Politics before art: the boycott debate

August 8, 2014
Sarah Benton

This posting has these items:
1) Guardian: Tricycle Theatre and Israel: the politics of the cultural boycott, Dorian Lynskey talks to cultural figures on their attitudes to boycotting Israel;
2) JC: UK Jewish Film Festival banned from the Tricycle Theatre: But some won’t attack boycott, critics of Tricycle predictable, the ‘no comments’ less so;
3) UKJF: The Tricycle refuses to host the UK Jewish Film Festival for having Israeli Embassy support, statement to media;
4) UKJF: Sponsors and patrons of UK Jewish Film;
5) CiF: As the Gaza crisis deepens, boycotts can raise the price of Israel’s impunity, Rafeef Ziadah argues for BDS because as governments won’t act on Israeli violations of the law, people must;

Towards the end of his long life as musician and campaigner, Pete Seeger said: “I understand why someone would want to boycott a place financially, but I don’t understand why you would boycott dialogue.” Photo shows him singing Amazing Grace during a concert celebrating his 90th birthday in New York on May 3, 2009. Photo by Reuters

Tricycle Theatre and Israel: the politics of the cultural boycott

Ian McEwan, Pet Shop Boys and Elvis Costello are among those who have wrestled with the issue of a cultural boycott of Israel. Is such action ever justified or should art strive to build bridges between communities?

By Dorian Lynskey, Guardian
August 07,2014 

Three weeks ago, UK Jewish Film began receiving anxious emails and phone calls from the Tricycle Theatre, the north London home of the UK Jewish film festival for the past eight years. It’s understood that the theatre board was making demands it had not made before. The board asked to be allowed to view in advance all of the films that were made with Israeli backing in order to approve their content. When the UKJFF dismissed this as censorship, the Tricycle conceded the point. But it refused to back down on another demand: that the festival should hand back the small percentage of its funding that came from the Israeli embassy. The UKJFF could not understand why this longstanding financial arrangement had only now become a deal-breaker and rejected the Tricycle’s offer to make up the financial shortfall because it was a matter of principle. After two weeks of negotiations, this impasse remained and the UKJFF withdrew from the Tricycle, formally announcing its decision on Tuesday.

London’s Tricycle Theatre. Photo by Carol Court/AFP/Getty Images

There is no geopolitical issue more bitterly divisive than Israel and Palestine at the best of times, let alone during the current conflict in Gaza, but this dispute has particularly serious implications for the relationship between artists, Israel and the British Jewish community. Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, called the Tricycle “officially antisemitic” while Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, backed the Tricycle’s decision and said the UKJFF had “unwisely politicised” the festival. The Tricycle did not respond to the Guardian’s request for an interview and the UKJFF could not field an official spokesperson. However, Simon Johnson, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, who has close ties to the festival, was willing to discuss the situation.

Simon Johnson, Chief Executive, JLC.

“I think it’s an opportunistic attempt to bring an international political dispute into UK multi-faith culture,” says Johnson.

“This is a Jewish film festival. It’s not an Israeli film festival. This is a major contributor to understanding of the entire conflict. It’s all about building bridges and showing films which address all sides of the issue. To suddenly impose a condition just a few short days after the start of the Gaza situation strikes us in the Jewish community as a discriminatory boycott by the Tricycle Theatre.”

The issue of a cultural boycott of Israel has been gathering momentum since a broad coalition of Palestinian groups established the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in 2005. The BDS movement advocates a wide range of boycotts, including corporations, sports teams and academic institutions, until Israel meets three demands:

“Ending its occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall; recognising the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.”

Sherry Wolf, Jewish socialist activist, press officer for the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, 2012, and an editor of the International Socialist Review.

According to Jewish-American activist and journalist Sherry Wolf, a member of the BDS-related US campaign Adalah-NY, “this last month has seen an escalation like nothing we have seen in the past nine years of BDS’s existence”. While the current Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) operation has been criticised by regular campaigners such as Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Ken Loach, Hanif Kureishi and Maxine Peake, less political stars have spoken out. Rihanna and One Direction’s Zayn Malik both tweeted the hashtag #freepalestine, albeit provoking a backlash that made them wish they hadn’t. Sinéad O’Connor recently explained pulling out of a concert in Caesarea in pungent terms: “There’s not a sane person on Earth who in any way sanctions what the fuck the Israeli authorities are doing.”

Pet Shop Boys Neil  Tennant and Chris Lowe, who defended an appearance in Israel citing its difference from apartheid-era South Africa.

Of all the BDS movement’s components, the cultural boycott is the most thorny because art prides itself on its power to build bridges. Towards the end of his long life as musician and campaigner, Pete Seeger resisted the idea of shutting these bridges down: “I understand why someone would want to boycott a place financially, but I don’t understand why you would boycott dialogue.” While resisting demands to cancel a show in Israel last year, R&B singer Alicia Keys fell back on sentimental rhetoric: “Music is a universal language that is meant to unify audiences in peace and love.”

For Wolf, however, Israel-Palestine has gone beyond civil dialogue and the unifying power of music. “Art is intrinsically political and always has been. Artistic figures have an outsize profile in the world. Saying that Israel is a pariah state that must be isolated like South Africa was isolated is a way of saying we will not allow our art to be used to pretend that this is a dialogue between two peoples. It’s occupation, it’s racism, it’s ethnic cleansing. We will not normalise the occupation and the apartheid of Israel.”

The South African analogy

Comparisons with South Africa are imperfect. First, that boycott was codified by a UN resolution. Second, it was criticised at the time for penalising South African performers who opposed apartheid. Third, white South Africans were not a discrete ethnic or religious group. Fourthly, many people, including critics of Israel, dispute the accuracy of the “apartheid” tag. Defending the Pet Shop Boys’ decision to play in Israel last year, Neil Tennant wrote: “Israel has (in my opinion) some crude and cruel policies based on defence; it also has universal suffrage and equality of rights for all its citizens both Jewish and Arab. In apartheid-era South Africa, artists could only play to segregated audiences; in Israel anyone who buys a ticket can attend a concert.”

Linda Grant, British Jewish novelist and journalist: happy to press war crimes charges against generals but not punish ballerinas and actors because you can’t get at the powerful.

Nonetheless, the comparison is fundamental to the premise of BDS. For individual artists, this means that even people who would rather avoid broadcasting their views are forced to publicly take sides or fudge their positions. Pixies [American rock band] were added to the list of BDS supporters after cancelling a Tel Aviv concert in 2010 but that turned out to be for security reasons and they finally played in the city two months ago. Elvis Costello cancelled two 2010 dates with a contorted statement that seemed neither to endorse nor condemn the boycott.

Some artists attempt to square the circle by using a platform in Israel to tackle the issues head-on. Defending his decision to accept the Jerusalem Prize for literature in 2011, Ian McEwan pointed out, “If I only went to countries that I approve of, I probably would never get out of bed.” In his acceptance speech, he spoke at length about Israeli policy in Palestine, calling it “a great and self-evident injustice”. The novelist Linda Grant sums up her position thus: “I’m happy to press war crimes charges against politicians and generals, but not punish ballerinas and actors because you can’t get at the powerful.”

Ian McEwan, who argues in favour of using a platform in Israel to speak out. Ian McEwan, who argues in favour of using a platform in Israel to speak out. Photo by Murdo MacLeod

The unease many artists feel about a boycott stems from the fact that of all the countries committing reprehensible acts, the only one being targetted on this scale is the world’s only Jewish nation, and this carries uncomfortable echoes of the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses that preceded the Holocaust. “It’s completely the wrong message,” says Simon Johnson. “Israel is one of the only countries in that region where films that are critical of the government are freely shown with no intimidation to artists and film-makers. A cultural boycott does nothing to promote peace, harmony and goodwill. What it does is promote division and conflict between people and it is utterly discriminatory.”

While he stops short of calling the Tricycle’s decision antisemitic, he adds that “people in the Jewish community would be entitled to question the motives of those who took it”.

There is no doubt that there are antisemites among the boycott movement who target Jewish individuals. Human rights group PEN International recently condemned a list of “Israeli products to be boycotted”, circulated on social media, that included the novels of Turkish-Jewish novelist Mario Levi. But the list was not endorsed by the BDS movement. Just as critics of Israel tend to highlight the pronouncements of its most hardline politicians, its defenders focus on outrageous antisemites; each side wants to present the other in the worst possible light.

“There has never been an attack on Jews qua Jews,” says Wolf. “I live in Brooklyn. Twenty-five per cent of my neighbourhood is Jewish. A rising number of us are unequivocally pro-Palestine and horrified that we are identified in any shape or form with this massacre in Gaza. We must be clear: the cultural boycott is not a boycott of individuals. We purposefully wanted to avoid a McCarthyite blacklist. The propaganda machine of the Israeli state is considerable. Sending dance troupes [around the world] and then calling us out is at best cynicism and at worst rank hypocrisy.”

Wolf and Johnson are poles apart. Individuals can criticise Israel while opposing a boycott on principle but the two cannot be separated: the logic of the boycott stems from your opinion of the conflict. If you believe that Israel is as uniquely outrageous as South Africa once was, then it is clearly justified. If you do not, it isn’t. Despite idealistic beliefs that art transcends everything, the boycott is as inflammatory as any other element of the conflict.

The UKJFF is now going to spread its programme across several venues. People can decide for themselves whether it would have been better if the films had never been shown.

• This article was amended on 7 August 2014 to clarify that Sherry Wolf is a member, not the leader, of Adalah-NY and to clarify a quote about pro-Palestine feeling in her neighbourhood.

UK Jewish Film Festival banned from the Tricycle Theatre: But some won’t attack boycott

By Sandy Rashty, Jewish Chronicle
August 07, 2014

The Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council have condemned the Tricycle Theatre’s decision to ban the UK Jewish Film Festival as “shameful”.

But despite the communal outrage, a number of Jewish figures involved with the north-west London theatre have refused to criticise the boycott.

Sir Trevor Chinn, who is in the theatre’s “director’s circle”, Jewish Book Week chair Gail Sandler, a “pioneer” of the theatre and Tricycle trustee Jeremy Lewison all said they had no comment on the ban when contacted by the JC.

On Tuesday, the Tricycle, which has shown UKJFF films for the past eight years, said it would not host six galas and 26 screenings this year because of the festival’s “inappropriate” ties to the Israeli embassy.

The Tricycle had demanded that the UKJFF return £1,400 sponsorship it receives from the embassy, saying that the theatre would compensate, but the UKJFF refused.

Judy Ironside, UKJFF executive director, said: “We have always sought to convey a wide perspective on the conflicts in the Middle East and initiate open dialogue with our audiences and guest speakers; and the Israeli Embassy have always supported us in this. The Tricycle have refused to take this into account in their decision.”

Sir Nicholas Hytner, the director of the National Theatre, defended the Tricycle. He said: “It is entirely understandable they felt obliged to insist that no government agency should sponsor the festival. It greatly saddens me that the UKJFF have unwisely politicised a celebration of Jewish culture.”

Jonathan Levy, chairman of The Tricycle, added: “Given the present situation in Israel/Palestine, and the unforeseen and unhappy escalation over the past three weeks, the Tricycle cannot be associated with any activity directly funded or supported by any party to the conflict. The Tricycle will be pleased to host the UKJFF provided it occurs without support or other endorsement from the Israeli government.”

In a joint statement, Gillian Merron and Simon Johnson, chief executives of the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council, said of the Tricycle decision: “The event is a celebration of global Jewish culture and inherently apolitical. This decision is shameful and shows that boycotts of Israel inevitably lead to the harassment of Jewish culture and individuals.”

Our lips are sealed: involved with the Tricycle, but saying nothing — Sir Trevor Chinn, Jeremy Lewison, Gail Sandler (Photos: John Rifkin; PA; Justin Grainge)
Our lips are sealed: involved with the Tricycle, but saying nothing — Sir Trevor Chinn, Jeremy Lewison, Gail Sandler (Photos: John Rifkin; PA; Justin Grainge)

Although some Jewish figures associated with the theatre refused to comment on the ban, a senior partner at JPC Law, a “corporate partner” of the Tricycle, said the firm was withdrawing its donations.
Other individual donors said they were reviewing their position.

Peter Levy, a former chairman of the JC, said he had not yet decided whether he would withdraw his financial support but added: “It’s a shame. I hope they review their decision.”

Miriam Borchard, a donor and Wizo supporter, added: “I am shocked, it has always been very supportive of ethnic groups. Now I am having my doubts about my support for the Tricycle. Last time the Globe [theatre] was faced with an Israel boycott, they went ahead with the show.”

West London Synagogue member Andrew Stone, a trustee of the Kobler Trust, which has to date donated a six-figure sum to the theatre, said: “We deeply regret that they considered it appropriate for one cultural, charitable organisation to take a political position, the impact of which will inevitably cause harm to another.”

Bloomberg, one of the Tricycle’s largest sponsors, refused to comment.

Deborah Nathan, director of the children’s charity Emunah, said it had cancelled ticket bookings at the Tricycle, which amounted to £1,480. She said: “It is a sad day for Anglo-Jewry.”

A group of young Jewish professionals were due to stage their first organised protest outside the Tricycle on Thursday. Joseph Cohen, 32, co-founder of Campaign Against Antisemitism, established this week, said he expected hundreds at a rally outside the Kilburn theatre.

Mr Cohen, from Hendon, said: “We’re hoping to tell the public about the huge double standards the Tricycle have put on the film festival.

“They said they were doing this to keep it neutral, but they’ve made it political.”

For 2014-2015 the Tricycle received a grant of nearly £200,000 from Brent Council. Labour councillor Neil Nerva, said: “I’m coming from a left-wing point of view and it’s not fair. I think it sets a bad precedent for cultural boycotts in a diverse city. I am concerned about where this starts and stops. They had the Indian film festival.”

Actress Maureen Lipman said: “The Tricycle have decided to punish Jewish people in the diaspora for one view of what is taking place in the Middle East and that is quite unacceptable.”

Jewish filmmaker Jon Ronson, in a series of tweets, wrote: “British Jews should decide how to feel about Israel, not have cultural institutions grandstand all over us.“

The Tricycle refuses to host the UK Jewish Film Festival for having Israeli Embassy support

Press Release from UK Jewish Film
5th August 2014
– The Tricycle Theatre has refused to host the UK Jewish Film Festival for the first time in eight years, for so long as it is supported by the cultural department of the Israeli Embassy in London.

Following a series of conversations, the Theatre confirmed the news to the Festivals’ organisers by email just weeks before the schedule was to be finalised, leaving organisers shocked and saddened by the decision. In a written explanation, outlining their Board’s decision, Jonathan Levy, Chairman of The Tricycle, said:

 “Given the present situation in Israel/Palestine, and the unforeseen and unhappy escalation that has occurred over the past three weeks, including a terrible loss of life, The Tricycle cannot be associated with any activity directly funded or supported by any party to the conflict…the Tricycle will be pleased to host the UKJFF provided that it occurs without the support or other endorsement from the Israeli Government.”

The UK Jewish Film Festival has received support from the Israeli Embassy for the last seventeen years, portraying the unmistakable cultural connection between Jewish people and the State of Israel. Yet the festival has always been entirely apolitical, showcasing perspectives from both sides of the conflict in the Middle East. The UKJFF considered the demands of the theatre to be entirely unacceptable and is now taking its screenings elsewhere.

The Festival had expected to hold at least 26 of it films at the Tricycle including 6 high profile gala events and is now in the process of making alternative arrangements so that visitors’ enjoyment of this year’s festival in November, will not be too badly affected.

Judy Ironside MBE, Founder and Executive Director of the UK Jewish Film Festival said, “We pride ourselves on showing a diverse programme of films, which present a comprehensive view of international Jewish life and Israeli films are of course an important part of that. We have always sought to convey a wide perspective on the conflicts in the Middle East and initiate open dialogue with our audiences and guest speakers; and the Israeli Embassy have always supported us in this. The Tricycle have refused to take this into account in their decision.”

Stephen Margolis, Chairman of the UKJFF, added, “The Jewish community as a whole has enjoyed a successful relationship with the Tricycle and it is extremely saddening that they should look to politicise this festival by making demands that the UKJFF could never accept.”

The managing director of UK Jewish Film is Michael Etherton. The public profile comes from the list of patrons and sponsors, below.

Sponsors and patrons of UK Jewish Film


Carolyn and Harry Black, Alan Brill, Peter and Leanda Englander, Stuart and Erica Peters, Paul and Keren Ristvedt, Daniel Robey, Stuart and Bianca Roden, Isabelle and Ivor Seddon, Eric Senat, Andrew Stone, Arthur Matyas & Edward Wojakovski Charitable Foundation

In Kind Sponsors

Film sponsors

Edward and Sharon Azouz
Beauchamp Estates
Lord and Lady Collins
Emanuel Charitable Trust
Glasgow Jewish Film Club
Jane and Michael Grabiner
The Green Family
Stephen Hermer
The Ingram Family
Stella and Samir Joory
Annabel Karmel MBE
Veronique and Jonathan Lewis
Dennis and Gillian Levine
Menorah Film Club
The Lowy Mitchell Foundation
Mark and Carolyn Mishon
Jessica Sebag-Montefiore
Paul Morrison
Fiona and Peter Needleman

New Israel Fund

Stuart and Erica Peters

Paul and Sara Phillips

Errol and Tessa Rudnick
Searchlight Electric Ltd
The Steen Family
David and Sayoko Teitelbaum
UK Friends of The Abraham Fund Initiatives
Beth and Alan Wilkins
Yachad Yad Vashem – UK Foundation
Young Yad Vashem – UK Foundation
The Zionist Federation

Honorary Patrons

Honorary Life Patron:
Sir Sydney Samuelson CBE

Tim Angel OBE, Helen Bamber OBE, Dame Hilary Blume, The Right Honourable the Lord Collins of Mapesbury, Simon Fanshawe OBE, Vanessa Feltz, Sir Martin Gilbert, Michael Grabiner, Romaine Hart OBE, Sir Terry Heiser, Stephen Hermer, Lord Janner of Braunstone QC, Samir Joory, Lia van Leer, Maureen Lipman CBE, David Kustow OBE, Paul Morrison, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Lord Puttnam of Queensgate CBE, Selwyn Remington, Ivor Richards, Jason Solomons, Chaim Topol

The Israeli airforce’s fleet of F16 planes is designed and made in the USA by Lockheed Martin

As the Gaza crisis deepens, boycotts can raise the price of Israel’s impunity

If governments refuse to act on Gaza, we must emulate the methods that isolated South Africa during apartheid

By Rafeef Ziadah, CiF, theguardian.com
July 28, 2014

I started my life under Israeli siege and bombardment. Even as a child I remember wondering, while the smell of artillery shells filled the Beirut air in 1982 and we ran for our lives: “why is the world allowing this to happen?” On the face of Gaza’s children today I see another generation born to the same trauma, and to the same question. How can this be allowed to happen?

Gaza has been under Israeli siege for seven years. Fishermen are shot when they go out to sea. Trade is blocked. Travel is nearly impossible. Water is contaminated. Hospital supplies are lacking. The economy is kept in controlled collapse, just short of catastrophe. Israel is rationing everything that enters Gaza, from calories to world literature.

After 21 days of bombing, Israel still refuses a comprehensive ceasefire that meets the minimal, unified demand of all Palestinians – to let people lead normal lives. This is not a war, let alone one of self-defence, but a punitive expedition aimed at maintaining the siege and illegal military occupation. Civilians, hospitals and residential blocks bear the brunt of the attack because the only “military” aim of onslaught is to cow Palestinians into complete submission.

In July 2004, the international court of justice ruled that Israel’s wall and the associated regime in the occupied West Bank of settlements, land confiscation, segregated roads and movement restrictions is illegal under international law, and that governments have a legal duty to act. However, 10 years on, the international community still averts its gaze, failing to lift a finger to hold Israel to account. EU foreign ministers, even after they heard news of the massacre of Shuja’iya, demanded the disarmament only of Gaza. Yet it is Israel’s hi-tech arsenal, funded by US aid, generous EU research grants and the flourishing multibillion arms trade, that rains down horror on civilians.

Lip-service aside, western governments support the siege of Gaza, the building of settlements and therefore Israel’s periodic massacres. The impunity granted to Israel is completely at odds with the democratic will of the people, as the current international outpouring of solidarity with Gaza shows.

If governments refuse to act, then the vast international support that Israel enjoys must be tackled by international grassroots civil society, using the methods that isolated South Africa during apartheid.

Since its launch by Palestinian civil society in 2005, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has won support from trade unions, political parties and grassroots movements, and from vast numbers of people all over the world expressing their ethical commitment by boycotting all Israeli products, not just those from the occupied territories. As a result, BDS pressure is now starting to have significant impacts.

Artists including Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Massive Attack and Faithless have refused to perform in Israel in response to calls for a cultural boycott. Public intellectuals such as Stephen Hawking, Alice Walker and Judith Butler have taken a similar stance. A major step was taken recently by a group of Nobel laureates and other public figures who published a letter in the Guardian calling on governments to immediately “implement a comprehensive and legally binding military embargo on Israel”.

Now the UK security firm G4S looks set to scale back its involvement in the Israeli prison system that holds Palestinian children without trial, following an international campaign that saw US churches and the Bill Gates Foundation divest from the company. John Lewis recently became the latest European retailer to stop trading with the Israeli firm SodaStream, whose share price has halved in a year. Leaders of Israel’s settler movement have bemoaned the fact that consumer boycotts mean they can no longer export to Europe. Israeli ministers describe BDS as a “strategic threat” to the status quo, and even the US now warns that Israel faces international isolation.

The attack on Gaza is not a war between two equal sides. It is an onslaught by a powerful military state, armed and supported by the west, against an impoverished, besieged and displaced people. The talk of governments is cheap. As long as talk is all there is, the life of our children remains even cheaper. We must step up our boycott, divestment and sanctions, campaigning internationally to end Israel’s impunity.

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