Israel: the merits (or not) of a “Cultural Boycott”

Last month at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a group of 50 or so prominent Scottish cultural figures signed an open letter demanding that one of the Festival’s venues – the Underbelly – cancel a programmed run of an Israeli play. Their reasons were admirably explicit:

The current, brutal assault by Israel upon the people of Gaza, which is an appalling collective punishment, underlines the seriousness of this error in co-operating with a company which is funded by the Ministry of Culture of the State of Israel.

The state of Israel uses the international ventures of its artists to attempt to lend itself a sense of cultural legitimacy and to distract attention from the brutality of its illegal occupation. Some brave and principled Israeli artists oppose the Israeli state’s cynical attempts to use them for propaganda purposes.

The show was shut down soon thereafter (though, the influence of the letter per se is somewhat dubious).

There are many lines of argumentation at play here, some more sound than others, & all of which deserve rich consideration. I will say without further ado that I disagree entirely with the “Cultural Boycott”’s intent, though not necessarily its spirit – that, I promise you, is as discursive I’m willing to be with my own opinion w/r/t to the current situation in Israel & Gaza. This is a blog about theatre; anyone interested in my half-baked opinions on world affairs is welcome to buy me a drink at their leisure – around the third martini or so, my eloquence is unmatched.

The ensuing will be my attempt to articulate exactly how & why I oppose this movement, if I may call it that; I will address the matter first in the particular, & then in the abstract. I will be using the foregoing letter & this fascinating blog post from Scottish playwright (& letter signee) David Greig as my primary points of reference. I encourage you to have a look at both documents before continuing.

  1. The Particular.

The play in question is a rap-opera produced by the Israeli theatre company Incubator Theatre, called The City. There is no indication at all that the play’s content was in any way political, or was making some kind of thetic statement in favour of the Israeli government’s policies. In fact, the show seems to be more or less a fluff piece, a bit of fun at the Fringe. This makes the knee-jerk argument – that the Cultural Boycott (CB, hereafter) is just McCarthyesque censorship – somewhat harder to sell; there is a very meaningful difference between boycotting a play because of its content, & boycotting it because you oppose the political infrastructure which supports its production. It is not the same as, say, the cancelling of the CanStage production of My Name is Rachel Corrie in December of 2006.

Instead, the CB movement is better seen as an extension of the broader BDS movement (BDS standing for Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions), & of course, the open letter refers to just this. We might therefore consider some of the basic premises of the pro-CB argument through this template.

The salient line in the letter is: “The state of Israel uses the international ventures of its artists to attempt to lend itself a sense of cultural legitimacy and to distract attention from the brutality of its illegal occupation.” Or as Mr. Greig elaborates in his blog, “Governments fund art to come to the Edinburgh Fringe for a reason: they want to project a benign image of their country abroad.” This feels like a very intuitive premise, but it doesn’t appear to be borne out by the facts – at least, not w/r/t Israel. As the Israeli magazine Haaretz has commented, public cultivation of the arts has never been a part of the platform of any major Israeli political party, nor indeed has it been a meaningful facet of Zionist culture in general. Reading the materials of Mr. Greig & the letter itself, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Israeli Ministry of Culture & Sport provided the funding for Incubator Theatre expressly to take its production to the Edinburgh Fringe; there’s little indication that this is the case. According to some reports, Incubator Theatre receives 20% of its income from government grants. To give some perspective, Canada’s National Arts Centre received fully 48% of its revenue from parliamentary appropriations according to its last Annual Report; does this therefore make the NAC an arm or political apparatus of the Harper Administration?

This argument – that receiving government monies ipso facto turns your art into government propaganda – is not serious. In fact, it’s just the teensiest bit unhinged. I don’t know Mr. Greig, but reading his blog makes him seem like quite a thoughtful guy, so I’m sure he doesn’t actually believe that the Royal Court Theatre – which he admits, apparently without irony, paid to send him to Palestine – is an avatar or propaganda machine for the UK government, simply because it has a “Paid for by the Arts Council of England” logo stamped on its website.

(NB.: There’s an argument to be had of, course, about the tacit sanction terms like “Royal Court”, or “national theatre” give to the structures of state power, but they don’t seem entirely relevant here. Maybe someone will take me up on this point, but it feels like an adjacent conversation, rather than an apposite one.)

That Mr. Greig clearly had little compunction accepting this money from the UK government during the time of its illegal invasion & occupation of the sovereign nation of Iraq just simply is hypocrisy, especially when he champions the “brave and principled Israeli artists” who refuse state sponsorship.

Indeed, this hypocrisy is sort of the critical problem with CB, & with the BDS movement in general. BDS is not at all an uncontroversial tactic; in a recent op-ed in The Nation, no less an eminence than Prof. Noam Chomsky writes:

…pursuit of [recognizing the equal rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel through BDS] at once 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? Predictably, initiatives focusing on [this] have been a near-uniform failure, and continue to be unless educational efforts reach the point of laying much more groundwork in the public understanding for them…

…Failed initiatives harm the victims doubly—by shifting attention from their plight to irrelevant issues (anti-Semitism at Harvard, academic freedom, etc.), and by wasting current opportunities to do something meaningful.

Applied to CB, we can quickly see the logic unravel. If Israel’s war crimes warrant the boycott of its artworks, then surely Canada’s own heinous violations of international law through its mining industry, industrial espionage, treatment of aboriginal peoples, & more ought to disqualify Canadian productions from being staged at the Edinburgh Fringe. After all, according to Mr. Greig’s logic, the 2014 Edinburgh production of Helen Lawrence is just a smokescreen for, say, the assassination of Adolfo Ich.

In fact, the rabbit hole goes down much, much deeper than that – I defy Mr. Greig or his cosignatories to identify a single country that couldn’t be boycotted on similar, if not worse, grounds. There is no shortage, presumably, of American or English works, & it’s difficult to imagine a Chinese production being treated with the same hostility (despite the fact that you can bet that, unlike the Israeli case, any Chinese play has been very carefully vetted by the Party for maximal propaganda value). The work left to Mr. Greig & the proponents of CB is to explain why, among all of these nations, Israel is uniquely deserving of sanction. They have not, it seems to me, even attempted to do this.

Among the other major points raised by Mr. Greig is this:

 I support the cultural boycott and I am in solidarity with my colleagues in Palestine, but seeing a show shut down sits badly with me. I feel absolutely no pleasure upon hearing about it. I adore the Edinburgh fringe and one of the things I adore about it is that it is a vast and welcoming festival where everyone can find a place. But this is the problem. Palestinians simply can’t find a place. There is no proportionality. There is no equality of access to stages.

This is the most compelling of the pro-CB arguments & it’s worth addressing. The situation in Israel is undoubtedly – whether you think it’s justified or not – one in which one major ethnic group is actively suppressing the rights & freedoms of another. It is not difficult to evoke comparisons to South Africa, or even, if you’re feeling bilious enough, Nazi Germany.

This is not a condition unique to Israel, however, & again, Mr. Greig is forced to confront the broader implications for such a scheme. Taking states which explicitly (i.e., through open legislation) discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or sexuality, or caste the list of countries which should be officially boycotted is considerably longer than I’m willing to publish here, but it would certainly include:

  • China
  • Russia
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Yemen
  • Pakistan
  • Afghanistan
  • Iraq
  • Iran
  • Nepal
  • Sri Lanka
  • Canada
  • United States
  • Indonesia
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Guatemala

In fact, add to this list the ­unofficial cultures of discrimination, & it’s possibly inexhaustible. Again, one has to ask if a production from Saudi Arabia, say, where women are essentially their husbands’ property, would be treated with similar hostility. I ask this question not because Saudi Arabia’s crimes would excuse or mitigate Israel’s, but because if we’re going to assume as an ethical template the imperative to boycott productions from countries of which we disapprove, we have to be consistent – otherwise, such a template would lack all credibility.

A smaller point, but still worth mentioning for its political implications: Mr. Greig claims, in his blog, that Israel is attempting to “normalise its Occupation with art.” This is a somewhat strange observation to make, especially since nothing in the Israeli PR machine has done anything anywhere close to “normalising” the occupation; indeed, the narrative Israel constantly repeats is one of exceptionality: we are told that they are the “only stable democracy in the Middle-East,” a “beacon of freedom” whose citizens are “regularly threatened by rockets” from Palestinians. If there is one characterizing featuring of the Israeli government’s message on the occupation, it is the sheer brazenness of their refusal to apologize for it at all. It is therefore simply a bit weird to accuse them of trying to promote a “benign” face to the outside world – if anything, Israel has indicated repeatedly that it doesn’t much care what the outside world thinks, & it won’t need to, so long as it receives material support from the United States, which I would wager it will for quite some time to come, CB or no.

  1. The Abstract

If the particularities of the boycotting of an Israeli play for the reasons given by the CB movement appear unsound, it might be worth asking ourselves if indeed it is ethical, ever, to shut down a production based on the political systems which have birthed it.

Would it not, for example, have been justified for a theatre to have refused to present a production from white, Apartheid-era South Africa? (Please, please, this is not an invitation for you to inundate the comments section with arguments about whether the apartheid analogy is suitable for Israel – I’m merely using this as an example).

Or consider the controversy in 2009, when celebrated Canadian playwright Judith Thompson produced Body & Soul, a play sponsored by the Dove soap company. This was no mere act of corporate charity – Dove’s involvement with the play vanished the moment company stopped producing their Pro Age line of products, & the play no longer served its purpose as a marketing tool. Was Ms. Thompson merely a corporate shill, willing to sacrifice the [insert “purity” metaphor here] of the work? Should she & the production not have been boycotted & condemned for being merely a marketing instrument for a corporation (Dove is owned by Unilever) responsible for the rapid destruction of the Indonesian rainforest & the disenfranchisement of the people who live there?

It seems, on its surface, that the answer is obviously “yes.” After all, as consumers, we make choices based on these kinds of considerations all the time – we choose American Apparel instead of Joe Fresh because one is manufactured in a sweatshop in Bangladesh & one is made by (relatively) well-paid Americans. We buy local & organic instead of GMO from China. We drive a Prius instead of a Humvee. Why should the theatre be any different?

Except that art, by its very nature, is different – or at least it ought to be. In some ways, art has been thought of as a commercial property for a long time, but never to the extent that it is now. Lewis Hyde’s now-classic study in “gift economies” – The Gift ­– looks to the ancient cultures & their affinity for “giving art” – as in for free – as a crucial component of what allows art to thrive. The commodification of art has unsettling consequences – whether it is the anodyne Broadway musical based on the latest Disney hit, or the sculpture carved in honor of the Medici.

To think of art as merely a product to be boycotted or not as one would any other is to relegate art to secondary role; after all, the process of consumption is that I pay x for y product, which will make me feel z – ie., good. If the story of art’s (particularly the theatre’s) slow decline into the realm of commodity bears any lesson at all, it is that the more audiences treat their theatre experience in terms of value-for-dollar, the less willing they are to have their beliefs or opinions challenged, the less willing to expend effort, less willing to have anything other than an entertaining night out.

If free speech – & who would deny that this is a free speech issue? – is to mean anything at all, it must mean the freedom to speak hateful, unpleasant things. Though this is not at all the issue at hand w/r/t the CB of the Israeli show, the boycott does set an uncomfortable precedent; what happens if the KKK wishes to produce a show? Are we morally bound to refuse to let them? What if al-Qaeda were to sponsor a Fringe show? What would Mr. Greig’s reaction be?

As I’ve remarked in this space before, the history of art has always been characterized by an uncomfortable relationship with money. If it isn’t the Parthenon being built by slave labour, it’s the great cathedrals of Europe paid for by the sale of Indulgences to the credulous, or the plays of Shakespeare written to please the courts of England.

The retroactive implications of assuming the kind of ethical stance Mr. Greig & his cosignatories take are frightening, & one is forced to ask: who else won’t be allowed to perform at the Fringe? Where indeed will this end?

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