The biggest news story of the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe was the successful boycott of two state-funded Israeli productions.
All performances of The City, by Incubator Theatre of Jerusalem, and La Karina, by Pola Dance (the official dance company of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev), were cancelled following a pro-boycott open letter and a protest outside the opening performance of Incubator’s show.
The open letter, which was published in the Herald newspaper, called upon producers Underbelly to withdraw their invitation to Incubator in solidarity with the Palestinian people. The letter was signed by dozens of prominent artists in Scotland and the wider UK, and by an array of pro-Palestine groups, including Scottish Jews for a Just Peace. Signatories included Scotland’s Makar (national poet) Liz Lochhead, author and painter Alasdair Gray, poet Tom Leonard, and dramatists David Greig, Cora Bissett and Tim Crouch.
In a statement explaining her decision to sign, Lochhead wrote, “This is part of a necessary process — this boycotting — if a painful one for all liberals — because we, the international community, must protest by any means possible Israel’s current actions in Gaza, and indeed its ongoing illegal treatment of all Palestinians.”
More than 100 people joined the protest outside Incubator’s first performance on 30 July. Later that day Underbelly announced that all future performances had been cancelled due to “the effect of the disturbance on Underbelly”. The cancellation of Pola Dance’s show was announced soon after.
The backlash from the Israeli companies and other pro-Zionist groups was predictable. The Ben-Gurion University, for example, condemned the boycott as an attack on “artistic freedom of expression”.
Sadly, despite its expressions of sympathy with the people of Gaza, the Scottish National Party government in Edinburgh lent its support to the Israeli companies. Scotland’s culture minister, Fiona Hyslop, said she was against the boycott on grounds of “freedom of expression”.
This position was undermined a little over a week later when the government announced that it was boycotting productions organised through the UK-Russia Year of Culture in protest at the Putin government’s policy in eastern Ukraine.
The libertarian opposition to the cultural boycott fails to understand the way in which the Israeli state deliberately uses the artists it funds to attempt to “normalise” its image internationally. A standard Israeli Foreign Ministry contract for artists it funds to travel abroad says everything you need to know about the role of state-sponsored artists in Israeli foreign policy:
“The service provider [ie the artist] is aware that the purpose of ordering services from him is to promote the policy interests of the State of Israel via culture and art, including contributing to creating a positive image for Israel… The service provider will not present himself as an agent, emissary and/or representative of the Ministry.”
To place the supposed “rights” of artists who are funded on such a basis above the call from the vast majority of Palestinian civic organisations for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel is absolutely wrong.
Bishop Desmond Tutu is right when he says that academic and cultural organisations which are funded by the Israeli state are “an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice”.
The importance of the BDS movement is clear from the statements of pro-Zionist organisations themselves. The American Associates of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev correctly sees the Edinburgh boycott in a broader, international context.
It laments that the successful boycott of Pola Dance is “the latest in a growing worldwide movement, particularly strong in Great Britain and Europe, to isolate and punish Israel”.
Socialists must place ourselves at the heart of that “worldwide movement”. Successful campaigns, such as the Edinburgh boycott, send a clear message that, like apartheid South Africa before it, Israel cannot oppress and murder the Palestinian people without facing the opposition of ordinary citizens around the world.