Don’t let the Philistines succeed

"It's fundamentally ignorant to censor and suppress art," James Shapiro, the Shakespeare scholar, told me, referring to the campaign to ban Habima from the Globe. Habima performed last week; the actors withstood disruptions and heckling. It recalled the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's Proms concert, when protesters purporting to defend Palestinian rights interrupted the performance.

There is a serious danger of under-reacting to this. Because the protesters did not succeed in preventing the Israelis from finishing their performances, and publicity for their demonstrations is what they sought, it is tempting to overlook what they were trying to do. But Shapiro is right. Disrupting drama and concerts is aggressive cultural vandalism of a historically stubborn type.

It takes organised form in the campaign for cultural boycotts and is an assault on a free society. Once you assume that it is legitimate to stop actors from declaiming words, or musicians from performing, you can as easily suppress authors by burning their books.

My interview with Shapiro took place in April. Almost as an afterthought, I mentioned the protest by various notable figures, among them Mark Rylance and Caryl Churchill, who maintained that Habima had "a shameful record of involvement with illegal Israeli settlements". Shapiro has taught in Israel, and is familiar with Habima's ability to expose what he terms the "fault-lines in Israeli society". He was incredulous that people who work in British theatre should have sought to silence this.

The boycott targets are among the very best of people

Free speech is tested by its hardest cases. I criticised Labour for blocking the entry of Geert Wilders, the Dutch anti-Muslim demagogue. I've condemned the imprisonment of David Irving and defended Nick Griffin's civil liberties. These are the worst of people, whose freedom of expression should nonetheless be vigorously defended. The consummate irony of the campaign for a cultural boycott of Israel is that its targets are among the very best of people: cultured, learned, liberal intellectuals who exemplify the principle that art transcends nationality and politics. Their sole "offence" is to be Israeli Jews.

The ignorance of the boycott campaign was anticipated a decade ago. Mona Baker, a professor at Manchester, sacked two academics from roles on journals she published. It had nothing to do with professional competence. She explained: "I do not wish to continue an official association with any Israeli under the present circumstances."

Both academics stood on the left of Israeli politics. One, Miriam Shlesinger, had chaired Amnesty International in Israel and been active in an organisation that during the first intifada circumvented Israeli army blockades to deliver supplies to Palestinians. But, to Baker, ethnicity was all. Stephen Greenblatt, another leading Shakespearean scholar, condemned Baker's boycott as "violat[ing] the essential spirit of scholarly freedom and the pursuit of truth".

Ten years on, Israeli cultural figures are being shouted down. And there is a subsidiary irony to the Habima boycott campaign. Rylance is a vocal exponent of the proposition that Shakespeare was not the true author of the works that bear his name. No documentary evidence supports this view. It is a conspiracy theory that violates critical inquiry and bears as much relation to literary scholarship as Holocaust denial does to modern history. Instead of studying the works of Shakespeare, it ransacks them for supposed autobiographical clues.

This is the face of philistinism. In bringing to the Globe their performance, Habima testified to something nobler. Their defence matters for more than Jews alone.

Oliver Kamm is a leader writer for 'The Times'

Oliver Kamm is a leader writer for The Times

Last updated: 1:15pm, June 7 2012