Philistinism in the UK: Hooligans Amongst the Groundlings

[This is Part I of a two-part series. Part II is available here.]

On May 28th and 29th, Habima, the national theatre of Israel performed a Hebrew translation of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, England. It was part of the Globe’s “Globe to Globe Festival” in which all 37 of Shakespeare’s canonical plays were scheduled to appear in 37 different languages by 37 theatre companies from all corners of the world.

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Pantalone

Anti-Semitic caricature or merely a clever statement regarding Shakespeare’s indebtedness to the commedia dell’arte? Is old Pantalone actually familiar with conditions in Apartheid era South Africa?
Photo by Richard Millet, used with his permission

On September 1st, 2011, protesters affiliated with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign had repeatedly disrupted the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, forcing BBC 3 to abandon its scheduled live broadcast of the concert. The PSC demonstrators were even accompanied by a chorus who sang anti-Israeli verses to the tune of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Due to this precedent and a call from Boycott Divestment Sanctions affiliated website to bar Habima from performing in the UK, security was ramped up. Police presence was added outside the Globe both to segregate demonstrators and counter-demonstrators and to conduct bag inspections. Meanwhile, inside the Globe security was increased to clamp down on the expected disruptions. Outside the theatre, one anti-Israel protestor was photographed wearing what any commedia dell’arte enthusiast might see as a Pantalone mask but to most would be seen as the stereotype of the grotesquely long-nosed Jew; somehow it seems unlikely that he was making commentary on Shakespeare’s indebtedness to the Italian comedy.

Though the most vocal protestors were kept out, Habima’s performances were repeatedly disrupted by anti-Israeli activists, who were photographed waving Palestinian flags, and unfurling banners with anti-Israeli slogans, only to be escorted out by security. Reports describe a group standing silently with their mouths covered by either tape or adhesive bandages apparently in protest of the “censorship” of the more disruptive activists. Several sources that during the trial scene in Act IV, a protester shouted “hath not a Palestinian eyes?” echoing signs seen outside the theatre as well as demonstrating a lack of knowledge of the original text (Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes…” speech is from Act III, Scene 3.)

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The idea that activists might use demonstrations, guerilla intervention, or boycotts to either shut down the dissemination of ideas they disagree with is not so unusual: politicians, speakers, authors, and academics are sometimes heckled, glitter-bombed, or “mic-checked”; sponsors are often lobbied to pull advertising from programs that feature pundits who are seen as having crossed a line of decency. Sometimes the distinction between grassroots democratic action and populist authoritarianism is sharp, sometimes blurry; the beholder’s vision varies. In American politics, we’ve seen the Occupy Wall Street movement interrupt both President Obama and Mitt Romney, while only a few years prior, the Tea Party Movement had adopted the strategy of disrupting town hall meetings.

Entry Gates

Due to threats of disruption, security measures at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre included bag inspections and metal detectors.
Photo by Peter Kirwan, used with his permission

The situation is more complex and potentially more nefarious when it’s not a political opinion or policy being protested but a work of art. While some works of art are unambiguously propagandistic and didactic: Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will, Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children, and nearly the entire corpus of Peter Schumann’s Bread & Puppet Theatre, a play by Shakespeare, even the controversial Merchant of Venice, contains too much counter-point and ambiguity that it is hard to dismiss it as purely propagandistic. Indeed, in our liberal milieu there are those who condemn the play as anti-Semitic for demonizing Shylock the Jewish money-lender, and there are those who praise the play for being anti-anti-Semitic for humanizing Shylock the Jewish money-lender-indeed the play has historically been performed in both ways. (I take the position that the play’s humanistic tendencies are ultimately trumped by the anti-Judaic theology and anti-Semitic folklore that inform the story.)

As a playwright, I had the experience of having my work picketed. At a staged reading of my play Total War, a lone demonstrator, equipped with signs proclaiming support both for Hamas and the destruction of Israel. (Ironically, while Jewish, I’m neither Israeli, nor had I written about Israel.) The demonstrator berated myself, the actors, and arriving audience members with anti-Semitic slogans like “Jewish murderers” from the sidewalk. Still, when I invited the demonstrator inside to attend the reading, he refused, understanding that accepting my invitation would obligate him to shut up and listen for a couple of hours. The anti-Israel protesters in the U.K. clearly lack that understanding.

Though most reviews praised the Habima production, The Guardian‘s reviewer Lyn Gardner echoed the tropes used by the demonstrators when she opened her review:

The final image of this production by Israeli company Habima is a stark one. Small and crushed, as if weighed down by history itself, Jacob Cohen’s broken Shylock-a man who has lost daughter, fortune and home-is seen, suitcase in hand, walking away from Venice, an eternal wandering Jew. But it was impossible not to think of other displaced people, too, most particularly the Palestinians.

Leaving aside that Shakespeare’s theatrical Venice and the historical Venice of Shakespeare’s era was one in which Jews were merely resident aliens restricted to the Ghetto and not truly of the city, it says much about the influence of anti-Israeli rhetoric that Gardner gave no thought to the displaced of Jews of 13th century England, 15th century Spain or 20th century Europe, let alone the 900,000 Jews ethnically cleansed from Arab lands after Israel’s founding. She also gave little thought to the displacement of Tibetans (The National Theatre of China performed Richard III), or to the ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks and Kosovar Albanians (Serbia’s National Theatre in Belgrade performed Henry VI Part 1) or to the genocide of Armenians or displacement of the Kurds (there was a Turkish production of Antony and Cleopatra.) I came across no reference to calls to boycott or disrupt these or other non-Israeli theatre companies.

The single-minded hostility towards Israeli artists certainly opens the demonstrators up to charges of, if not anti-Semitic thuggery, then of mono-maniacal hypocrisy and quietude regarding some of the world’s worst human rights abusers.

When the demonstrators disrupted Habima’s performance at Shakespeare’s Globe, it was not an attempt to counter the content of the play but to protest the identities of the performers. The build-up to last month’s disturbances began with an undated open letter addressed to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre posted to the website boycottisrael.info. The website represents an organization called “Boycott From Within,” claiming to represent Israeli citizens who support Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. The movement was initiated by a coalition of Palestinian NGOs in early 2005, several months after then Prime-Minister Ariel Sharon announced plans for a unilateral withdraw of Israeli settlements in Gaza. In August 2005, Israel removed the Gaza settlements quite without any help from the BDS movement. Indeed, it becomes hard to identify any concrete accomplishment of the BDS movement beyond providing a rallying cry for anti-Israel activists in the west; they certainly have not advanced the goal of a two-state solution, nor can they claim responsibility for any of the small victories of recent years, like improving economic conditions in the Palestinian territories, Israel’s dismantling of checkpoints within the West Bank or the Palestinian Authority’s own crackdown on militant groups in areas which it controls.

Palestine protest

Making allusions to Macbeth while protesting The Merchant of Venice: Missing the point that Macbeth is hallucinating the dagger and Lady Macbeth has gone quite mad
Photo by Peter Kirwan, used with his permission

Boycott From Within’s open letter was a demand that Shakespeare’s Globe rescind their invitation to Habima, citing performances at two West Bank settlements as objectionable (Note that in contradiction to Boycott From Within, most sources, including Habima’s artistic director, Ilan Ronen state that Habima performed at Ariel but not Kiryat Arba):

Ariel and Kiryat Arba, like most settlements, are surrounded by walls and fences, closely guarded by soldiers and their own armed security personnel. A theatrical performance in a settlement is by definition a performance to an exclusively Israeli audience, with Palestinians living even in the nearest village being physically excluded from any chance of attending.

[…]on this issue the management of Habima has taken a position which is remote from any kind of social engagement. Claiming to be “non-political”, the management has reiterated its decision to perform in West Bank settlements, “like everywhere else”. Moreover, the management specifically promised Limor Livnat, Minister of Culture in the Netanyahu Government, to “deal with any problems hindering such performances”, i.e. to pressure recalcitrant actors into taking part in them, even against the dictates of their conscience. And it must be pointed out that for several months, Habima has indeed sent out its actors to hold theatrical performances in West Bank settlements, on a regular basis.

While Ariel and Kiryat Arba are indeed controversial, and any construction within those settlements is seen as provocative, they are not, strictly speaking, illegal. While there are illegal settlements such as Migron (which the Israeli Supreme Court recently ordered the Israeli government to evacuate), under the 1993 Oslo Accords, the status of settlements like Ariel and Kiryat Arba are pending final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. They might end up as part of a land-swap between the two states, they might be evacuated, or they might become an example of Jewish residents living within a Palestinian state much as Arab citizens live in Israel (though that possibility is less likely, given recent statements by Mahmoud Abbas and his government). So whether or not the settlements’ establishment was legal, the Oslo Accords essentially table it as a legal issue, turning it into a political issue. Indeed, despite the widespread claim that the establishment of the settlements in the West Bank is illegal, many legal scholars interpret the often cited Fourth Geneva Convention as referring to forcible mass deportations, especially in the context of slave labor camps and concentration camps and thus does not apply to the settlements.

The issue regarding the security measures around Ariel and Kiryat Arba are troubling but easily explicable: they exist under a different jurisdiction than the surrounding areas; the authorities on each side of the fence having not finalized a peace treaty. Despite efforts by the Palestinian Authority to crack down on militant groups operating in its own jurisdiction, recent examples such as the Itamar attack of March 11, 2011 in which five members of the Fogel family were murdered in their beds by terrorists, or an August 31, 2010 killing of four settlers in a drive-by shooting outside of Kiryat Arba make these security measures understandable, even if they result in audiences not being drawn from geographically adjacent areas. Simultaneously, the Oslo Accords, Israeli citizens are essentially required to stay on their side of the fence as well. This separation is one that has been agreed upon by the governments representing the two peoples with the aim of preventing violence: whether these governments’ leaders proceed wisely and courageously or foolishly and fearfully, the status of these settlements was determined to be a political, not legal matter 19 years ago and attacking the legality of these settlements is to also attack the framework of the Oslo Accords and even the possibility of negotiation.

Indeed, the fact that these performances, however controversial, also appear to be legally protected behaviors under Accords signed by both Israeli and Palestinian leaders makes the boycott call and subsequent disruptions reek of a totalitarian group-think.

[This is Part I of a two-part series. Part II is available here.]

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  • Ian, I realize you and I will never see eye-to-eye on Israel; I don’t see concerted political pressure on the West Bank settlements, or on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in general, as inherently anti-Semitic, and I think at bottom you do. Perhaps if I was Jewish I would agree with you – and I admit of course that actual anti-Semites can, and do, operate under the cover of legitimate protest of Israeli policy. So the situation is very fraught and complex, and almost every action in this arena casts a complicated moral shadow.

    Still, I think your piece would be stronger if you could consider, or even mention, at least two points that come to mind in regards to this whole imbroglio. The first is that (legitimate) political pressure like this is often brought to bear more on democracies than autocracies (which tend to shrug off charges in the court of public opinion). Thus Israel may be being targeted not (or not only) because of an anti-Semitic agenda, but also because to its great credit, the country has a civil discourse in which protest can have an impact.

    The second point goes right to the heart of the “nexus of art and politics” that the new Clyde Fitch Report targets – and that is the deep political irony of a Jewish state staging one of the reifying documents of Jewish oppression at a political moment in which it itself is accused of oppressing a minority (well, actually a majority) of the residents under its control. In short, has “The Merchant of Venice” now been effectively converted by Habima into a new validation of oppression, this time by the Jews themselves? i find it troubling that you would elide this issue – particularly given your obvious hostility to Caryl Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children,” which makes a similarly ironic point, i.e. that consciousness of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in turn serves as unspoken justification for the oppression of the Palestinians.

    I don’t think a technical discussion of this or that territory, or this or that application of the Oslo Accords, can really answer this question. But I’d like to hear you give it a shot. Thanks, Tom

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  • Tom,

    While we don’t see eye-to-eye on aspects on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict– your past writings have made it clear to me that you have always attempted to be fair (in fact, your series on My Name Is Rachel Corrie is still the most nuanced analysis of that play and the surrounding controversies– secondly you’ve made it clear that you support Israel’s right to exist as Jewish homeland– which despite any ambivalence, puts you on the zionist side of the equation. Despite the fact that sometimes our rhetoric has become overly-heated, I never doubted your interest in fair and honest debate on serious issues.

    I have not seen Habima’s production of The Merchant of Venice and so I have no opinion on their interpretation. I was focused on the fact that the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement is not only actively trying to shut down artists because of their nation of origin, but they are doing so with the blessing of prominent British artists. Quite simply, as an artist, I find cultural boycotts of entire nations to be obscene; despite my sympathies with the Kosovar Albanians during the Kosovo war, I would never think of boycotting Biljana Srbljanovic’s Family Stories: Belgrade— just as those who disagree with certain policies of the Israeli government should not be boycotting plays by Israeli playwrights like Motti Lerner.

    Perhaps I have not been so explicit, since most of what I have written about Israel and Palestine has been through the lens of theatre, but I happen to support the long term goal of Palestinian statehood. However, the more I have tried to become educated about the conflict, the more convinced I am that the obstacles towards Palestinian statehood and peace with Israel are due to decisions made by the Palestinians’ own leaders and those who claim to be their allies; Most notably, the Arab refusal to accept a sovereign Jewish state as a neighbor. As much as I question the wisdom of settlement expansion; blaming the existence of Israeli settlements for a stalled peace process when Israel’s 2005 dismantling of the Gaza settlements was met with years of rocket attacks on southern Israel, or Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to negotiate while a settlement building freeze was in place offends my intelligence; To call Israel the “oppressor,” when Hamas has murdered thousands of Palestinians, or when Israel has been closing West Bank checkpoints and gradually relinquishing control of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority more so. In short, if Palestinians are suffering oppression, it is largely at the hands of their own leaders-leaders who do not respect the dignity of the people they claim to lead and leaders who rather lose a war than win a peace.

    My “hostility” towards Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children” is because it tells lies about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because it infantilizes the Palestinians in its presentation of them as lacking in agency, because by never dealing with causes of the conflict and never addressing the realities of the conflict, it treats the conflict some post-Holocaust neurosis shared by the entire Jewish people. It’s the work of an upper class white English woman writing about a people whose history she has not made the most remote effort to understand-and isn’t that the essence of colonialist and racist literature? It neither asks hard questions, present inconvenient truths; it is merely an affirmation of the author’s deeply held prejudices and those of her audience.

    You and I agree that genuine anti-Semites attempt to mask their bigotry under the banner of “criticism of Israel.” We also both agree that no society and no government is above criticism and that criticism is an essential part of a democratic ethos. Where we disagree is just how much “criticism of Israel” is anti-Semitic (or more often, crypto-anti-Semitic.) First and foremost is the double standard by which many anti-Israeli activists in the West hold Israel to: judging it harshly for things that any western democracy would do under similar situations: however much we might believe that the George W. Bush administration botched its war against al-Qaeda, any administration that failed to respond to the September 11th attacks would be seen as having lost its legitimacy on national security; similarly speaking Israel must act when rockets are being fired upon its cities or suicide bombers are blowing themselves up at border crossings and in city centers.

    Secondly, and perhaps more insidiously, is the Orwellian Newspeak used by anti-Israel activists: Settlements like Ariel are declared “illegal” despite their provisional status under the Oslo Accords; Israel is declared an “Apartheid State” when in fact non-Jewish citizens of Israel can vote, attend the top universities in the country, and serve in all branches of government, including elected office– things that Apartheid regime never accorded black South-Africans. Israel’s responses to attacks on its citizenry are labeled “disproportionate” as if Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s use of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians as human shields, or the poor aim of rockets launched from Gaza or Southern Lebanon speak to Israeli vices and Arab virtue. And when this rhetoric is combined with pseudo-history and double-standards– we have a noxious mix that is most certainly anti-Semitic and at the same time, works against Palestinian national aspirations.

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