This year’s Edinburgh International Festival was based on peacefulness and sharing cultures. And despite the best efforts of anti-Israel activists, when Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company left the stage after its final performance last weekend to a standing ovation, they did so in this spirit.
Audience members had to make their way through a crowd of protesters before entering the venue, and each of the three shows was interrupted a number of times by activists carrying banners saying “Free Palestine” and shouting about tickets being covered in blood.
A year to the day after the Israel Philharmonic Prom broadcast was suspended by the BBC, supporters of a cultural boycott of Israel turned their attention to Scotland.
Like Habima and like the IPO, Batsheva had been targeted since EIF director Jonathan Mills revealed that the Israeli dancers would be at the festival performing their acclaimed “Hora”.
The umbrella group “Don’t Dance with Israeli Apartheid” called on Mr Mills to withdraw the invitation because Batsheva was “actively complicit in whitewashing Israeli human-rights abuses” and received support from the Israeli government. A letter backed by MP Jeremy Corbyn, journalist John Pilger and Yvonne Ridley was circulated; last week Scotland’s national poet Liz Lochhead and author Ian Banks added their names to the protest.
On Thursday, before the first performance, around 150 people gathered “shouting all sorts of horrible things” and burning tickets, said audience member Myra Livingstone. “It was certainly intimidating to walk past them and they were waiting outside when we left, it wasn’t nice.”
Ticket-holders were subjected to airport security checks. “There were lots of police,” said Mrs Livingstone. “They searched bags, they did everything they could. The protesters must have had banners rolled up in their clothes.”
She praised the theatre for “promptly and efficiently” ejecting disruptors – ten on the first night, six on the second and around 20 at the final show, who not only shouted but also ran out of their seats to disturb the dancers.
Each time, the performers stopped. “They kept their cool,” said Mrs Livingstone. “The audience reaction was so positive, we drowned out protesters.”
“The festival supports people’s right to protest,” said a spokeswoman for the EIF. “Equally the festival defends the rights of all artists, irrespective of nationality, creed or culture to have their voices heard. We thank the audience for their patience and their support of the artists. And we thank the artists for their poise and their superb performance.”
Israeli Culture Minister Limor Livnat and the Israeli ambassador to Britain, Daniel Taub, attended the show. “These demonstrators are clearly not motivated by any desire to help the Palestinians or advance peace but only to sow hatred,” said an embassy spokesman. “We are committed to ensuring that Israeli British cultural co-operation will continue to flourish.”
The British government expressed support for “the freedom of Batsheva to appear at the festival”, while writing in the Observer, Jackie Kemp wrote of her shame “that these renowned international artists… were unable to perform their show in peace.”
Batsheva received several five star reviews for the dance, which audiences can also see on tour in November, with dates in Salford, Birmingham and London.
The activists have announced plans for “demonstrations at every Batsheva performance”.