Philistinism in the UK: Artists Banning Artists


[This is Part II of a two-part series. The Clyde Fitch Report published Part I last week.]

On January 6th, Shakespeare’s Globe responded to Boycott From Within’s demand that they rescind Habima’s invitation to perform at the Globe to Globe Festival on its Facebook page:

Story continues below.

[…W]e deliberated long and hard about the issue of inclusion and exclusion of companies-programming such a comprehensive festival requires a huge amount of such consideration, in order to ensure that it is truly an international event. We came to the conclusion that active exclusion was a profoundly problematic stance to take-because the question of which nations deserve inclusion or exclusion is necessarily subjective. Where does one start in such an endeavour? Clearly for you with Israel, but for many others, it would be with a host of different states. And more pertinently, where does one stop?

Protest in theatre
Banner unfurled during Habima’s performance:
“Israeli Apartheid Leave the Stage.”
Photo by Richard Millet, used with his permission

Rather, we wished to celebrate the huge variety of languages and cultures which have encountered, learnt from and extended the reach of Shakespeare’s work, and as such we were determined to reflect as wide and as comprehensive a variety of languages as possible. In creating our programme, we have tried our best to balance that universality with the infinite variety shown in Shakespeare’s works. Our commitment to universality is reflected in the fact that the Ashtar Theatre from Ramallah, who have done more than any other theatre group to highlight the nature of life in the Gaza Strip with their Gaza Monologues, are performing Shakespeare’s Richard II at Globe to Globe.

[…]Habima are the most well-known and respected Hebrew-language theatre company in the world, and are a natural choice to any programmer wishing to host a dramatic production in Hebrew. They are committed, publicly, to providing an ongoing arena for sensible dialogue between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.

[…I]t remains our contention, and we think a suitable one for a Shakespearean theatre, that people meeting and talking and exchanging views is preferable to isolation and silence. For that reason, and for the others above, we remain convinced that it is right to work with all the companies we have chosen for the Globe to Globe Festival.

Outside of a letter from the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine dated January 9, 2012, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement became silent on the issue of Habima’s performance. This changed on Thursday, March 29, 2012, when The Guardian published an open letter signed by 37 British theatre and film artists reiterating the position taken by Boycott from Within:

We notice with dismay and regret that Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London has invited Israel’s National Theatre, Habima, to perform The Merchant of Venice in its Globe to Globe festival this coming May. The general manager of Habima has declared the invitation “an honourable accomplishment for the State of Israel”. But Habima has a shameful record of involvement with illegal Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory. Last year, two large Israeli settlements established “halls of culture” and asked Israeli theatre groups to perform there. A number of Israeli theatre professionals-actors, stage directors, playwrights-declared they would not take part.

Habima, however, accepted the invitation with alacrity, and promised the Israeli minister of culture that it would “deal with any problems hindering such performances”. By inviting Habima, Shakespeare’s Globe is undermining the conscientious Israeli actors and playwrights who have refused to break international law.

The Globe says it wants to “include” the Hebrew language in its festival-we have no problem with that. “Inclusiveness” is a core value of arts policy in Britain, and we support it. But by inviting Habima, the Globe is associating itself with policies of exclusion practised by the Israeli state and endorsed by its national theatre company. We ask the Globe to withdraw the invitation so that the festival is not complicit with human rights violations and the illegal colonisation of occupied land.

Given the Globe’s steadfastness that that it would not bow to any cultural boycott, the March 29th letter was doomed to have little effect; only gaining headlines due to the celebrity status of many of the signatories: film star Emma Thompson’s name appeared in much of the subsequent news coverage, as did that of Mark Rylance, who was former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe. It was little surprise to see the name of playwright Caryl Churchill, whose Seven Jewish Children has been widely criticized as anti-Semitic by such figures as Booker Award winning novelist, Howard Jacobson, attorney and literary scholar Anthony Julius and others due to its invocation of the blood libel, gross distortion of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and crude ethnic stereotypes of Jews. (Notably, The Guardian, which makes Seven Jewish Children available on its website has published numerous apologiae effectively making the paper the play’s corporate sponsor.)

With the March 29th letter, the story had gone from activists attempting to silence artists not because of the content of the work but for their identity, to that of artists attempting to silence other artists due to their identity: a particularly dangerous position for artists to take. Once an artist advocates the boycotting of another artist’s work because of their nation of origin or for taking a gig in a specific theatre, they have both given sanction to hooliganism seen on May 28th and 29th and sanction similar retaliation towards their own work. I do not subscribe to that view of the arts: despite my feeling that Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children is a piece of crude anti-Semitic agitprop, I was a well-behaved when attending productions of Fen and A Number this past season.

Ilan Ronen, Habima’s artistic director responded first in an interview with Haaretz dated April 1st:

The attempt to portray Habima as a mouthpiece of this or that policy wrongs the creators, the actors, and anyone who is a part of our endeavor.

Performing in all of Israel is not the initiative of Habima, as the letter presents, by is a result of state law, to which all public cultural institutes are subject.

And then in an April 7th interview with The Guardian:

It’s a disgrace. We don’t see ourselves as collaborators with the Israeli government over its West Bank policy. We don’t remember artists boycotting other artists.

[…]It is important to emphasise, we express our political views in many of our projects. But like other theatre companies and dance companies in Israel, we are state-financed, and financially supported to perform all over the country. This is the law. We have no choice. We have to go, otherwise there is no financial support.

[…]Artists should create bridges where there is conflict; the issue of Israel and the Palestinians is an area in which European dialogue can be very helpful in creating a better atmosphere. To boycott us prevents any artistic dialogue.

Palestine protest 2
Has anyone suggested that Palestinians lack ‘organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions’? Should actors not work when politicians cannot create lasting peace?
Photo by Peter Kirwan, used with his permission

Habima falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture and Sport which can mandate that Habima perform anywhere under Israeli jurisdiction much as the Israel Postal Company is mandated to deliver the mail. Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat is a Likud member sympathetic to the Israeli settler movement and generally considered to be a hardliner. Since her post in the Netanyahu cabinet is fairly minor, there is little she can do for her political constituency but mandate that companies that receive state funding perform in West Bank settlements. Indeed Habima might not have received such a directive were the Ministry controlled by a more left-leaning or centrist party or even a more moderate Likud member. However, Ronen, in The Guardian interview, stated that Habima-affiliated artists with moral or political objections to performing in the settlements were able to opt-out without fear of retribution. Israeli actors, of course, are like actors in other countries: they may have political opinions but they perform no matter who is in the audience.

Story continues below.

A cursory investigation of the English language version of the Habima website reveals that the company not only employs and trains both Jewish and Arab artists, but also performs to both Jewish and Arab audiences, their mandate to perform “in all of Israel” includes not just two performances in Ariel but regular performances at the Arab-Israeli Theater in Jaffa.

Coda: Your If Is Your Only Peacemaker

Not all British artists supported the call to boycott Habima: Howard Jacobson stated that with the March 29th “letter to The Guardian, McCarthyism came to Britain” while playwright Sir Arnold Wesker likened the boycott to “Nazis burning the books of the finest minds of Europe” and actor Simon Callow suggested “let us see what Habima has to tell us about human life, before we try to silence them.”

Story continues below.

Despite both the Globe’s and Habima’s statements suggesting that theatre has the potential to further Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, Habima’s Palestinian counterpart, Ashtar Theatre, took the opposite position. At a panel discussion following Ashtar’s performance of Richard II, actor Nicola Zreineh (Bolingbroke) was quoted by the May 10th Jewish Chronicle as saying:

Artistic creation and drama is wholly universal, and it is a human right to create and perform

Yet only a few minutes later he added:

Story continues below.

It’s not about Habima, it’s about any Israeli organisation, governmental or non governmental, because for us we call for boycotting Israel. That’s it […] As long as there is no justice in our area, we call for boycotting Israel as a state. […]For us it’s not about Habima or not Habima, it’s about an Israeli existence in our land, in our area.

While Ashtar’s artistic director Iman Aoun, added:

We support the BDS and the cultural boycott of Israel […] We have also written to the Globe asking them to disinvite Habima because we were shocked to know that Habima was on board and that they have performed in the settlements.

Indeed, this unwillingness to countenance Habima’s exercise of a universal human right to perform is chilling when one considers that in the previous year, Juliano Mer-Khamis, artistic director of the Freedom Theatre in the West Bank city of Jenin was assassinated outside the theatre he founded. Mer-Khamis was of mixed Jewish and Christian-Arab parentage, identified himself as “100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish” and saw theatre as an avenue for cultural dialogue and non-violent social change.

Zionist Federation counter-protest: “Culture Unites; Boycotts Divide.”
Photo by Richard Millet, used with his permission

Other than Giliad Atzmon, an Israeli-expatriate musician turned anti-Israeli propagandist, few if any of the British supporters of the boycott or disruptions of Habima’s performance declared any public support for Ashtar Theatre or even acknowledged their presence at the festival, which underlines that the BDS movement often seems more concerned with being anti-Israel than being pro-Palestinian.

It is an unfortunate coincidence in the politically-incorrect history of language that “philistinism” like “Palestine” is derived from the Philistines of ancient Canaan. The word denotes a narrow-minded denigration of art and culture, but the label is fairly applied both to Ashtar Theatre, and the signatories of the March 29th letter in The Guardian: in the attempt to silence Habima, they gave tacit approval to the mob behavior seen on May 28th and 29th and indeed tacit approval for any mob action against any artist. This philistinism towards artists based entirely on their nationality and native language and not on the content or quality of their work is also part of an attitude of contempt for the peace process, the dialogue needed to further peace, and the provisional agreements currently in place that allow both parties some breathing room even as the goal of a lasting peace seems infinitely deferred. This philistinism reflects upon a totalitarian mindset that is antithetical to free expression, compromise, and pluralism that form the ethos of a democratic society.

Story continues below.

So to the 37 British artists who wished to see Habima boycotted and otherwise encouraged the disruption of a theatrical performance: David Aukin, Poppy Burton-Morgan, Leo Butler, Niall Buggy, David Calder, Jonathan Chadwick, Caryl Churchill, Michael Darlow, John Graham Davies, Trevor Griffiths, Anne Firbank, Paul Freeman, Matyelok Gibbs, Tony Graham, Janet Henfry, James Ivens, Andrew Jarvis, Neville Jason, Ursula Jones, Adah Kay, Mike Leigh, Sonja Linden, Roger Lloyd Pack, Cherie Lunghl, Miriam Margolyes, Kika Markham, Jonathan Miller, Frances Rifkin, Mark Rylance, Alexei Sayle, Farhana Sheikh, Emma Thompson, Andy de la Tour, Harriet Walter, Hilary Westlake, Richard Wilson, and Susan Wooldrige, I offer a passage from another Shakespearean comedy:

Story continues below.

[…]I knew when seven
justices could not take up a quarrel, but when the
parties were met themselves, one of them thought but
of an If, as, ‘If you said so then I said so;’ and
they shook hands and swore brothers. Your If is the
only peacemaker; much virtue in If.

Touchstone, As You Like It, Act V, Scene 4

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