A standing ovation is still a hollow victory for Israel

By Jennifer Lipman, September 13, 2012

"One could argue that their inclusion was asking for trouble," ran the one-star review in the Edinburgh Guide. "This performance never had a hope of running smoothly." Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the talent, is it? Other critics gave Hora, by Israel's Batsheva Dance Company, the coveted five stars, but almost everywhere the story was not about world-class Israeli artists performing at the Edinburgh International Festival, but about those who thought they shouldn't have been able to.

Batsheva's EIF show last week - greeted by hoards of anti-Israel activists who took pleasure in burning tickets as audience-members made their way into the venue and then pride in interrupting the display with catcalls about Palestinian blood - came a year to the day after the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's appearance at the Proms. Last summer musicians were the target, as the BBC was forced to suspend coverage for the first time ever because of the disruptions. This summer it was dancers, and let's not forget Habima, attacked for speaking Hebrew on stage in perhaps theatre's most famous musing on antisemitism. Or the campaigns that attack artists from Madonna to the Red Hot Chili Peppers for having the temerity to sing to Israeli fans.

From one Rosh Hashanah to the next, and the same sorry cycle of attack and response. An invitation, then a petition or a letter to a newspaper. The internet abuzz with the musing of armchair pundits. The same justifications about free speech, the same jibes wheeled out by those who want us to say no to brand Israel, because when an artist is Israeli, their art is always, necessarily propaganda. The protesters, disseminating leaflets about Israeli apartheid, buying tickets purely to wreak havoc inside, or secreting banners in their clothing to bypass security guards who should have no place at a theatre. The counter-demonstrators, wrapped in Israeli flags at events they would likely have entirely overlooked were it not for the threat from the cultural boycotters.

Who wins, when the curtain falls and the stage lights are dimmed? The aim of the boycott campaign is, so far as I can tell, twofold; highlight Israel's supposed wickedness toward the Palestinian people and single the state out for the world's opprobrium. What it is not about, however, is changing the future.

Take the letter sent to Jonathan Mills, the man responsible for asking Batsheva to Edinburgh. "There should be no normalisation… with states that practice apartheid," the authors exclaim, setting out their hardened opposition to the idea "that culture inhabits a world disconnected from politics". Nowhere in the more than 700-word missive is any route for a peace process offered; the writers state the grievances of the Palestinians but offer no indication as to why checkpoints and curfews are commonplace. Nowhere do they acknowledge that Israel is not homogenous - indeed, Batsheva choreographer Ohad Naharin is an outspoken critic of his government - or that historically, artists have been among the first to counter hostile politics.

Who wins, when the stage lights are dimmed?

No, the writers simply note: "Without question, Batsheva meets the criteria set by Pacbi (the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) for boycott action." In other words, they are Israeli and therefore there is no room for manoeuvre.

Who wins? A standing ovation hardly changes Israel's reputation internationally, nor brings two states any closer. Perhaps under the surface, the boycotts are about the activists who have found a cause and want to shout it to the world, no matter how undignified the method, and not about bettering the lives of the Palestinians, for whom surely the ultimate dream is a world where all Israelis and all Palestinians can perform anywhere from Edinburgh to Tehran.

The cultural boycott is a statement, not a strategy to forge peace. It's having a tantrum, but never saying what can be done to make it better. And nobody wins, not really. How many passers-by are converted by a crowd of screaming protesters, how many bother to read the leaflet stuffed into their hand? For the majority, a rally outside a theatre is just an inconvenience to walk past. And if the protesters succeed, and Israeli artists decide it's not worth the bother? How many British theatre-goers will even notice? What kind of victory is a standing ovation if it has to be achieved despite disruption?

From one Rosh Hashanah to the next, and like the sound of the shofar, little changes. And nobody wins.

Last updated: 8:45pm, September 13 2012