Cultural boycott is controversial, sensitive and difficult, there is no doubt about that. So when a member of the public – a drama teacher who was intending to take a group of students to one of this month’s performances in the UK by Israel’s Batsheva dance ensemble – wrote to campaigners pleading that protesters should “stay away from this dance performance” and “not scare and scream in the faces of these young people”, we were at pains to give a full and respectful answer.
Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi replied as follows:
Thank you for contacting us regarding your concerns about planned protests focusing on Israel’s Batsheva Ensemble.
I am responding as the Boycott Israel Network’s cultural working group coordinator and national secretary of Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods, as well as someone who loves and regularly attends dance performances.
I do not know what your sources are for your reading about our campaign, but we are not, as you suggest, people “who could not care less about dance”. On the contrary, we care very much about dance being used cynically to cast a veil over the actions of a government which is anything but artistic in its discriminatory violence against Palestinians. Israel runs a well-funded campaign called Brand Israel which is specifically designed to exploit culture as a distraction from its crimes. The intended message is “Look at our beautiful dancers, ignore our bombs and tanks.”
It’s good to know that you agree with the “basic human right of being able to protest and voice an opinion.” I applaud the fact that you have looked into the appalling situation of the Palestinian people and that you appreciate that they are victims of many atrocities. In that case you must surely know that Palestinian artists and performers suffer from these atrocities at least as much as other members of their community.
Their ability to express themselves through art and culture is severely curtailed – indeed it is deliberately suppressed by the Israeli authorities who use every measure from administrative regulation to extreme violence to prevent Palestinian self-expression. I attach some references pertaining to this (*).
You may also wish to look at the website of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) which explains their call for people of conscience around the world to mount solidarity campaigns such as ours.
Let me assure you we have no wish to deprive GCSE students of the chance to “see a piece of excellent dance so that they can write about it for their GCSE exam”. There are, fortunately for us, untold opportunities in the UK for dance-lovers to have such experiences. This is not the case for Palestinian young people, although Israeli youngsters do not lack for such opportunities.
If you are worried about the trauma your students might suffer by being exposed to someone unfurling a banner or calling out a slogan at a Batsheva performance, may I suggest you give them access to the ample materials explaining why the people of Palestine have called for such actions – not least the daily trauma experienced by Palestinian children such as the students of Hebron attacked by stone-throwing fundamentalist Jewish settlers acting under the protection of Israeli troops, or the children of Bedouin families in the Negev whose homes are constantly being demolished, or the children of Gaza, under siege since 2006 and at the mercy of Israeli bombing raids.
You ask why we do not protest at a Russian ballet performance. I might ask you the same question, but to respond seriously – if an oppressed people comparable with the Palestinians, with no other non-violent means of drawing attention to 60 years of dispossession and injustice, were calling on us to adopt this form of protest on their behalf against cultural institutions linked to the Russian state, we would have no hesitation in doing so. Maybe you are not aware that supporters of Israel adopted just such tactics against the Bolshoi Ballet and other Soviet cultural institutions as part of their campaign to persuade Moscow to let dissident Jews emigrate to Israel in the 1970s and ’80s.
We are thoroughly well acquainted with the personal views of Ohad Naharin, the artistic director of Batsheva, but these do not prevent the most right-wing government Israel has ever had embracing Batsheva as “our best global ambassador”. You can see an analysis of Batsheva’s position here.
If you wish to explore these issues further, and give your students an unprecedented opportunity to consider the many complex ways in which art and politics interact, I would be happy to introduce you to well-informed human rights campaigners in your area who they could meet for a discussion.
(*) Palestine, culture and politics – questions for students of the performing arts to consider (Suggestions from Miranda Pennell)
1) Can ethics be separated from aesthetics?
Consider the early European modern dance of Kurt Joss (The Green Table) and Mary Wigman, or the post-modern works of Yvonne Rainer (Trio A: The Mind is Muscle) to the ‘politics of perception’ attributed to Merce Cunningham by dance scholar Roger Copeland.
2. Examine the two essays on Palestine in:
Dance, Human Rights, and Social Justice: Dignity in Motion [Paperback]
The first essay, ‘Roadblock’ by Maysoun Rafeedi, is short, direct and perhaps suitable for evoking for a young person the context of dance in Palestine from the perspective of a young dance teacher.
3. Explore Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian ‘Dabke’ folk dance in the 1940s and 50s as a Jewish Israeli dance, ‘Debke’. It has now been reclaimed with a popular resurgence of Dabke in Palestine, transforming a simple wedding dance into a form of cultural resistance in the face of decades of dispossession.
4. Read and discuss:
Raising Dust: A Cultural History of Dance in Palestine, by Nicholas Rowe
HERE IS THE TEXT OF THE LETTER TO WHICH THE ABOVE IS A REPLY, WITH IDENTIFYING FEATURES REMOVED.