Let’s welcome Israeli dancers to Scotland

The childish Westerners calling for boycotts of Israeli artists are having a corrosive impact on creativity.

Tiffany Jenkins

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They were beautiful performances, marred by protest.

Batsheva, the Israeli contemporary dance group, did four shows at the Edinburgh International Festival. And at each one, there was a demonstration outside the venue and three or four interruptions inside, as protesters in the audience loudly shouted their objections to having these Israelis included in a prestigious cultural festival.

The protests were sanctioned by a coterie of cultural figures. A group of Scottish writers, headed by Scotland’s national poet Liz Lochhead and writers AL Kennedy and Iain Banks, had written to the press calling for a cultural boycott of all Israeli companies and artists. They focused in particular on Batsheva because it accepts money from the Israeli state – this, they argued, makes Batsheva an ambassador for the Israeli state, which ‘suffocates the livelihoods of Palestinian communities, including the right to cultural expression’.

Yet Batsheva has as many non-Israeli dancers as it does Israeli ones, and the director of the troupe has asserted its independence from the Israeli government. None of this swayed the objectors, though.

Scotland’s critics of Batsheva aren’t the first figures in the art world to call for a cultural boycott of Israel. While there is no official boycott of Israel equivalent to the UN-supported boycott of South Africa during the Apartheid era, various Palestinian organisations and those who support them have since 2005 been calling for a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

Last year, demonstrations at a live performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms in London meant that the BBC had to suspend its broadcasting of the show. Silence was briefly broadcast in its place. Also last year, influential actors and directors, including Emma Thompson and Mark Rylance, called on the Globe Theatre in London to withdraw its invitation to Habima – an Israeli theatre company – to perform in an international Shakespeare festival. One of the reasons they gave for wanting Habima barred was that it has performed in the Israeli West Bank settlement of Ariel.

These outbursts against Israeli artists and performers have a corrosive impact on creativity and cultural exchange. They confuse art with politics. While it is always difficult to separate art and the artist from society, it is a different matter entirely to make artists into targets of political demands. Imagine the outrage there would be if artists from America, England or Scotland were boycotted because of the policies of their governments. The numerous artists who take money from state-sponsored bodies in England or Scotland do not necessarily go along with the policies of their governments. Artists and performers do not act and feel the same way as their leaders.

Closing down culture prevents people around the world from exchanging ideas or songs and from debating issues and finding out what they have in common. More art and more dialogue are always preferable to less.

Boycotts mean that ordinary people lose out on a chance to hear or experience what are considered to be great works. The American writer Alice Walker recently refused to give an Israeli publisher translation rights for her best-known work The Color Purple, on the basis that Israel is an ‘apartheid state’. Yet all she achieved was to deny some Israelis access to her novel; she harmed readers, not the political elite.

It is true that the Israeli Ministry of Culture promotes dance troupe Bathseva, so that it is now referred to by some as ‘the best-known global ambassador for Israeli culture’. But why should we replicate this ministry’s rather cynical use of the arts by endorsing its view that Batsheva is an ‘Israeli ambassador’? Why should we follow suit by also treating this dance company as nothing more than a propagandistic spokesperson for Israel? There is a real danger here of confusing art with politics, which can distract protesters from targeting those who wield proper power, and make them focus on artists instead, and also audiences, as if they were the real problem.

Liz Lochhead said she hesitated to sign the anti-Batsheva letter, but a visit in June to the West Bank helped change her mind. ‘Having seen how Palestinians are treated like non-humans, I believe we must use sanctions in the way they were used to bring Apartheid to an end in South Africa’, she said. Campaigners love to cite South Africa as an example of an effective cultural boycott, but in the process they reveal their very self-orientated idea of political change. Of course, it is nice to think that not buying a record or refraining from eating certain apples brought down Apartheid, but the reality is quite different. Put simply, the millions of people who put their lives on the line inside South Africa, who struggled and fought for decades, made the significant difference, not a few consumers at tills in the UK.

Last year, writer Ian McEwan rejected demands that he should refuse to accept the Jerusalem Prize for literature. Instead, he used his acceptance speech to raise questions about individual freedom and to call for an end to the building of illegal Israeli settlements. He also urged people to donate to an organisation that brings together former Israeli and Palestinian combatants. McEwan’s way means you can continue to be read by people around the world while expressing your thoughts on the state of politics. That is far preferable to the childish, self-regarding agitation of the boycott lobby, which separates people and closes down culture. The show must go on.

Tiffany Jenkins is a cultural sociologist and author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit Tiffany’s website here.

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