The Ariel Cultural Center Controversy – Beyond the Parsing of Boycotts – Supporting the Right to Say No

The news first broke on August 27: “Artists to refuse to perform in Ariel culture hall. Prominent actors, directors, playwrights send letter to boards of Israeli theaters in protest of plans to put on shows in news culture auditorium beyond Green Line. Yesha Council vows harsh response to ‘vile, anti-Zionist’ letter.”

Here’s my up-dated op-ed piece, requested by the Washington Jewish Week, and submitted on Tuesday (revised thereafter, printed in full below).  Links to two good pieces by Theodore Bikel and Yossi Alfur on the subject follow.

Why I’m Not Signing the Celebrity Letter of Support For The Protesting Israeli Artists – And Why I Support Their Principled Position Even Still

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.

* * *
Theodore Bikel’s statement in support of the Israeli protesters appears in Wednesday’s Haaretz

And on the Peace Now site, Yossi Alfur answers the question, “Dozens of Israel’s leading actors and writers have vowed to boycott a new culture center in the settlement of Ariel because it is in the West Bank. How significant is this move?” His answer is here (just scroll down a bit).


2 thoughts on “The Ariel Cultural Center Controversy – Beyond the Parsing of Boycotts – Supporting the Right to Say No

  1. Pingback: The Ariel Cultural Center Controversy – Beyond the Parsing of Boycotts – Supporting the Right to Say No (via The Theater J Blog) | The Theater J Blog

  2. Protesting and boycotting repressive governments and their representatives is nothing new and is commendable on the face of it. But the Ariel boycott does not fit this category. Whatever the rights of Arabs may be with regard to what is called “occupied territories”, the facts are quite different. Israel is the only democracy in the middle east, with a commendable legal system, equality for women and those of other religions, and a model of a progressive state, a state that is under constant threat of violence and aggression. It has suffered gratuitous rocket attacks, the murder of innocent people, and the anger of people worldwide who seem to think that a Jewish state, even when it is civilized, just and legitimate, is more culpable than the dozens, even hundreds, of other states wracked by internal ethnic conflict, subject to arbitrary arrest, torture and killing, and headed by despots proven responsible for the deaths not of one thousand citizens but of MILLIONS of its own citizens. Thus, these fatuous liberals inflate their supposedly moral positions by deliberately ignoring = and refusing to condemn or act against – these crimes against humanity: crimes committed by Sudan against the Darfuri for example, or those in the failed state of Somalia, or the corrupt repressive armed state of Pakistan whose intelligence service turns over American dollars to the Taliban so they can blow up people and buildings freely, or the unspeakably drug-money-fueled government of Afghanistan which plays a double game with this country while making sure that girls and women cannot attend school without fear of losing their lives or being doused with acid and losing their face, as at least one girl did. If these self-congratulatory artists are able to live with these events and the knowledge that the occupation of territories gained in a war started and carried out by its Arab neighbors would be = if a NON Jewish state were involved – is a relatively unimportant issue in today’s violent world, then they deserve not praise or honor but the title of Morally Confused. The double standard of morality now operative in the world is now revealed to be one in which Jews are held to a higher standard than Arabs or any other group, subject to moral judgements not applied to anyone else in the world. If this is not blatant anti-Semitism, I would like proof of this. This boycott, instigated without a doubt by outside forces who live by and know nothing but violence, misogyny and totalitarianism, is a testament to ignorance, fanaticism and ideology, not to high principles. These artists deserve to be boycotted themselves until they come to their senses.

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