Why I’m supporting the Israeli actors’ boycott, but not the American one

September 13, 2010 by

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I thought I could sit this one out; not post links from Haaretz on my facebook page; avoid the emails asking my opinion about the artist boycott of the Ariel Cultural Arts Center in the West Bank; not personally take a stand, lest I risk the wrath of segments of our deeply divided Jewish community, a portion of which surely sides with the Israeli Minister of Culture, Education and Sport who vilified the protesting artists, and with a few members of Knesset who assailed the artists as “treasonous” and “anti-Zionist.” Certainly, I know over a dozen on the list of sixty protesters to be among the most talented, thoughtful and humane Israeli Zionists in the land, a good number of whom have shared their talents with audiences in DC and been resident artists with us at Theater J. But this was an acrimonious fight within Israel, among Israelis.

My instinct was to hide the names of the artists; not “out” them. Yet there is no hiding artist-activists who’ve agreed to put themselves at risk; whose position, to take one example, on the board of directors of an Israeli regional arts festival, has been threatened with termination, or another whose play in Tel Aviv has already been interrupted by hecklers. Still, embracing a politics of cultural boycott gives a Liberal pause. The protest directed against the Ariel Arts Center puts the squeeze on those who support free expression for artists but know that the instrument of cultural and academic boycotts can be a blunt cudgel that can easily be turned against the very stakeholders asserting a right to vote with their feet (or their pocketbook). Left wing Israeli artists and intellectuals have been the subject of cultural boycotts themselves and the promise of an urgently needed exchange of ideas has been squelched by the imposition of a hard line embargo.

And so this weekend, while laying low, avoiding the request to pen this op-ed column, I was approached on-line by an unnamed coalition organizing a collection of American and British artists standing in solidarity with “our Israeli counterparts for their courageous decision.” I was tempted to sign. The letter went on:

“Most of us are involved in daily compromises with wrongful acts. When a group of people suddenly have the clarity of mind to see that the next compromise looming up before them is an unbearable one — and when they somehow find the strength to refuse to cross that line — we can’t help but be overjoyed and inspired and grateful. It’s thrilling to think that these Israeli theatre artists have refused to allow their work to be used to normalize a cruel occupation which they know to be wrong, which violates international law and which is impeding the hope for a just and lasting peace for Israelis an Palestinians alike… We stand with them.”

I agreed with the letter. After being asked to send my “signature” to another email address, I noticed in the confirming reply that the collector of signatures was a board member of “Jewish Voice for Peace,” an organization with a lovely name but a more problematic agenda, advocating boycotts against selective Israeli products and campus wide divestment campaigns against university and faculty funds with Israeli holdings or American companies doing business in Israel. I felt tricked.

Both Jewish Voice for Peace and the Israeli government betray underlying agendas in their rallying around the Ariel Cultural Center issue. For the government, which has gone about the unlikely scheduling of bringing all eight major Israeli theater companies to visit a 16,000 person settlement deep in the West Bank (performing for what will be the first time anywhere that deep inside the Occupied Territories) during the opening months of a new center there, the planned festivities are a way of using artists to help normalize the problematic status of a contentious settlement. Further, it is a way of placating a political base that the government may soon be challenging in its current peace talk negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

For Jewish Voice for Peace, the campaign to enlist luminaries such as Theodore Bikel, Mandy Patinkin, Ed Asner, Tony Kushner, Julianne Moore and 145 others is a way of assembling an attractive tableau of well-known names whose faces are now shown in rotation on the JVP homepage alongside panels for “Campus Divestment” and “TIAA-CREFF: Divest From the Occupation Campaign.”

It is the right of Israeli artists to choose how and where they wish their work to be presented. The protesting artists’ decision is a principled political stand made by Israelis within Israel and, as such, is fundamentally different from the actions taken by organizations outside Israel who would boycott any–or perhaps all–Israeli products, denying some–or perhaps all–Israeli cultural and academic institutions from an audience in the West. The growing pressure to apply anti-Israel boycotts and wage divestment campaigns in the West should be seen as separate from the surgical determination that patriotic Israeli artists are making when they refuse to allow the government to use them as political pawns, scheduling them against their will to perform in hitherto illegal settlements in newly constructed art houses with dubious missions.

I stand in support of my Israeli colleagues who make an eloquent statement in their actions, invoking their right to not make the West Bank settlement of Ariel safe for annexation just yet.


Ari Roth is the Artistic Director of Washington DC’s TheaterJ.

First appeared in the TheaterJ blog.

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