Israel is not immune to boycott

If an artistic institution connives in injustice, it must be permissible to call it to account without being labelled a Nazi, even if it is Jewish.

Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi
27 April 2012

An unexplored question to emerge from the furore over the prospect of Israel's National Theatre, Habima, coming to Shakespeare’s Globe theatre next month, is why liberal thinkers who want to see Palestinians achieve their rights are so reluctant to hold Israel to account for denying them.   

Playwright David Edgar, for example, in a Comment piece for the Guardian, elegantly deflected the Nazi and McCarthyite epithets hurled at Mark Rylance, Emma Thompson, Jonathan Miller and other actors, directors and writers opposed to the involvement of Habima in the Cultural Olympiad. But he fell into the trap of what he himself termed “easy conflations” by allowing Habima's "Jewishness" to determine his attitude towards boycotting it.

Miller and co put their names to a letter arguing that Habima, scheduled to perform The Merchant of Venice in Hebrew at Shakespeare’s Globe on May 28 and 29, was not fit to participate because it is a state-funded body that plays for Israeli colonists in illegal settlements in the Palestinian West Bank. 

As Edgar showed, signing the letter was a legitimate non-state, non-violent action akin to latter day anti-apartheid sporting and cultural boycotts. The case against the Bahrain grand prix, endorsed by British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, is founded on the same principles – refusing to lend legitimacy to a state perpetrating human rights abuses.  

If this applies to Boers and Bahrainis, why not Israelis? 

Because, said Edgar, “Habima is not just an Israeli but a Jewish theatre.”   

This is to succumb to the “easy conflations” so often uttered by Israel’s supporters – that the state represents all Jews and an attack on it is by definition antisemitic. These are conflations many Jews disavow. 

Human rights abuses do not become excusable because committed by Jews. The very idea smacks of a kind of twisted, reverse antisemitism. 

If the arguments for boycott apply to the facts of the case, they apply irrespective of the faith or ethnicity of the parties involved. 

Habima’s role as an Israeli state cultural ambassador is beyond doubt. 

We have this on good authority from the company’s artistic director Ilan Ronen who says in one breath it is “completely independent, artistically and politically” but in another it “has no choice” but to perform in the settlements. 

“Like other theatre companies and dance companies in Israel,” he told the Observer, “we are state-financed, and financially supported to perform all over the country. This is the law.” 

So in exchange for a state subsidy, Habima ignores the fact that the “hall of culture” in the settlement of Ariel is not actually in “the country” of Israel, but on stolen Palestinian land, and goes to entertain the colonial settlers planted there in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention. 

The Jewish Chronicle weekly newspaper has announced that the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which launched its Brand Israel campaign in 2005 explicitly linking “propaganda and culture”, is covering a £10,000 shortfall in Habima’s budget for its London trip. 

There could not be a clearer instance of culture in the service of politics. 

If mainstream Jewish organisations enthusiastically embrace Israel’s cultural ambassadors, and claim that to challenge them is to offend all Jews, we are not obliged to agree. A growing number of Jews take an opposite view. Some were among the signatories of the original letter calling on the Globe to rescind Habima’s invitation.

Some are leading members of the boycott campaign which, far from pillorying actors because they are Jews or Hebrew speakers, has urged the Globe to replace Habima with Hebrew-speaking artists who are not in hock to the Israeli state. 

Habima has tried to claim that by inviting both them and West Bank theatre company Ashtar, which is performing Richard ll in Arabic on May 4 and 5, the Globe's festival would somehow “help with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”   

As if having Israelis and Palestinians on the same stage, four weeks apart, can do anything to resolve the confiscation of Palestinian land, the fate of their refugees, the siege on Gaza, or the occupation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem. 

Ashtar’s artistic director Iman Aoun wrote to Globe counterpart Dominic Dromgoole rejecting the idea out of hand: “They have insinuated cooperation with us to undermine the growing cultural boycott of complicit Israeli institutions,” Aoun said. 

When Palestinians and Jewish Israelis both enjoy equality and justice, then let’s talk about artistic collaboration.

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