Instant Dialogue: On Whither a “World-Wide Call For a Cultural Boycott of ‘State Israel?'”

I sent an email to a big theater list today and it’s started quite an international conversation. I’ll recap the issue. American Theatre Magazine’s Randy Gener, a friend and a good Senior Editor there, put together a quick survey question. It went something like this:

Would you like to participate in a survey I am doing? I am surveyingtheatre people, Palestinians and Israelis, on the subject of thecultural boycott. Here is the question:

In December 2006, Palestinian academics and artists and a number ofIsraeli public figures who outspokenly oppose their country’s occupationof the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza issued aworld-wide call for a cultural boycott of state Israel. Should theatreartists and theatre professionals heed this call for boycott Israel? Should playwrights, actors, directors and international companiesoutside Israel bring their work or let their plays be produced inIsrael? Would such a call for a cultural boycott of internationalexchanges be deemed harmful or beneficial-or is this a violation ofacademic freedom and free speech? In your view, what would be the realrepercussions (both negative and positive) of such a cultural boycott?

Since this is such a complicated subject, I have taken to asking foremailed statements, rather than doing off the cuff interviews. I hopeyou understand. I can accommodate up to 500 words, no more. Because I amtrying to accommodate as many diverse voices, pro and con, as reasonablepossible. I do know that the word count may be a problem. But perhapsthis will help give it some focus. Anyway, if you are still in agreement with this, I would appreciate getting a statement by, say, Thursday, March 20. I hope to hear from you.

Here’s my response and, after that, some strong responses from the likes of theater friends like Theodore Bikel, Leila Buck, Hank Greenspan, Chaz Mena and my Serbian dramaturg Jelena Mijović. Subsequent postings will include other responses.

Dear Randy:
I think this is both a poorly worded proposition (“issued a world-wide call for a cultural boycott of state Israel. Should theatre artists and theatre professionals heed this call for boycott Israel?”) as well as, to my mind, an offensively naïve question to theater artists who are part of American Theatre Magazine’s community. What’s GOOD about a “cultural boycott?” Suppressing the free travel and expression of conscientious artists is reprehensible; especially when many of the Israeli artists involved are holding up a mirror to their own society, functioning as social and political change agents and critics in their own divided state. Prohibiting the lively exchange of ideas between differently minded or like-minded neighbors separated by borders or oceans is contrary to the basic humanist traditions and impulses undergirding our work as artists. Should we prohibit the travel of Palestinian artists because Hamas is wrongly committed to a policy of advocating the destruction of the Zionist state?Of course not. We need to hear those various dissident and mainstream Palestinian voices and see their work, meeting them on their own artistic terms, even as we agitate to reform or change their elected government’s position.Theater J is committed, among other things, to engaging Israeli artists and theater companies, bringing them to Washington, DC to stage English language premieres together with touring productions of works in Hebrew and Arabic. We’re committed to working with Arab, Muslim, and Christian artists as well, presenting their authentic expressions of the situation in the Middle East as it impacts them and their families. To contemplate the notion of a boycott of any Semitic artist is deeply abhorrent – especially since we’ve seen such progress made over the past generation with respect to creating humane connections between Palestinian, Arab, Israeli and Jewish average citizens (witness the success of programs like DC’s Peace Café, the internationally regarded Seeds of Peace, or within Israel proper, Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam) who have been brought into deeper understanding of each other’s histories and current plights through artistic and social interchange. I think the proposition raised in this politely-presented inquiry stinks and American Theatre might have expressed a different kind of moral indignation to mark a distinction between a bad political reality (the Occupation) and an unctuous cultural policy (boycotting critics of that Occupation).

Sincerely,
Ari Roth
Artistic Director
Theater J

* **Response from Theodore Bikel:

Dear Ari: I fully agree with your reaction to the ill-chosen survey about an even more ill-conceived boycott. While economic boycotts in the geopolitical arena might sometimes be called for (despite doubts about their effectiveness) there is NO VALIDITY in calling for or instituting boycotts in the cultural arena. That includes scientific and academic boycotts, and most especially boycotts in the arts. To even contemplate such measures is shameful.

That is not to say that individuals are not free to withhold their participation from projects whose content and tenor runs counter to their convictions, or whose appearance before certain audiences might indicate endorsement or support for views abhorrent to them. (I myself have in the past consistently refused to appear in South Africa during apartheid when the laws of that country mandated segregated audiences.)

But I emphatically oppose boycotts against Israeli or Palestinian artists whose voices must not be stifled and whose work must not be suppressed. You may want to argue with what the artists have to say; but not sight unseen.
-Theodore Bikel

Response from Leila Buck:

Hello all and a special thanks to Ari for including me on this list and my show in Theater J’s programming last summer, which was enormously important to me and wonderfully useful in my ongoing development of this piece. I found Theater J’s audience to be exceptionally open and Ari’s feedback particularly useful in helping the piece to grow.

Below is the response I wrote for this same article – I had my issues with the question as well, which I hope are conveyed below.

For all the flaws in the framing, I appreciate the discussion it has already sparked and will undoubtedly spark on its publication.
Salaam, Leila

Theater reminds us that all the great questions are both larger than and connected to the intimate details of our lives. So, let’s make this loaded question specific and personal: If I were invited to do a production in Israel of my latest work, In the Crossing, about my journey to Lebanon with my Jewish husband before and during the Israeli-Hezbollah war of 2006, would I go? My initial answer – Of course. This is exactly why I do my work – to create a connection with those who might not otherwise hear these stories.

Plus, from what I’ve heard from American and Israeli friends, I might be more warmly received in Israel than I’ve been at talkbacks in New York, where audience members make blithely bigoted pronouncements like “The Arabs are just more violent than we are”. There is more dialogue within Israel about the injustices committed by that state than there is in most places in this country, where in spite of being the product of a Lebanese mother of both Muslim and Christian heritage, American diplomat father, and marrying into a Jewish family, I’ve been told I’m “one-sided” by “liberal” audience members who’ve never actually spoken to an Arab. I’m more concerned with what we are and aren’t allowed to say in THIS country ABOUT Israel, than what we should or shouldn’t do there.So I imagine performing in some huge theater in Tel Aviv. For crowds who served in the military that bombed my mother’s country back 20 years and left it on the brink of civil war. Again. Whose government just approved still more illegal obstructions to peace on contested Palestinian land. How can I do that? Or is that why I SHOULD? Should the only pieces done be ones that address the cycle of violence, the building of walls? Because in that audience are potential allies capable of reaching the world without being called one-sided, if we can move them to think differently of their country’s actions, as so many already have, as have Americans of our own.

But what if the home of the kind family with whom I stay once belonged to the grandparents of Palestinian friends? Or the theatre in which I perform was built on the ruins of their lives?? Will my play, or the absence of it, make a difference to their families still suffering here or there? Why can I chat with audiences in Tel Aviv or sit in Brooklyn and answer these questions while those in Gaza remain under siege?

I believe that theater’s greatest potential is its ability to make us feel things, in one another’s presence, heightened, LIVE, breathing. So I hope that all those reading will take a moment to do what the best theater asks us to – step into another piece of the world, feel its questions, and return to our own ready to act on our answers.

Response from Chaz Mena:

Miami’s media has been trying to boycott their brothers and sisters on the island, fighting against having their acts/number performed here in the states, damning all of them for not taking a stand against Castro without understanding the Cuban economic policies and real-politik. Easy to take a moral stance, spewing platitudes from a safe distance, without risking hide and home.

Also, those who have gone to Cuba to perform quickly become persona-non-Grata (that I can testify to, having myself performed in Cuba) amongst Cuban exiles. The embargo against Cuba, economic and artistic or otherwise, has been a complete disaster–further alienating the dissident movement within Cuba and helping the forces of reaction outside and inside the island.

Better to formally deride, protest, openly damn the present Israeli admin., something that would strengthen those dissenting from the present policy against the Palestinians. This is my humble view, infused by my culture’s unresolved issue–an open wound really: stinking, pestilent, made septic by hypocrisy, ignorance, and vindictiveness.

yours, chaz

Response from Hank Greenspan:
Given current Chinese policy in Tibet and beyond, Iwould not be opposed to an Olympic boycott although there are obviouslyarguments about all the good things Olympics can make happen. And thenthere was Germany in 1936, which allowed Jesse Owens to have his days, but I’m not sure boycotting wouldn’t have been a better choice.

But Olympics are specifically showcases for this or that nation, which competed hard to get the games there. Boycotting them is directcommunication with that host government. It is a different thing than”Israelis Raus.”

Best, Hank Greenspan

Response from Jelena Mijović
First of all- after big experience in all types of boycott- there is no effect (I could elaborate this). And Cultural boycott can’t impact any political area. Influence of the theatre is so small and so modest (only we, who are working in the theatre, believe that theatre can change the world), that even that small possible influence would ends if artists can’t say anything. The idea of theatre, of any art, is to be above, to have a bigger picture and the duty of theatre is to speak out. Most important to be free to speak out. The big thing about theatre is it’s sense to anticipate, to feel the future, to feel something which is not yet spoken, and to warn, to comfort, to show one or more exits. At least if we are talking about engaged theatre. I was surprised watching performances in Israel- full of criticism of State politic, of Government’s position in Israeli Palestinian fights, killing, occupation… And I saw Israeli and Palestinians working together, making some good, politically engaged theatre. I had a feeling, and I do believe the other people watching it had a same, that if they can understand at the stage, some day they would find the way to understand each other in real life. Silence against live word? Boycott against free speech? Cutting connections instead of making it? That can’t be theatre job. That would betrayed the idea of the Theatre.I still choose to believe that theatre, and theatre word could change the world.

Yours, Jelena Mijovic

dramaturg, Theatre Atelje 212, Belgrade

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