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The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the granddaddy of all international fringe festivals. An international festival, by its nature, accepts work from all over the world, even the parts we don’t much like because, as international artists, critics, and audiences already know, art and cultural exchange are the surest means to global understanding. Except, of course, when those artists, critics, and audiences shut down cultural exchange — at least selectively — because their version of “international” comes with a blacklist.
Such is the case this year, with a Scottish boycott of Israel’s Incubator Theatre Company. Protestors so intimidated the theater housing Incubator’s show that it was closed down, and another show, a dance showcase presented by Ben-Gurion University, was subsequently canceled. I’ve been unable to find calls to boycott any other nation throughout the Edinburgh Fringe’s history, and that’s as it should be. Arts boycotts undermine one of the few outlets citizens — including those from countries whose leaders behave in ways with which we (and often they) disagree — have to tell their own stories.
Even if you believe Israel is populated entirely by genocidal maniacs, an arts boycott is still a terrible idea. Noam Chomsky, no friend of Israel’s policies, called the boycott movement a distraction in The Nation. He explained that it “opens the door to the standard ‘glass house’ reaction: for example, if we boycott Tel Aviv University because Israel violates human rights at home, then why not boycott Harvard because of far greater violations by the United States?”
So it seems fair to ask why, among a list of nations that has included (but is not limited to) Argentina, China, Ghana, Greece, Iraq, Nigeria, Russia, the United States, and Zimbabwe are prominent artists, audience members, and one critic singling out Israel for special censure?
First, some disclosures: My daughter recently returned from a teen tour of Israel, one we hoped might center her spiritual wandering. We figured if she were going to wander, she should at least know where she began. Instead, she spent the summer dodging rockets and fleeing from one end of the country to another. The Bedouin village she visited was hit by Hamas fire shortly after she left, and two Bedouin teens were killed. She doesn’t want to know their names because they may have been her friends. She found herself stuck in an open field one evening as sirens wailed and rockets exploded nearby. She lay in bed many nights listening to Iron Dome concussions, worrying they might miss the one rocket headed for her roof. I am beyond grateful Israel kept her safe and alive, and it’s worth noting that the child who fought us on this trip until the day she left returned a Zionist.
I also know Mark Brown, the critic who led this boycott and who drafted and signed the petition, but neglected to disclose his affiliation with the Sunday Herald, the main Scottish newspaper covering Edinburgh’s festivals. Brown and I politely discussed Israel last spring, and he is entitled to his preference for a one-state, Arab-governed solution (I favor two states and an ouster of Hamas). He is entitled to personally boycott Incubator’s show or to write editorials explaining why he protests state-funded Israeli artists. What he is not entitled to do, as a member of the press and a theater journalist, is ensure audiences can’t make up their own minds about the company or use his position to bully companies out of their venues. Censorship ought to be anathema to a critic’s moral and ethical code; it’s counter to the free exchange of ideas, our entire reason for being.
Getting the facts right
Moreover, he is certainly not entitled to make baseless accusations about the sorts of shows Israel funds for travel abroad. It’s poor journalism indeed when a critic shirks his responsibility to investigate his own claims. The boycott complains nations only fund propagandistic shows, and Incubator’s production, The City, is a noir rap opera, the sort of work which reinforces the idea that Israel is “just like us.” Except Israel is just like us, and maybe more so, in that it places no political restrictions on work it funds. Among the productions funded by Israel for travel abroad (via Deborah Baer Moses of Philadelphia’s Israeli Embassy), are the Arab-Hebrew Theatre’s production of Eyes, which was performed by Arab and Israeli actors and celebrated the poetry of Palestinian poet laureate Mahmoud Darwish; and the coproduction of Return to Haifa, with Washington D.C.’s Theatre J, directed by Sinai Peter, is based on a novella written by former PLO leader Ghassan Kanafani and is critical of Israel, as is Mr. Peter.
Boycott co-signer and Scottish playwright/director David Greig goes further in a blog post detailing his feelings about arts boycotts and difficulties suffered by Palestinian artists. But while it’s true that some artists from the West Bank and Gaza encounter barriers to travel abroad, plenty do not or create barriers of their own. A June exhibition at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory featuring the work of Israeli, Palestinian, and American visual artists was canceled in the wake of threats when an Arabic-language Facebook page protested the use of the words “collaboration” and “dialogue” in the show’s description. The museum apologized, and the Israeli and American artists withdrew, hoping their Palestinian colleagues could continue, but as criticism mounted, the Palestinian artists also withdrew, with one Gazan artist, Mohammed Musallam, blaming “the Zionist media.”
A continuing issue
Arts boycotts continue, most recently at London’s Tricycle Theatre, which refused to host the UK Jewish Film Festival because the Israeli Embassy was included among its 86 sponsors. Tricycle claims it does not want to show favoritism to any side “in the current conflict.”
The Palestinian Authority does not fund the arts, so it’s not a fair point of contention. However, if it did, I’d be first in line to see a show produced by residents of Gaza or the West Bank, whether it’s anodyne or its premise is the destruction of Israel because I’m a theater critic; the most exciting part of my job is turning over ideas with which I don’t always agree, analyzing them, drawing my own conclusions, and sharing them with my readers. It’s also my job, and I ought to lose it if I actively deny anyone else the opportunity to do the same.
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