Kate Maltby

We must not allow the arts world to push us out

Jews are again being told to stop ‘moaning’ — but our fears must not be ‘shushed’ away


Indhu Rubasingham (Getty Images)

February 08, 2024 10:00

When I first started writing this column 18 months ago, it was hard to imagine that British arts venues would soon be frightened to put on work that acknowledges the suffering of Jews. Yes, I’d written frequently about antisemitism in the arts world — we all remember Hershel Fink at the Royal Court. But most of those scandals involved other people’s stories of Jews: myths, lies, stereotypes invented by Gentiles.

I wrote about the blood libels endorsed by The Color Purple author Alice Walker; basketball star Kyrie Irving’s promotion of the racist movie Hebrews to Negroes; Bradley Cooper’s conviction that a Jewish composer like Leonard Bernstein must be played with a prosthetic nose. I had not, as yet, had to write about Jews instructed not to tell their own stories.

A lot of Jewish stories seemed to have suddenly become “sensitive”. The incident with which I began this column is not the only story I’ve had attested of arts programmers reversing on Jewish-themed work pencilled in before the October 7 terror attacks and Israel’s response. One comedian who had previously been told her one-woman show was likely to be booked at a festival was told, in front of witnesses: “Globally, it’s not the right time for anyone to buy a ticket to hear Jews moaning.”

Who wants to hear Jews moan, huh? This December, Indhu Rubasingham was announced as the new director of the National Theatre – in many ways a profoundly promising appointment of a well-established artistic talent. She may well do great things. But on the day of her appointment, my inbox was full of Jewish theatremakers concerned about her historic relationship with the Jewish community. Would I write about it, they asked? Could I give voice to the concerns, please? It was, it turned out, impossible to do so anywhere except the JC.

Back in 2014, early in her tenure at what is now the Kiln theatre, Rubasingham faced criticism after refusing to continue the theatre’s hosting of the Jewish Film Festival unless it ended sponsorship from the Israeli embassy. There are mitigating factors: the venue, then known as the Tricycle, offered to substitute the funding itself and the decision was supported by a number of liberal Jews including Tricycle Chair Jonathan Levy. The theatre eventually apologised. But the issue was handled ineptly, and several people claimed to me — which the venue strongly denied — that Rubasingham had confused the CST, whose presence would be required for security — with Israeli representatives.

Whatever happened back in 2014, what has depressed me is the response of institutions today. Since December, three separate cultural have outlets asked me to discuss Rubasingham’s appointment, then instructed me that I could only do so if I didn’t mention the JFF affair.

Ironically, my view is that Rubasingham has clearly been on a process of growth since 2014, both as an artistic leader and in terms of working to understand the Jewish community. So my planned response, still deemed “too sensitive” while the geopolitical situation is “inflammatory”, was that the Jewish community should, in fact, put old anxieties aside and give her a chance in a role to which she has proven again and again she is superbly suited. But even that, I am told, is too dangerous, “given the timing”. Perhaps that is why both The Guardian and The Times ran glowing endorsements from their chief theatre critics, neither of which mentioned the issue.

It’s hard to imagine writers of any other heritage being told not to raise the history of a new leader of a national cultural institution, when that history includes refusing to host an ethnic minority festival unless that minority cut ties with its ancestral homeland. If Rufus Norris had come to head the National Theatre years after telling a Ukrainian cultural festival it couldn’t accept funding from the Ukrainian Embassy, we would not expect British writers of Ukrainian descent to wait for less inflammatory timing. Other writers might even mention it too.

What stings most about this Gentile awkwardness is the failure to understand that these are indeed sensitive times — sensitive for Jews and those of us with Jewish heritage. As Howard Jacobson recently put it, “People are saying things about Jews that they were saying in the 1300s.” If “timing” is everything, there has never been a worse time to tell us not to voice our anxieties.

This will be my last culture column here at the JC for the immediate future. I am developing some major projects that need more of my time. But I hope to leave readers with a warning. Jews are, once again, being told to stop “moaning”. In the arts, Jewish stories have become inconvenient. We must not allow ourselves to be pushed out of the cultural conversation. Our fears must not be shushed away.

February 08, 2024 10:00

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