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Cultural boycotts and the rise of antisemitism

Friday 15 August 2014, by siawi3


The Guardian, Sunday 10 August 2014 19.55 BST

Photo: Tricycle theatre, Kilburn The Tricycle theatre has come under fire for its stance on israeli embassy funding. Photograph: Ben Rowe/Rex Features

I hope that no reader would disagree with your editorial (9 August) that attacks in western Europe on Jewish schools, shops and synagogues indicate “vile and contemptible racism†which “cannot be excused by reference to Israeli military behaviour†. But there are two issues which the editorial and Hadley Freeman (Please don’t tell me what I should think about Israel, 9 August) both ignore. One is that Palestinian civil society has called for a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel as the best nonviolent way to oppose the occupation; the other is that the Israeli government requires touring arts companies to act as ambassadors for Israel and funds them accordingly.

These are the issues which Tricycle theatre was presumably trying to weigh up when it made its decision about the funding by the Israeli embassy of the Jewish film festival, in the middle of a brutal assault by Israel on Gaza. How you support the call for BDS is not straightforward – refuse to buy any Israeli goods, or just those from the settlements? – but you shouldn’t slate Tricycle for at least trying. The wider context is that Israel practises, and has done since 1948, “vile and contemptible racism†towards the Palestinians – in Israel itself, through the occupation, and in its refusal to recognise justice for the refugees. Israel may be “the Holocaust’s happy ending†, as Hadley says, but it is built on and sustained by terrible injustice. Perhaps the best summary is Edward Said’s, who said that the Palestinians are victims of victims. How to do something to help move towards a just outcome for both Israelis and Palestinians, based on human rights and equality for all, is one of the great issues of our time, and Tricycle in its small and perhaps fumbling way was at least trying to address it. It’s wrong to conflate their decisions with the fire-bombing of synagogues.
Richard Barnes
Windermere, Cumbria

• Excellent article by Dorian Lynskey on the artistic boycott of Israel (7 August). The idea that “art is intrinsically political†and so gives its practitioners the right to preach to others is not one which truly great artists would adopt or lesser folk should take notice of. I happen to think that Israel’s policy has been misguided for a long time and two wrongs do not a right make. But I have to ask when Sinead O’Connor and fellow boycotters are going to express concern about the enormously greater human suffering caused by the Syrian government and Isis, not to mention Islamic extremists in Nigeria and North Africa? Or to condemn the antisemitism reported by Jon Henley and your correspondents the same day (8 August)? It may make them feel good, but the treason of the would-be thinking classes is all too alive and ill. Might they start the day by reading the Hamas charter and deciding if it merits a boycott, too.
Jonathan Fenby

• It is sad to see someone normally as astute as Hadley Freeman criticise those of us who have called for a boycott of Israeli theatre groups and cultural activities in protest at the horrific violence being inflicted on the people of Gaza by the Israeli government and army (2,000 dead, more than 10,000 injured at the last count – a figure nowhere mentioned in Hadley’s piece). It is even sadder to see her repeat the old slander that such calls in response to the barbarous action of the Israeli government somehow involve being soft on, or even encouraging, antisemitism (“Watch yourself Europe, some of your roots are showing†).

As she must be aware, the Israeli government, like the South African apartheid government before it, is only too willing to use the cover of cultural activities to try to legitimise and normalise its brutal oppression of another people. Far from being a knee-jerk reaction, the recent call for a boycott of the theatre group Incubator at the Edinburgh Festival by a large group of people including national poet Liz Lochead, the writer Alasdair Gray and the group Scottish Jews for a Just Peace was a carefully considered and proportionate response to a group which is funded by the Israeli state. No one is telling Hadley what to think. The fact, however, that so many Jews around the world (including a small number of very courageous Israelis) have been prepared to stand up and say “not in my name†strengthens, not weakens, opposition to rising antisemitism across Europe.
Professor Iain Ferguson

• Heartfelt thanks to the Guardian for bringing sanity into this increasingly frightening situation for all Jews throughout Europe. With this kind of support from the British media we can perhaps hope that the madness of previous centuries will not be allowed to rise again and our growing fears for our children and grandchildren might prove unfounded. Racism in any form and by any name is unacceptable and cannot be explained away or disguised by the leftwing “intelligentsia†any more than by the rightwing neo-Nazis. As you rightly point out, this has nothing to do with politics, and one’s opinion on the Middle East is a totally separate issue. Having read your editorial today I can feel happy once again that my grandparents chose this country for refuge from persecution in eastern Europea hundred years ago and am reassured that here reason and tolerance will again prevail.
Helen Mordsley

• As members of Independent Jewish Voices, we support the Tricycle theatre’s decision not to accept Israeli embassy funding for the Jewish film festival and we reject accusations that this decision is in any way antisemitic. The Tricycle is taking a principled stand regarding a bloody conflict, for which they should be applauded. In addition, by offering to make up the shortfall of monies that would have come from the Israeli embassy, the Tricycle has demonstrated its continued support for the festival, which it has hosted in Kilburn for the past eight years.
Merav Pinchassoff, Prof Adam Fagan, Dr Nadia Valman, Prof Jacqueline Rose, Lady Ellen Dahrendorf, Emma Clyne, Dr Anthony Isaacs and Ann Jungman
Independent Jewish Voices steering group

• Whatever the facts about the rise in antisemitism in Europe – and it is clearly taking place – there are two points that must be made about Jon Henley’s article. First, in his eagerness to list as many incidents as possible, he conflates antisemitism with anti-Israel protests, by including the burning of an Israeli flag and hostility to an Israeli football team, which are not, by definition, antisemitic. Second, in talking about anti-Jewish protests, he fails to mention the fact that in recent years Israel has vigorously promoted itself as “the Jewish state†, even insisting that the Palestinians recognise it as such, although its population is 20% Palestinian Arab. Israel and Jews can hardly complain that the actions of the self-identified Jewish state are sometimes criticised as Jewish actions.
Karl Sabbagh
Author, Palestine: A Personal History