The Pales­tinian Glib and Oily Art Against Is­rael

The Jewish Voice - - DP-ED - By: Michael Curtis

It is grat­i­fy­ing to know that some in­di­vid­u­als, schol­ars, and artists can keep their heads while all about them are los­ing theirs. On June 14, 2017, mem­bers of the Mod­ern Lan­guage As­so­ci­a­tion voted by 1,954 to 885 to re­frain from en­dors­ing the boy­cott of Is­raeli uni­ver­si­ties. A year ear­lier, the Amer­i­can An­thro­po­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion, though by a small ma­jor­ity, sim­i­larly voted down a res­o­lu­tion to boy­cott Is­raeli aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions.

Now, Deb­ora Spar, pres­i­dent of the Lincoln Cen­ter for Per­form­ing Arts in New York, has re­pu­di­ated an ex­plicit ar­gu­ment for cen­sor­ship in re­ject­ing the call in a let­ter of July 5, 2017 by Pales­tinian and re­lated groups and anti-Is­raeli ac­tivists to can­cel "Is­raeli gov­ern­ment-spon­sored" per­for­mances by two Is­raeli the­ater com­pa­nies, Haibima Na­tional The­ater and the Cameri The­ater of Tel-Aviv, at the Cen­ter in July 2017. The let­ter called on Lincoln Cen­ter "to re­spect the Pales­tinian civil so­ci­ety call for a boy­cott of those Is­raeli cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions that are com­plicit in the de­nial of Pales­tinian rights." The let­ter was in fact ini­ti­ated by the New York City Pales­tinian rights group Adalah-NY: The New York Cam­paign for the Boy­cott of Is­rael.

Their false ra­tio­nale for this call for cen­sor­ship was that the per­for­mances would be tak­ing place "with sup­port of Is­rael's Of­fice of Cul­tural Af­fairs in North Amer­ica." Their pe­ti­tion was based on the per­verted con­clu­sion that this sup­port is not sim­ply apo­lit­i­cal pa­tron­age, but a cal­cu­lated ef­fort to mask Is­raeli re­pres­sion of the Pales­tinian peo­ple.

The fal­lacy is twofold. First, the Is­raeli Em­bassy was not try­ing to ma­nip­u­late pub­lic opin­ion through its sup­port; it was sim­ply pay­ing for the costs of the the­ater groups as gov­ern­ment agen­cies do in the United States. The sec­ond fal­lacy is ironic: the play, the sub­ject of the cen­sor­ship, is "To the End of the Land," which stems from an anti-war novel by David Gross­man, a left-wing ac­tivist Is­raeli writer of­ten crit­i­cal of Is­raeli poli­cies in the West Bank.

Pres­i­dent Spar is­sued an en­light­ened de­fense of the pro­duc­tions. She re­buffed this call of cen­sor­ship of Is­rael and de­cided not to can­cel the per­for­mances, writ­ing, "[W]e seek to bring a wide range of ideas and voices to our stages each year[.] ... [W]e do not make po­lit­i­cal state­ments and hope that the art we present can stand on its own."

Pales­tinian and fel­low-trav­el­ing other groups con­cerned to make po­lit­i­cal state­ments by boy­cott of Is­rael re­veal that they have no such be­lief in a "wide range of ideas." Their nar­row per­spec­tive was shown on March 29, 2012, when the English pa­per The Guardian pub­lished an open let­ter signed by 37 the­ater peo­ple protest­ing "with dis­may and re­gret" the de­ci­sion of Shake­speare's Globe The­ater to in­vite the Is­raeli com­pany Habima to par­tic­i­pate in an in­ter­na­tional Shake­speare fes­ti­val.

With a bizarre con­tention that even Ein­stein would not have been able to com­pre­hend, the 37 held that be­cause the Is­raeli troupe had once per­formed in the set­tle­ment of Kiryat Arba in He­bron, Habima par­tic­i­pa­tion would make the Globe fes­ti­val com­plicit with "hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions and the il­le­gal col­o­niza­tion of oc­cu­pied land."

To its credit, the Globe management, in a care­ful, mod­er­ated de­fense of free speech, al­lowed Habima's per­for­mance, of "The Mer­chant of Venice," to go ahead, con­clud­ing that "ac­tive ex­clu­sion was a pro­foundly prob­lem­atic stance to take be­cause the question of which na­tions de­serve in­clu­sion or ex­clu­sion is nec­es­sar­ily sub­jec­tive ... peo­ple meet­ing and talk­ing and ex­chang­ing views is prefer­able to iso­la­tion and si­lence."

The at­tack on free ex­pres­sion in essence stems from the Boy­cott, Di­vest­ment, and Sanc­tions (BDS) move­ment ini­ti­ated by Pales­tinian groups in 2005. The move­ment has been the spur for anti-Is­raeli ac­tiv­ity, though its mem­bers show lit­tle con­cern for any spe­cific im­prove­ments for Pales­tini­ans in the dis­puted ar­eas.

The cru­cial question is why gifted in­tel­lec­tu­als, writ­ers, and per­form­ers con­tinue to par­tic­i­pate in man­i­fes­ta­tions of Pales­tinian pro­pa­ganda, the an­tithe­sis of their own pro­fes­sional val­ues. The more than 60 sign­ers of the let­ter of July 5, 2017 to the chair­man of the Board and the pres­i­dent of Lincoln Cen­ter to can­cel Is­raeli gov­ern­ment-spon­sored per­for­mances by two Is­raeli com­pa­nies in­cluded Kath­leen Chal­fant, Caryl Churchill, Ken Loach, and Lynn Not­tage, win­ner of two Pulitzer Prizes for drama. Can these gifted peo­ple re­ally be­lieve the Pales­tinian ar­gu­ment that per­for­mances in New York by the Habima Na­tional The­ater and the Cameri The­ater of Tel Aviv are "part of Is­rael's strat­egy to em­ploy arts and cul­ture to di­vert at­ten­tion from Is­rael's decades of vi­o­lent col­o­niza­tion, bru­tal mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion and de­nial of ba­sic rights to the Pales­tinian peo­ple?"

Do they re­ally ac­cept the Pales­tinian di­a­tribe that the the­ater troupes are the "pretty face" of Is­rael, an im­age pre­sented so that Is­rael is not thought of in the con­text of war, but is mak­ing cyn­i­cal use of the arts to cover up decades of denying Pales­tinian rights? If they do not be­lieve this non­sense, they should deny it and as­sert the prin­ci­ples of free ex­pres­sion which the State of Is­rael is alone in the Mid­dle East in il­lus­trat­ing.

Plato in The Repub­lic wrote of the "bold flight of in­ven­tion," usu­ally re­cast as the "noble lie" that in­duces peo­ple to ac­cept con­ve­nient fic­tions. Plato may have been cor­rect in say­ing that such a fic­tion was not hap­pen­ing in his day but wrong in con­clud­ing it would be hard to per­suade any­one that they could ever hap­pen again.

Pop­u­lar sup­port for to­tal­i­tar­ian regimes in the 20th cen­tury il­lus­trate the re­al­ity. In­tel­lec­tu­als in­clud­ing Ge­orge Bernard Shaw, GDH Cole, and Sid­ney and Beatrice Webb, among many oth­ers, were guilty of the noble lie in try­ing to per­suade fel­low cit­i­zens that the Stal­in­ist Soviet Union was not a sys­tem per­vaded by ter­ror, mass ex­e­cu­tions, slave la­bor, gu­lags, and hunger, but was a new civ­i­liza­tion.

For some time, ad­vo­cates of the boy­cott of Is­rael have used the noble lie to in­flu­ence well-mean­ing peo­ple gen­uinely in­ter­ested in hu­man rights. One case in question in 2017 is an at­tempt at cen­sor­ship by lit­er­ary fig­ures at the an­nual World Voices Fes­ti­val of PEN Amer­ica. More than 240 well known writ­ers, poets, and pub­lish­ers, many of them fa­mil­iar from ear­lier BDS events, called for re­jec­tion of fund­ing to the fes­ti­val from the Is­rael Em­bassy. Among them were Lucy Lip­pard, Michael On­daatje, Alice Walker, Louise Er­drich, Junot Diaz, and Cor­nel West. The Em­bassy planned to con­trib­ute a small sum to help the ex­penses of air­fare and ho­tels for Is­raeli

writ­ers se­lected to par­tic­i­pate in the fes­ti­val.

PEN In­ter­na­tional has been out­spo­ken in the past, crit­i­ciz­ing the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment "for the killings and the re­ported de­lib­er­ate tar­get­ing of cer­tain jour­nal­ists, me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions, and their in­fra­struc­tures, and the prac­tice of ad­min­is­tra­tive de­ten­tion against jour­nal­ists and other writ­ers." At first, in 2017, PEN Amer­i­can Cen­ter said it was main­tain­ing the Is­raeli con­tri­bu­tion be­cause it was against "cul­tural boy­cotts of any kind ... and there was a need to pro­mote di­a­logue." But, as a re­sult of pres­sure, the fes­ti­val did pro­ceed with­out Is­raeli gov­ern­ment fund­ing.

It is ap­pro­pri­ate to ask if the sig­na­to­ries to the PEN let­ter, who, in ad­di­tion to those named above, also in­clude Angela Davis, Rus­sell Banks, and Breyten Breyten­bach, re­al­ize and ap­prove of the fact that they are en­gag­ing not only in a cul­tural boy­cott, but in an act in vi­o­la­tion of all prin­ci­ples of free ex­pres­sion. Do they un­der­stand they are pup­pets of a well or­ga­nized po­lit­i­cal move­ment that is not averse to anti-Semitism?

The sec­ond fal­lacy is ironic: the play, the sub­ject of the cen­sor­ship, is "To the End of the Land," (pic­tured above) which stems from an anti-war novel by David Gross­man, a left-wing ac­tivist Is­raeli writer of­ten crit­i­cal of Is­raeli poli­cies in the West Bank.

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