court. A ‘messianic’ tech billionaire hellbent on extracting the natural resources of indigenous Bolivian land in order to realise his goal of mass-produced eco-friendly cars was given the name of…Hershel Fink. ‘Hershel’ is Hebrew for ‘little deer’, a stock Yiddish comedy name, and the first name of The Simpsons’ Krusty the Clown. ‘Fink’ is an Ashkenazic and German surname, as well as a pejorative term for a snitch with antisemitic undertones. The combined name is extremely Jewish, and, therefore, a deeply sinister choice for the character of a power-hungry, evil mogul (clearly inspired by Elon Musk who, incidentally, is not Jewish, despite his Hebrew first name).
Several concerned Jewish artists contacted the Royal Court about the antisemitic undertones of the character’s name and characterisation. Within 24 hours, the Court had issued a tweet clarifying that ‘the character is not Jewish’, that it was ‘an example of unconscious bias’, and that the writer had ‘changed the name’. Then came a statement offering ‘unreserved’ apologies for the ‘mistake’ which ‘shouldn’t have happened’, ‘solidarity with our Jewish staff, artists, audiences and friends’ and more detail on Hershel Fink’s new name: ‘Henry Finn’.
It’s worth noting here that my Polish great-grandfather’s Ashkenazi Jewish surname (most likely Hersh or Herschovitz) was lost to the ravages of time and forced assimilation when he emigrated to America in the early 1900s. Whatever my last name had been was anglicised to Harris, a patronymic surname from Harry (a diminutive for Henry). The rechristening of Hershel Fink as Henry Finn therefore mimics the journey of my own last name. Renaming the character is clearly not a solution but rather a perpetuation of one of the innumerable indignities immigrant communities endure in order to assimilate.
During over five years of development, no one at the Royal Court noticed the troubling implications of this name and the character to which it was attached. Not only that, but a young Jewish director had warned Rare Earth Mettle’s director Hamish Pirie that the name had antisemitic connotations in relationship to the characterisation. This was apparently never passed along. Somehow, at one of the UK’s most prestigious theatres, (revered world-wide for its commitment to new writing) the troubling implications of this name and the character to which it was attached had been ‘missed’ at every stage of development.
This incident sits within a decades-long history of antisemitism at the Royal Court, a venue that staged Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children, which has been widely described as antisemitic, as well as the Ken Loach-directed Perdition, which posits that Jews were partially responsible for the Holocaust and was eventually cancelled before opening night.
For almost a thousand years, British Jewry have been the target of hate and abuse, including but certainly not limited to the York Massacre in 1190 and the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, when Jews were expelled from England, not permitted to resettle until Oliver Cromwell decreed it in 1656 (meaning that Jews existed only as converts, in secret, or in the public imagination when Shakespeare was writing Merchant). The UK imposed restrictions on Jewish refugees seeking asylum from the Nazis, allowing thousands of Jews to die rather than allowing them to enter the country (many of the Jewish refugees who managed to escape to the UK were then interned as ‘enemy aliens’). I didn’t know a lot of this history when I moved here. But I do now. I had to research it, because I couldn’t understand why I was experiencing so much antisemitism in the country I’d longed to call home.
The name Hershel Fink did not come from nowhere.
Following the Royal Court’s admission of systemic antisemitism, I have found myself part of a group in discussion with the theatre, along with fellow Jewish artists Adam Lenson, Daniel Goldman, Emma Brand, and Sarah Sigal. We feel cautiously optimistic that the Court is committed to accountability and dismantling their institutional antisemitism. Moving forwards, we want to see antisemitism incorporated into anti-racist training at the Court, and to create an understanding of antisemitic tropes and how to prevent them. We also want to ensure an expanded understanding of the multiplicity of Jewish experiences and diasporas throughout the sector. We want to see an industry that meaningfully represents and includes all marginalised peoples in telling their own stories. Only then will theatre have ‘built back better’.
Most reviewers opined that Rare Earth Mettle is ‘no longer antisemitic’. This is inaccurate. Despite the name change, Rare Earth Mettle contains themes and plot points of blood libel, conspiracy theories that verge on antisemitism, as well as predatory behaviour from the Hershel/Henry character that references Harvey Weinstein (spoiler). Knowing that the name Hershel Fink was being rehearsed in conjunction with this content up until one week before previews, it was impossible for me to unsee, unhear, and unfeel the antisemitism engrained in the piece-now subtextual rather than explicit, but present nonetheless. Would I have been looking for this content without knowing the original character name? No, probably not. Would I still have picked up on it? Yes, absolutely. As a Jewish person, I am finely attuned to tropes, red flags, antisemitic canards, and microaggressions.
It has been troubling to see reviewers fail to acknowledge they don’t actually know what is and isn’t antisemitic. Part of the initial issue here was lack of education surrounding antisemitism in the UK, so why would non-Jewish theatre critics know any better than non-Jewish theatre makers?
The failures in dramaturgy, development, and criticism illustrate the importance of meaningful representation. The play is problematic in several ways: the portrayal of indigenous characters is reductive, and the play gives more space to the white British and American colonizers than to the indigenous people being stripped of their land and resources. Many Latinx and indigenous audience members have expressed dismay over these characters to me, and it is vital that I acknowledge the production and the institution’s failure here too.
It transpired that Hershel Fink had originally been written as Chicano (specifically, the American child of a Mexican immigrant mother). At some point during the development process, Hershel was whitewashed and his Chicano heritage was erased (therefore defaulting the character to a white American man with an Ashkenazi Jewish name). To be clear: there are Jewish Chicanos, though some coverage of this detail has framed it as preposterous that a Latinx Jew named Hershel Fink could exist. This is in no way preposterous, and that assumption speaks to an offensive lack of education surrounding the multiplicity of Jewish diasporas. What is preposterous is that a white British male creative team was handling Chicano, Bolivian, indigenous, and implicitly Jewish narratives despite lacking the lived experience (not to mention sensitivity, care, and rigorous research) to address any of them, let alone their intersections.
The Jewish form of repentance, or teshuvah, requires three types of apology: to yourself, to God, and to the person you have wronged. You must then do and be better next time. Before apologising, however, according to Maimonides, you must recognise the harm you have caused, and stop doing it. I hope that the Royal Court and the rest of British theatre stop causing harm, learn to apologise, and do better.