Anti-Semitism, Arab-Israeli Conflict, Art, Batsheva Dance Troupe, Censorship, Democracy, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University, Freedom for Palestine, Freedom of Speech, Israel, Liberty, Opinion, Politics, Racism
The city was in festival and the pressure group “Don’t Dance with Israeli Apartheid” was preparing a noisy boycott of the Batsheva Dance Company’s show at the Edinburgh Playhouse. “It has nothing whatsoever to do with nationality, ethnicity, religion or anything else,” Mick Napier, the chair of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC), assured Newsnight Scotland. “It’s solely to do with the fact they are financed by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and they’re part of an Israeli government initiative called Brand Israel…” He added that, “If an Israeli came here to sing or to busk or to perform on the Royal Mile, we would have no interest in them whatsoever.”
Although Israeli musicians will be no doubt grateful not to be randomly terrorised in the street, Mick Napier would do well to reiterate his caveats as often as possible. In the past, I have known Napier to be a tireless campaigner against injustice, and for as long as I have lived in Edinburgh, it has always seemed that his natural place was at the head of a march against the Iraq war or the Coalition cuts. How can it be, therefore, that his organisation has lately degenerated from welcoming Israeli refusniks to Edinburgh, to jeopardising the Edinburgh International Festival’s entire raison d’etre through publicly reviling visiting Israeli artists?
Those who oppose Israeli militarism have been lately under the impression that they are obliged to choose between freedom for Palestine and elementary democratic values. Last Wednesday the Israeli ambassador, Daniel Taub, was chased away from a public lecture by Edinburgh University students. It should be a no brainer: any institution with “university” in the title needs freedom of speech just as human life cannot continue without oxygen. Or to put it another way: it is a foul bird which shits in its own nest. Yet the student society behind the ambassador’s visit responded to the ruins of their event with impressive dignity:
To those who attended, we thank you for standing up in favour of debate and freedom of speech and for trying to reason with those who stood against it. We apologize to you for not being able to have your own views heard because of the utterly disrespectful behaviour of these individuals, and we also apologize if you felt, in any way, emotionally threatened or harmed by them.
Yet the implications for freedom of speech are profoundly discouraging: controversial guests may attract popular disapproval and so it may be safer to practice a little self-censorship in future. Professor Mark Aspinwall, the university’s Head of Politics, wrote a departmental email deploring how “students – some with critical views of Israeli policy – were simply unable to say what they had to say.” In return, however, an open letter has been circulated which has the temerity to try and reeducate the Professor about “free speech” in 2012:
Your use of the term “free speech” in this context is barely credible. Palestinians have no right to free speech. They are systematically denied all civil, political, and social rights by the Israeli state. America and other states have, to their eternal shame, worked to ensure that Palestinians have no voice on international bodies.
And so in Edinburgh today, the “logic” of this letter appears to state, we should enjoy the same freedom of speech which one sees under a military occupation, or in international power struggles. If one follows the reasoning of the letter’s author “We Are All Hana Shalabi” to its sorry conclusion, then there is no moral prohibition against running over the supporters of the Israeli government in bulldozers, since the Israeli military have themselves used these tactics. Scoffing aside, it is breathtaking to find such an inability to respect freedom of speech on the modern Left. The open letter amounts to a tirade of smears and threats, warning the Professor that he will be “remembered the same way as those who apologized for the South African regime.” That will teach him to keep his mouth shut.
It all looks decidedly gloomy for later today, when Batsheva returns – this time to the Festival Theatre – to volunteer for a second public pillorying. The first protest outside the Playhouse crossed a clearly-demarcated liberal red line: going beyond shouting slogans and handing out educational flyers to intimidating audiences and disrupting the performance. This was, from a purely tactical perspective, calamitous. Although various literary lions including Iain Banks and Liz Lochhead had endorsed “Don’t Dance with Israeli Apartheid,” the consequent spectacle looked rather like, and I must be very careful here, an anti-Semitic mob.
I must choose my words carefully and proceed with tremendous caution. I wrote that it looked rather like an anti-Semitic mob, but not that it was one. It looked like the sort of mob in which a BNP member would feel at home, but this does not mean that it was necessarily an anti-Semitic protest.
Surely everybody who has encountered this protest must have spent some time puzzling over its existential makeup, its exact ideological ingredients. We have quite a task ahead of us, but let us try to untangle the appearance of racism from the reality of the protesters’ ambitions. It may be a little like trying to extract some rotten milk from a cup of tea.
To the casual observer, the protest appears to attack the dancers not for what they believe or for anything that they have personally done, but because they are Israeli. In this respect, it recalls the old medieval superstition that all Jews were indiscriminately guilty. Indeed, the theme of collective punishment goes a long way to explaining the inherent absurdism of the protest. It is implied that the dance troupe have been chosen for especially vicious treatment because they have tried to conceal their true nature behind some innocuous and frivolous dancing. You may not have noticed the blood on your tickets, or that, if you look carefully, the shadows of these beautiful dancers are clasping submachine guns. No doubt if you play their music backwards it contains secret messages gloating about genocide.
Yet the protest’s organisers have been careful to stipulate that Batsheva was being targeted because it had received funding from the Israeli state and that it had apparently signed a contract agreeing not to mention the Occupation (presumably through the medium of interpretive dance). Writing in the Leither, Dave Sefton has demolished the first point:
Name your favourite lefty arts institution: DV8? National Theatre of Scotland? Billy Bragg? Tricycle Theatre? Forced Entertainment? The Tron? They all get government money – so it only goes to show that THEY must all be pro-government closet Tories (just like you, dear reader). But that, obviously, would be ridiculous.
And that line of thinking would reduce the entire population of a country to one enormous generalisation…which would be (what’s the best word?) well…racist would seem to fit the bill.
The racism behind the second point is less clear. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has previously plotted that, “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits . . . This way you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.” Yet a dance troupe may naturally collaborate with such an agenda because they are fiercely proud of their achievements and want to share them with the rest of the world. Even in this age of overly declarative, cosmetic protesting, no true artist would agree to silence themselves and consign their art to oblivion, merely as a throwaway political statement.
Friends and The Simpsons advertise the American lifestyle and capitalist values around the world, but even if these programmes were distributed in third world nations with CIA funding (and for all I know, they may be), nobody in their right mind would say that they upheld the war on Iraq or that Homer Simpson has the blood of Fallujah’s civilians on his fat yellow hands. And like the creators of The Simpsons, Batsheva is, as an organisation, liberally minded and critical of their own government. The London Independent’s reviewer had previously awarded Batsheva a single star and slagged off its dancers for polluting their show with crass anti-Occupation politics:
Naharin’s Virus is miserably full of things that don’t come off. The political points are as woolly as the dancing. Batsheva is an Israeli company, now under the direction of choreographer Ohad Naharin. In interviews, he has supported Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, and criticised the government of Ariel Sharon. On stage, his dancers scribble “PEASTELINA” on the wall and think that that counts as incisive comment.
“Don’t Dance with Israeli Apartheid” here begins to get a little sticky at the corners in dwelling upon Jewish exceptionalism and demanding the indiscriminate punishment of any Israeli who dares to export anything. Last year, the Edinburgh International Festival invited the Beijing Opera to the Festival Theatre, but nobody proposed disrupting the performance in the name of Tibetan self-determination. When the Australian Chamber Orchestra played at the Queen’s Hall this year, on the very same day as the Batsheva protest, nobody held them responsible for the crimes against indigenous aborigines, even though one could crib the SPSC’s own logic to show how this orchestra furthers the destiny of a racist state. Mark Brown, the Sunday Herald’s theatre man, gets into a fine mess when trying to waft away the unsavory odour of racism:
The call for a boycott of Israel is not simply a protest over policy (as one might protest against the US/British invasion of Iraq, or Russia’s wars against Chechnya). Rather, it is a challenge to the fundamental basis of an ethnically-defined state which is built upon ethnic cleansing and the wholesale dispossession, and continuous oppression, of the Palestinian Arab population.
So is that all clear then? When Russia raises a city to the ground to thwart Chechen self-determination, that is “policy,” but when the same attack upon a people’s independence occurs in the Gaza strip, this is apparently the result of some mysterious racial instinct or essence. Our examples of China and Australia may possibly involve the same, but fortunately Brown does not dwell upon this, for fear that the Sunday Herald’s arts section will end up comprising increasingly of blank pages.
More significantly, the fact that the Occupation is not a “policy” makes it irrelevant whether or not Batsheva had ever danced in dissent from it. They are inextricably linked to the Occupation by means of their “ethnically-defined” agenda – because they are from the blood-stained race. Luckily, Brown backtracks, declaring that, “if Batsheva had, as many brave and principled Israeli artists have done, refused to take Israeli state funding and denounced Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land, I would not have supported a boycott.” By now this is such torturous gibberish that it is scarcely worth pointing out that Batsheva had indeed previously denounced the Occupation, or that it might be a tad unreasonable to expect the dancers to bankrupt themselves or renounce their art just to remain worthy of Brown’s approval. No doubt the bare stage would be grateful for Brown’s five stars.
It is not beyond our wits to oppose the Occupation in a way which is compatible with democratic and Enlightened values. We should not discredit the Edinburgh International Festival or the city’s broader culture by attacking the freedom of expression which – as old leftists like Mick Napier must surely know – true socialists have always fought for. Freedom of expression should not be switched off whenever it becomes expedient. Edinburgh would be rightly outraged if the Pigs turned up at the Festival Theatre this evening, scooped up all of the SPSC’s protesters, and took them away in a van. In this particular dance, the music which must never be interrupted is liberty. The show must go on.
[Update: this blog article on the Batsheva protests also makes for depressing reading. Ed.]