Good and bad in Israel boycott poll

It is hugely reassuring that the people calling for a boycott of Israeli actors, dancers and musicians are not in the majority in this country. Sometimes, in the heat of the debate, it is easy to lose perspective. The voices branding Israel an apartheid state are so shrill and vocal that it is easy to forget that they command only limited support. It has been excruciating to watch the disruption of Jerusalem Quartet performances and the Habima theatre company's production of The Merchant of Venice.

The YouGov poll carried out for the JC shows that most people in this country believe Israeli artists should be welcome to perform here. Younger people and Labour voters are marginally less supportive of Israeli artists playing here, but only just. It is a tribute to British cultural curiosity that the default position is openness.

The picture is different when it comes to British artists playing in Israel: when 27 per cent of people believe we should not send our cultural talent to play in a particular country, this is something that should give cause for concern. However, it is important to bear in mind that 37 per cent also oppose a boycott in this direction.

Here the political divide is more stark. Although the majority of Tory supporters are still opposed to boycott, Labour voters are equally divided and LibDems narrowly in favour.

We should be wary of drawing direct lessons from opinion polls, especially at a time when the Israel-Palestine conflict is low on the news agenda.

However, before we start thinking that the boycott glass is half-full, we should look at the less positive aspects of the poll. It is sobering to know, for example, that 17 per cent of the public believe Israeli artists should not be welcome in this country. For most countries in the world this figure would be zero. Israel is arguably in a unique position in this sense. Artists from authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, for example, would be welcomed as dissidents.

But the real challenge is in the large number of people who simply do not know what to think on this issue. Even more people (36 per cent) don't know what to think about a boycott of Israel by British artists, than people who don't know what to think about letting Israeli artists perform here (30 per cent). If the boycott movement can claim any success, it is that they have made people deeply confused.

It is among this undecided third of the population that the work needs to be done by people who believe in the importance of celebrating Israel in all its cultural diversity. A start could be made by inviting Arab and Jewish artists who already collaborate (I choose the word carefully) to perform their work in the UK. It should also be possible to showcase Israeli political satire and oppositional culture. This poll shows that the debate is there to be won. All it needs now is for a bold director of one of our major arts institutions to put together the programme: I suggest they call it Boycott That!

Last updated: 9:10am, September 28 2012