Those accused of 'Nazi book-burning' stick to their point, calmly

April 19, 2012
Sarah Benton

For the first 29th March letter of protest  New protest at invite to Israel’s national theatre to perform at Globe
For subsequent letters see Outbreak of fever at opposition to Habima theatre company

Habima supporters miss the point
Letters, Observer

From Ken Loach, director

The supporters of Habima, the Israeli theatre company, miss the point (“Booker winner attacks bid to ban Israeli national theatre company from Globe”, News). The presence of Habima at the Globe is unacceptable.

Habima is funded by the Israeli state. Its artistic director says they “have to perform all over the country”, including the illegal settlements. This complicity makes a mockery of Habima’s claim to freedom in its work.

The Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai, wrote: “I do not believe that a state that maintains an occupation, committing on a daily basis crimes against civilians, deserves to be invited to any kind of cultural event.”

Shame on the Globe theatre and shame on its apologists!
Ken Loach, Bath

Full letter from Ken Loach

Dear Sir,

The supporters of Habima, the Israeli theatre company, miss the point. The presence of Habima at the Globe is unacceptable because the company is complicit in the crimes that Israel is committing against Palestinians and because it presents itself not as an independent company of artists but as representing the state. Its general manager said the Globe’s invitation is an ‘honorable accomplishment for the state of Israel in general’.

Habima is funded by the Israeli state. Its artistic director says they ‘have to perform all over the country’, including the illegal settlements. ‘We have to go, otherwise there is no financial support’. These performances attempt to normalize the unacceptable, the occupation of land that belongs to the Palestinians. This complicity makes a mockery of Habima’s claim to freedom in its work.

When artists or performers apply for state funding to take part in international events they accept to become part of Israel’s propaganda campaign. They sign a contract which says they are aware that the purpose is to ‘promote the policy interests of the state of Israel via culture and art, including contributing to a positive image for Israel’.
This positive image would no doubt deny the apartheid nature of Israel, its repeated breaches of international law and the Geneva Convention, its destruction of Palestinian homes, its cruel and degrading treatment of Palestinian children arrested for throwing stones… the catalogue of Israeli brutality is a long one.

The Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai, wrote: “I do not believe that a state that maintains an occupation, committing on a daily basis crimes against civilizations, deserves to be invited to any kind of cultural event”.

Shame on the Globe Theatre and shame on its apologists!

Yours, Ken Loach

Unpublished letter to Guardian, from David Calder, actor

Howard Brenton’s letter [Denounce, don’t Censure 4th April ] shows how fraught the question of cultural boycott is amongst artists in all fields. Actors, writers, musicians etc tend to regard their work as reflecting the condition of mankind as we find and experience it. Accordingly, such work gives the impression of transcending national boundaries and being a contribution to a general pool of what might be termed an elevated humanism.

In asking the Globe to reconsider its invitation to Habima, the National Theatre of Israel, none of the signatories is attempting to dictate the content or direction of their work; such a thing would be defined rightly as censorship and as abhorrent to us on this side of the argument as it would be to those on Howard’s side, as he well knows! I know of no actor or artist struggling with the question of boycott who doesn’t feel their responsibilities deeply.

It is Habima’s political stance not its cultural work that is in question. When invited to the Globe they accepted in the name of Israel. They are fully aware that according to international law and the United Nations, Israel is illegally occupying land belonging to the Palestinian people yet they are prepared to perform before segregated audiences in illegal settlements that have a reputation for human rights violations. As a ‘cultural’ organisation Habima’s ‘political’ decisions require challenging or as Howard would have it “denouncing”. However, I’m at a loss to see how this can be when the Globe, in the name of “inclusiveness” is providing the very fig leaf for propaganda that Howard refers to, to conceal the political consequences of Habima legitimising illegal occupation. This it does by performing in settlements to the “exclusion” of Palestinians and their rights.

What I find distressing is the disingenuous comments by Howard of “British actors trying to stop Jewish actors perform on a London stage” I am prepared to give the benefit of the doubt that Jewish in this context means Israeli but Howard knows full well that this is not the prime aim of this call for The globe to reconsider its invite. It is rather to yet again expose Israeli actions carried out with impunity and call for the international community which must include artistes to take action in support of Palestinian human rights. If all appeals and arguments, all appeals to humanity fall on deaf ears and the result is that there is nothing left in the bag other than boycott, so be it. As regards the issue of other companies from countries with challenging histories – good question Howard.

David Calder

From: James Ivens, artistic director, Flood theatre, to David Bellwood, Globe theatre

Dear Mr Bellwood,

Thank you for taking the time to respond to last week’s letter in the Guardian.

I’m afraid, however, that you have answered precisely none of the central points raised in the initial complaint. At the risk of repetition, I have laid out below the key issues that your response raises.

You falsely conflate a nation’s artists en masse with that nation’s state policies in an attempt to suggest that if you boycotted Habima you would have to boycott many other arts organisations as well.

Well, if particular organisations are complicit in humans rights abuses, then yes you should! You wrongly imply that working in an oppressive state the attitudes and practices of all companies in any given region are homogenous.

To suggest that you are operating under ‘another sort of morality’ which sees holding any principles regarding selective collaboration as wrong is a mealy-mouthed cop out which neatly abdicates any responsibility under the banner of inclusiveness’. To reiterate, I and the other signatories actively endorse inclusiveness. Habima does not. Invite a different claim to espouse.

You point out Habima was forced to perform in the halls of culture or risk losing state subsidy. You reprimand us with ‘it is this policy which ought to provoke indignation at the government which enforces it’. Indeed it is! So let us teach the state a lesson. Let us refuse to work with companies the state has paid to operate in this manner. Let us instead invite artists such as those mentioned in our first letter who made a principled stand against this funding regime.

You even accuse us of in some way persecuting those artists in Habima who performed in the halls ‘unwillingly’, who are working in ‘impossible conditions’. Habima is a theatre company, not a chain gang. As you and we have repeatedly noted, many artists simply refused to work on the halls of culture project. You have the opportunity to boost the reputation and funding opportunities of groups which are bravely standing up to their government’s attempts to co-opt the arts as an instrument of aggressive foreign policy. You squander this opportunity.

You trumpet Habima’s decision not to persecute actors who refused to participate in the halls of culture as a ‘policy of dissent’. It is a policy of inaction. That staff engaged on the programme were there voluntarily is, if anything, more damning.

It is hugely disingenuous to bemoan the ‘impossible conditions’ for artists in the region while at once exacerbating them by legitimising organisations boycotted by the very artists seeking to improve these conditions!

I urge you, once more, to change your decision on this matter. Use your considerable power to help free the arts. Do not prop up companies and regimes which seek to fetter them. Do not undermine the artists actively defending the principles you insist are your own.

Yours sincerely, James Ivens

Unpublished letter to Guardian from Farhana Sheikh, writer

Dear Editor,

In his Comment article (10th April) Robert Sharp suggests that the issues surrounding the Habima state theatre company’s visit to Britain from Israel are ‘nuanced and complex’. Better, he says, for individuals to decide whether they want to see the show – ‘The Merchant of Venice’ – than for ‘cabals’ of actors and directors to campaign to stop the visit: it all comes down to personal choice.

But Sharp isn’t taking the full measure of the matter. Earlier this year, Habima performed in the new theatre of Ariel, an Israeli settlement city on the occupied West Bank . More performances will be scheduled. Theatre is one of the ways in which occupation is growing roots: theatres assure permanence and normality. When Habima is invited to an international festival, what was once a matter of controversy is helped to become an everyday, cultural fact.

Ordinary questions of theatre – where to perform? who to invite? – thus become important questions of politics, in which governments have a stake. Netanyahu knows this: that’s why he threatens to cut off funding from Israeli cultural workers who oppose performing in Ariel.

Sharp’s notion that the invitation should stand, and that theatre-goers should react by deciding whether or not to buy a ticket, will simply let these acts of cultural politics take their course, somewhere out of public reach. The occupation will continue, its theatrical dimension further embellished.

Yours sincerely, Farhana Sheikh, Staffordshire

Unpublished letter to  Observer from John Graham Davies, actor and writer

Howard Jacobson’s wordy defence of art for art’s sake (Observer 8/4/12) has historical anticedents. “Art has nothing to do with politics, with political power, with hatred of others, or that which arises from a hatred of others.” Unfortunately, states are always associated with political power and often with hatred, even though the writer of these words, Wilhelm Furtwangler, failed to realise it. Artistic institutions – in Furtwangler’s case the nazified Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra – are frequently employed in the service of the state, as the General Manager of Habima has explicitly recognised when declaring the Globe invitation “an honourable accomplishment for the State of Israel”.

Would Mr Jacobson have denounced the governments of Belgium and the Netherlands for their boycotting of the Berlin Philharmonic, his ‘unaligned humanity’ notwithstanding? The fact is that the Merchant of Venice is not being ‘banned’ by our request to have Habima Theatre Company’s invitation rescinded, nor are Shakespeare’s works being burnt – rather a state institution is being called to account for its complicity in cultural apartheid.

Yours sincerely, John Graham Davies

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