We need a courtroom drama

By James Inverne, May 17, 2012

The circus is coming to town. And I don't mean circuses the way we know them now. No, I mean the bad old days when circuses included animals and oddly-shaped people and spectators would come to howl with derision and enjoy the torment of both freaks and beasts. That's what is headed to London's South Bank. It's called the Habima Theatre.

After the Israel Philharmonic's visit to the Proms last year we all know what to expect. The strongest possible signal was sent recently when a group of theatre and film folk sent a disgraceful letter to a newspaper calling for Habima, Israel's national theatre, to be disinvited from the international Shakespeare festival currently being presented at Shakespeare's Globe. Another group of artists, among them Arnold Wesker and Simon Callow, quickly responded against this cry for what amounts to censorship and in any case the Globe announced its intention to stand firm. But we know what to expect.

The production of The Merchant Of Venice will begin calmly enough. Then at a point where it will cause most disruption to the show, the offstage drama will begin. Pockets of pro-Palestinian (and often anti-Israel, and one is never sure which comes first) activists will stand up and start yelling slogans in turn until they are dragged out.

Repeat after me. This isn’t only a Jewish problem

It's becoming a routine. One, like pantomime, where any onstage drama will be secondary to the expected audience participation. Only there's nothing remotely entertaining about these interruptions. Look behind you, and chances are you'll see a ranting bully determined to impose his or her notion of what is fit for our stages on the rest of us.

But we have all too often, and all too typically, have been wrong in our response. There's a saying in Israel that doesn't really translate but essentially means that Israelis choose to view everything that goes on in the world only through the prism of what it means for Israel. So as Jews we often tend to view anything that touches upon Judaism or Israel (or both) as exclusively to do with us. That approach is limited and it is foolhardy.

Repeat after me. This is not only a Jewish problem. There are, alas, plenty of instances of cultural events being disrupted around the world. As I have written here before, in France plays have been interrupted by outraged Christian groups who have pelted audience members with eggs. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe's thugs have been known to physically beat up actors mid-performance if they felt the play was sending out the wrong political messages. And there's nothing new in this. It was back in 2004, you'll remember, that hundreds of Sikh protestors physically stormed the Birmingham Repertory Theatre to force the cancellation of a play, Beshti. There are dozens of other cases that could be cited that have nothing to do with Israel.

It is a sad fact that the world in general cares little about Israel's plight or the wider nuances of the conflict with the Palestinians. So engaging with the anti-Israel protestors on this level in the public sphere wins little support. In the middle of a recession, plenty of people don't even care. And as a community we still like to keep our heads down. Why were there no criminal convictions after the IPO concert, nor after any of the similarly-disrupted Jerusalem Quartet concerts? "The laws are perfectly adequate" the learned Jonathan Goldberg QC tells me, "It's just that they aren't being used. After the Prom, the Israel Philharmonic didn't choose to press charges, and the Royal Albert Hall wanted to steer well clear."

We Jews seem afraid to seek the full force of British law, to stride into the glare of the anti-Israel activists' spotlight. But we don't have to. The way to get public support and legal success is to engage with the wider principles. Censorship. Vandalism, or even burglary – I have paid money for a service to be delivered, namely a cultural event, and you are taking that service away from me. Today it is an Israeli theatre event being 'stolen', tomorrow it is a Christian-orientated play in France, and in five years? Everything. It only takes a tiny number of people to be offended, and an event – a work of art - can be ruined.

Laws are there to protect us, our way of life, our culture. But "us" does not only mean Jews. We are among the nations. The nations suffer from same problems we do. So the international bodies – the European Union, for a start – should pass sweeping directives obliging councils and governments to bring charges when arts events are disrupted. That way, it's not a question of which strata of society the politicians dare to offend, or (in our case) the Jews themselves feeling exposed. It's a mandatory European directive, guiding the way our society works, safeguarding our collective cultural values. I call on anyone in the appropriate legal field to petition the EU on this vital issue.

Otherwise, the alternative, potentially for everyone and every arts event? Who's going to Habima next week really expecting to concentrate on the performance of a masterpiece? The circus is coming to town.

Last updated: 9:46am, May 21 2012