Palestinian society’s call for a cultural boycott is ever more pressing. Palestinians struggle every day simply for the right to cultural expression and survival, a battle that is frequently overlooked by international artists and certainly ignored by most Israeli performers. Just this week, Israel denied visas to five artists from the Arab world who were planning to join with The Freedom Theatre and other Palestinian artists in performances supporting the Walk for Water Justice on March 22. The Walk for Water Justice, held on World Water Day, is planned to include visits to Bedouin communities in the Jordan Valley, educational talks, live music, and interactive theater – all relating to water issues. Hundreds of Palestinian and foreign nationals, diplomats, community leaders, and other decision makers are expected to attend.
What, you may ask, does Israel have to do with a Palestinian community arts and education festival? Well, of course, Israel is the ultimate censor of what Palestinians may see and may not see. Under occupation, art is subject to the Israeli Civil Administration’s decisions as to whether the artist should appear. How this censorship works, like much of the Orwellian control of the Israeli occupation, is, as we in the West say, Byzantine.
In this case, The Freedom Theatre applied more than two months ago to the Palestinian Ministry of Civil Affairs for a permit for the artists to enter the West Bank to perform. Duly stamped by the Ministry, the permit application was forwarded to the Israeli Civil Administration (which, despite its name, is a branch of the Israeli army). On March 11, The Freedom Theatre was informed by the Palestinian Ministry that the Israelis had denied the permit. The censors have spoken. The artists will not be seen or heard.
Cartoonist Khalid Albaih of Sudan said, “ For Israel to deny my entry to the “Palestinian” territories sums up the whole Israel/Palestine conflict.” Sondos Shabayek, the Egyptian theatrical artist famed for developing the Tahrir Monologues, said, in all his travels, he had never been denied entry by any country. Visiting Palestine he felt, is “a means of showing support, of attempting artistic cooperation.”
“Ideas,” he tells Israel, “don’t need permits.”
This is an important counterpoint to the denunciations of the call for a cultural boycott of Israel whose most prominent spokesman is Bernard-Henri Levy, the French intellectural, who said, in his article “Why Boycott is Crap”:
“…by nature and by conviction, I believe in the power of ideas and, even more, that of the truth. In such circumstances, I am always in favor of debate, the clash of opinions, even the confrontation of convictions–hence, not of censure. “
This seemingly appealing option is not open to artists who wish to perform in Palestine. Debate, the clash of opinions, the confrontation of convictions have no place in occupied territory. The Israeli army will decide who performs in Palestine, and, of course, which Palestinian artists are permitted to perform anywhere else in the world.