Ohad Naharin’s career began, perhaps forebodingly, in the Israel Defense Forces.
According to The New York Times, “[Naharin] spent his early years on a kibbutz; later, when an ankle injury made him ineligible for combat in the Israeli army, he joined an army entertainment group.”
The Batsheva Dance Company, based in Tel Aviv and of which Naharin is artistic director, is presently on a tour of the US and Canada. The Israeli government-sponsored tour is based on Naharin’s latest piece entitled “Last Work.”
“The 2017 North American Batsheva tour was made possible by the generous support from Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs in North America,” reads the BAM program notes.
Coinciding with the opening of “Last Work” in Brooklyn, the Film Forum and Film Society of Lincoln Center debuted a documentary called “Mr. Gaga: A True Story of Love and Dance.”
The film’s trailer touts it as a story “About love. About movement,” seeming to avoid the political in favor of an exposition of Naharin’s unique Gaga dance style.
As the Batsheva Dance Company winds its way across North America, the media has clamored to laud the show on its artistic merits, glossing over the political implications of the group’s visit. Articles in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune offer timid critiques of the show but fail to mention politics altogether.
But the irony of showcasing uninhibited movement on stage as a product of a country where the every movement of the occupied Palestinians is restricted was not lost on the hundred or so protestors outside BAM on opening night of “Last Work.”
Organized by Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, the protest was MCed by Adalah-NY’s founder Riham Barghouti and member Hani Ghazi; featuring Dave Lippman and Alexis Stern singing about whitewashing the Israeli occupation; the Brooklyn-based Freedom Dabka Group bringing Palestinian culture to the streets outside BAM; all with accompaniment from the radical marching band Rude Mechanical Orchestra.
A January 19th open letter to the Batsheva Dance Company from Adalah-NY, co-signed by 19 other groups including Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews Say No! and Brooklyn for Peace reads in part, “If Ohad Naharin stands against the occupation, as he says he does, we invite him to show this by ending Batsheva’s complicity with it. We ask that you disavow your role as Ambassador of the State. Your position as an Israeli cultural icon gives you a platform to speak up for what’s right.”
Batsheva as of yet has not responded to Adalah-NY’s letter.
“It’s part of the Israeli ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian identity, of the Palestinian people. Not only do they not recognize that Palestinian people exist, they don’t want to recognize that our identity, our culture, our heritage even exists,” said Rani Allan, a member of Adalah-NY and president of both the Arab Studies Club and Palestine Solidarity Alliance of Hunter College.
Citing the El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe, a Palestinian dance company consistently kept from performing by Israeli authorities, the military occupation, Allan continued, “really hinders their ability to live freely, to perform freely, to do any sort of work they want to do, just because they’re Palestinian.”
Therefore, Allan concluded, “It’s not like we are the ones who politicized art like Batsheva. They are the ones who politicized themselves. And that’s why we issued a letter asking them to disassociate themselves from the Israeli government, from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and they never responded back.”
“Brand Israel” is a marketing campaign dreamed up in 2006 by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and an American public relations firm that seeks to showcase Israel’s softer side. At the time, one of the marketing executives working pro-bono for the Israeli government stated the goal of “Brand Israel” was to convey the country “as a productive, vibrant and cutting-edge culture.”
In fact, the Batsheva Dance Company might not exist without “Brand Israel,” as the majority of Batsheva’s 18 dancers—including Naharin himself—began their careers on scholarships from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, a $100 million enterprise committed to supporting “artistic life in Israel by awarding grants.” The AICF has offices in New York, Tel Aviv, Berlin and Toronto.
“Bam, bam, don’t you know, Batsheva has got to go!”
Standing in the freezing cold outside BAM on Saturday night, Mohammad Hamad, a member of Adalah-NY, explained the fervent public relations campaign of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
“The purpose of the Brand Israel campaign is to deviate tension from occupation, from the state violence that Palestinians experience on a daily basis and to deviate [the world’s] attention to how Israel is similar to other progressive, advanced, developed societies,” Hamad said. “So it’s really just a blanket to cover what they’re doing; the colonization of more and more land.”
Just 100 feet away from Adalah-NY’s protest, a small contingent of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), an FBI-declared “violent extremist Jewish organization,” accused by the Southern Poverty Law Center of committing violent acts against Arabs, held a counter-protest in which they yelled Jewish nationalist and anti-Arab slogans.
“We have always experienced counter protests, however this is the first time to have a counter protest openly by the JDL specifically,” said Rani Allan. “They were inactive for awhile, and now I guess with the Trump administration they want to become more active because they see that there has been a rise in fascism, a rise in open racism.”
Between Adalah-NY’s protest and the JDL’s counter-protest, a few ticket holders and patrons of Batsheva’s performance spoke with protestors, inquiring about the nature of their grievances.
Erica Ojeda, a dancer who for the past week had attended workshops lead by Batsheva’s Omri Drumlevich, questioned the cultural boycott as a valid means of protest.
“I understand where sort of it’s coming from, but I also think to boycott a dance performance, a dance piece, that maybe they haven’t seen, they haven’t heard the music,” said Ojeda, “I think it’s not fully grasping the concept.”
Fatima, who is Palestinian and a member of Samidoun: Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, responded to Ojeda’s concerns.
Israelis “came there from a large mixed group, mostly of European descent. When they came they situated themselves in the place of the Palestinians. The Palestinians were forcefully removed,” explained Fatima. “And when they did come, the culture was appropriated from the Palestinians.”
“That’s why everybody is out here today. In addition to stealing the land they steal the culture,” Fatima said.