English effort to boycott Israeli theater is likened to…. ‘Nazi book-burning’

Israel/Palestine
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In the one week since their Guardian letter, ‘Dismay at Globe invitation’ to the Israeli Habima theatre, was published, signatories such as Emma Thompson and Mark Rylance have been vilified in some quarters. The Jewish Chronicle was expected to hit back the hardest; it has been following the story since late last year, even before Habima’s planned involvement in the Globe to Globe Shakespeare festival aroused opposition, initially from the Israeli organisation Boycott from Within.

In an October 2011 JC article, ‘Israelis fear protests at Globe Shakespeare festival‘, a Habima spokesperson, Rut Tonn, described the Palestinian theatre company Ashtar’s appearance in the same festival as “a blessing”, and an example of “collaborations which will help with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” But Ashtar has refuted any suggestion that its appearance in the festival four weeks before Habima’s implies any sort of balance, and said in a letter to the Globe this February:

“They have insinuated cooperation with us to undermine the growing cultural boycott of complicit Israeli institutions.”

Now The Jewish Chronicle has fashioned its best headline yet out of a quote from a British playwright:

Theatre ban ‘like Nazi book burning’ say West End stars

The call for a boycott of Habima, which was founded by Jews in Moscow in 1905, was condemned by Sir Arnold [Wesker], who said that “depriving an audience of an artistic experience is like the Nazis burning the books of the finest minds and talents of Europe”.

Habima’s artistic director Ilan Ronen, responding to the Guardian letter, reiterated this week in Haaretz the falsehood that illegal West Bank settlements are part of Israel. This is the line that Habima co-manager Odelia Friedman took in front of the Knesset in 2010:

“As a national theater company, Habima will perform for all residents of Israel. Residents of Ariel are residents of Israel and Habima will stage shows for them”.

The same Odelia Friedman declared just two months ago that the Globe invitation was ‘an honourable accomplishment for the State of Israel’, in the spirit of the infamous 2005 statement by Israel’s Foreign Ministry: “We see culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between propaganda and culture.” Yet the Globe and its apologists insist on equating the Palestinian boycott of Israeli institutions with an attack on individual (in some cases, Jewish) artistic freedom.

Last night, at a rather chaotic Dash Café London event “Art & Conflict – The Case of Syria”, my Reel Festivals colleague Dan Gorman gave an example of the Syrian Ba’athist regime’s attempt to co-opt their independent cultural festival in 2011, months after the uprising began. The Reel Festivals organisers abandoned plans to stage events in Syria upon seeing the Syrian authorities’ use of cultural events to support their narrative of popular support for the government, with events such as the “Oath of Loyalty to the Homeland festival” last July.

In this interminable propaganda piece by the SANA news agency on the ‘festival’, the following quote is typical: ‘Artist Subhi al-Rifa’ai said “We came here today to show the world that no one can undermine our country and national unity”.’ Crude rhetoric compared to the whitewash of The Jewish Chronicle and Ynet, and yet the parallels should be noted.

I have little doubt that several of the participating Syrian artists were too fearful for their lives to decline the invitation to front this state-sponsored event – the very antithesis of culture, just as the ethnically privileged Jewish Israeli actors in Habima dare not risk careers and government subsidies. As BWISP colleague, Naomi Foyle has stated in response to the Globe’s repeated claim that all Habima company actors are closet dissidents:

“If I were a conflicted Habima actor I would be glad of a boycott that might pressure my employers and state funders to rethink their illegal and profoundly destructive policies.”

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