The Tricycle Theatre, the Jewish Film Festival, and Cultural Boycotts

Last week the Tricycle Theatre caused controversy when it asked the UK Jewish Film Festival (which it was due to host in November) to return a grant made by the Israeli Embassy.

Given the present situation in Israel/Palestine … The Tricycle cannot be associated with any activity directly funded or supported by any party to the conflict…the Tricycle will be pleased to host the UKJFF provided that it occurs without the support or other endorsement from the Israeli Government

This has been met with widespread criticism.  Hadley Freeman in the Guardian says “don’t tell me what to think about Israel.” In the Spectator, Nick Cohen says its anti-semitic double-standards:  what other community but the Jews are asked to pass a political purity test?

There is one aspect to the debate that is missing from the reports and opinions that I have read, which is that members of Palestinian civil society have called for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law.  With this in mind, I am not sure that charges of double-standards are quite accurate.  The test of ‘consistency’ is not whether the Triclcyle Theatre (or any other boycotters) accept money from other governments… but whether they heed other international boycott calls, from other embattled groups.

Having said that, I find this point diffcult to ignore:

In general I find the idea of cultural boycotts to be unsettling.  Artists are likely to be some of the most open and liberal people within a society, and it seems counter-productive to break-off dialogue with the very people who will be the vanguard of change in social and political attitudes.

In this case, it is clear that the UK Jewish Film Festival is curatorially independent of the Israeli state, and in fact shows films that are critical of the government and its policies towards the Palestinians.  To fund dissident voices is a curious form of propaganda!

However, some might say that propaganda is precisely what this amounts to: by supporting dissent in the cultural domain, the Israeli government can claim that it supports diversity and free expression.  Meanwhile, it continues to enable the construction of settlements in the West Bank…

Perhaps now is precisely the wrong time to take a stand?

Here’s a counter-intuitive thought: perhaps now, in the midst of the Gaza crisis, is precisely the wrong moment to make a boycott gesture?  Israeli violations of international law have been taking place for many years, and the BDS movement is in response to the settlement building in the West Bank, not the Gaza intervention.   Yet only now has the Tricycle Theatre chosen to make an issue of the Israel’s Embassy’s financial support for the JFF.

With our domestic law-making, we often fall prey to a Something Must Be Done attitude at moments of crisis, ignoring more routine and less spectacular injustices.  Perhaps it would have been better had this debate taken place at a time when Gazan civilians were not being bombed by the Israel Defence Force.

 

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