It was supposed to be an evening of triumph. Last September, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) was playing in London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall, marking the 75th birthday of conductor Zubin Mehta. But toward the end of the first piece, pro-Palestinian demonstrators unfurled Palestinian flags and started shouting, “Free, free Palestine!” The audience booed the agitators, and started a counter-chant: “Out! Out!” Yet different protesters, sitting all over the hall, kept on popping up, until BBC radio had to suspend its live broadcast of the concert and replace it with a recording.
Next week, British Jews fear a repeat performance. On Monday, May 28, and Tuesday, May 29, Israel’s Habima National Theater company is scheduled to stage “The Merchant of Venice” at London’s Globe Theatre as part of a festival of Shakespeare plays in different languages. Pro-Palestinian activists — who have already tried, and failed, to get Habima’s invitation rescinded — are promising to demonstrate outside, and disrupt proceedings inside.
How best to handle the threats is the subject of debate in the local Jewish community. At the root of the dilemma is the question of how most effectively to counter a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign: Is it better to allow the pro-Palestinians to ruin a performance if it means that the audience, and public opinion, will turn against them — as with the IPO event? Or should they be opposed as a matter of principle, even if the crowd may not like that either?
Actor and playwright Steven Berkoff, who played General Orlov in the Bond film “Octopussy,” embodies the conflict. He will be at one of the performances, and says that if anyone tries to disrupt the evening, “my reaction will be unimaginable. It will involve me shoving an ice cream cone in someone’s nose.”
A moment later he collects himself and says, “I’m not advocating violence. It’s a two-way sword, once you do it you can expect it back. It’s best to be dignified and contain yourself and hold yourself with utmost respect.”
Round one was launched in late March, when 37 actors, writers and playwrights published a letter in The Guardian newspaper accusing Habima of accepting invitations to perform in Israeli settlements
In fact, what happens on the night of the performances will be round two of the battle over Habima. Round one was launched in late March, when 37 actors, writers and playwrights published a letter in The Guardian newspaper accusing Habima of accepting invitations to perform in Israeli settlements, while other theater professionals refused to do so.
“By inviting Habima, Shakespeare’s Globe is undermining the conscientious Israeli actors and playwrights who have refused to break international law,” they wrote. “We ask the Globe to withdraw the invitation so the festival is not complicit with human rights violations and the illegal colonisation of occupied land.”
Many of the signatories were well-known pro-Palestinian activists, but the list also included stars such as two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson, Jewish actress Miriam Margolyes and seven-time Oscar nominee, director Mike Leigh, ensuring widespread attention. In the Sunday Observer newspaper, Jewish Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson called the letter “Kafkaesque” and said it brought McCarthyism to Britain while a group of well-known, mostly Jewish actors and writers including Berkoff, playwright Sir Arnold Wesker and composer Thomas Ades also went on the record condemning the attempt to exclude Habima. A debate in the Guardian newspaper and website ensued, focusing as much on the usefulness and merit of boycotting art as on Israeli settlement policy.
Less than a week before Habima’s first performance, the theater says both evenings are close to sold out
Who won this initial round, though, is unclear.
Faced with intense pressure, the Globe held firm and did not disinvite Habima. Nearly a week before Habima’s first performance, the theater says both evenings are close to sold out. It is uncertain to what extent this is an anti-boycott backlash, but there are certainly many local Jews who have bought tickets specifically to show support for Israel’s national theater company under fire.
The British chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, and the Israeli ambassador, Daniel Taub, are strongly rumored to be attending the second performance (the first is on the second day of the Shavuot holiday, during which observant Jews in England would not attend the theater), although neither would confirm their schedules.
For Dave Rich, deputy communications manager of the Community Security Trust, an organization that monitors anti-Semitic activity in Britain, the stars’ inability to get Habima disinvited fits neatly into a pattern of BDS failures in the UK. He points out that despite attempts to get Israeli goods banned, and those from Israeli settlements labeled, UK trade with Israel actually rose by 34% in 2011, to £3.75 billion ($5.9b). Israel is currently the UK’s 29th-largest export market.
“On the economic side it’s had zero impact,” he says.
He adds that although many of the demonstrations involve only a handful of people, they have attracted media attention, creating an impression of greater BDS activity than actually exists.
Many of those proposing the boycotts, though, claim that publicity was always their main goal.
‘Just getting that debate out there is a major achievement because of the very strong effort by pro-Israeli elements to stifle debate’
The Guardian letter, says signatory Alexei Sayle, was a “tactic to raise debate. By talking about boycotts, we raise the parallel of South Africa… Just getting that debate out there is a major achievement because of the very strong effort by pro-Israeli elements to stifle debate.”
The publicity generated by the Habima letter was “not too bad,” estimates Sayle, a comedian and writer.
James Ivens is artistic director of the Flood Theatre, which specializes in “dark comedy.” He adds that the Guardian letter, which he too signed, was only the “opening salvo.”
“I’m disappointed that the Globe did not change its position, but we opened up the debate, and that’s an important first step towards achieving our goal of being able to support artists who stand up against human rights abuses.”
He is referring, he says, to Israeli actors who lost work because they refused to join Habima performances in West Bank settlements. Because the government financially supports the company, it cannot make politically motivated decisions on where to perform.
“I have no issues with the Israeli people. We are standing up in support of them because the Israeli government is abusing its position as a state subsidy giver, forcing artists to act in certain places. No government should put artists in the position where they have to turn down work in order to maintain their principles.”
Says David Hirsh, the founder of Engage, a campaign against academic boycotts of Israel, the boycott activists are correct that the publicity generated by the Habima campaign is important.
At the moment, he says, BDS principles are accepted as self-evident mainly in the academic and artistic worlds. However, by repeatedly raising the concept of boycott, they help move it into the mainstream.
“It’s happening very slowly and very gently. There’s no crisis but the underlying assumptions become stronger as time goes on…
“The boycotters position their radical idea as a legitimate one, even though it’s not. The fact of repeated debate is all they need — should Israeli academics or actors be excluded from the global community?”
While there is currently no official discrimination against artists, there is no way of knowing whether a ‘gray boycott’ is already operating, with artists simply never getting invited because theaters are afraid to host Israelis
So even if Palestinian supporters lost the battle over excluding Habima, they may still be winning the war to make a boycott of Israel seem normative. And while there is currently no official discrimination against artists, there is no way of knowing whether a “gray boycott” is already operating, with artists simply never getting invited because theaters are afraid to host Israelis, or Israeli artists declining invitations for fear of their reception in the UK.
According to the Community Security Trust’s Rich, the main impact of the boycott attempts “seems to be on British Jews, on their morale, sense of belonging and vulnerability. It’s not a concrete impact, but an emotional one.”
He says the activists do not seem to grapple with this, “partially because some of the people pushing the boycott are themselves British Jews, doing it partly in opposition to the mainstream British Jewish establishment, because that’s their Jewish politics. It needs to happen though, or the boycott campaign will get more and more toxic.”
Non-Jewish boycotters, meanwhile, do not necessarily appreciate the impact of their actions on local Jews.
‘For Jews, it brings up memories of the Nazi period and of throwing Jews out of posts. For the other side it raises positive memories of anti-apartheid campaigning’
“There is a total disconnect between the way that anti-Israel campaigners see the boycott and how Jews see it,” says Rich. “For Jews, it brings up memories of the Nazi period and of throwing Jews out of posts. For the other side it raises positive memories of anti-apartheid campaigning.”
Boycott promoters reject this out of hand. Sayle, who is himself Jewish, says he is not responsible for the emotions of others. Ivens points out that there is no comment in the letter on either Jews or Israeli Jews, merely references to one specific institution, Habima.
“I don’t understand how that can be seen as problematic for British Jews. Jews for Justice for Palestinians have backed our position to the hilt. It has been put about by some deeply reactionary voices who like to cast aspersions on anyone standing up for the rights of ordinary people and artists, as a smokescreen, a way of attacking any kind of socially conscious approach.”
Meanwhile Trevor Griffiths, a noted British dramatist who says he signed the Guardian letter because he felt the need to speak out, not out of any tactical consideration, says, “I object to Israel, not Jews, not to Jewishness. Anyone who wants to call me a fascist had better read 45 years of literary endeavour. I’ve never registered a false, ugly, racist note about Jews or about anybody else.”
What is clear, though, is that next week, it will be British Jews who will be on the front line of the boycott battle. Outside the Globe, members of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign have announced their intention to protest Habima’s presence (demonstrators are asked to come “wearing any bits of Shakespearian-type costume/makeup”), while inside, other elements have promised to disrupt proceedings — although Sayle, Ivens and Griffiths are all extremely clear that they oppose any disturbances during the play.
The Globe says that it is taking “all necessary precautions” to make sure that the performances can proceed smoothly. Although it will not disclose any details, a heavy police presence seems a given.
Outside, a counter-demonstration will be led by the Zionist Federation (ZF), the umbrella organization for the Zionist movement in the United Kingdom, which is expecting a minimum of 150 people each night.
Inside, individuals will make their own minds up how to react in case of disruption. Since the play is being performed in Hebrew, a large proportion of the audience will presumably be Jewish. The worry for many communal organizations is that some will be unable to keep their cool and end up looking as bad as the anti-Israel agitators.
‘Best would be to film or take pictures of the disruption. Do not get involved in violence or fighting: the police will arrest everyone’
“The authorities have been well-briefed, and if there are disruptions, we are asking people not to get involved,” says Stefan Kerner, the ZF’s director of public affairs. “Best would be to film or take pictures of the disruption. Citizens’ arrests would lead to greater tension. Do not get involved in violence or fighting: the police will arrest everyone.”
He says that some audience members are going to be bringing in Israeli flags. Others have said that they will respond to any disturbances by singing “Hatikva.”
“The most effective thing will be to show any protestors that they are in the minority,” says Kerner. “We have learned from the IPO incident to be more organized. Unfortunately, we are not new at this.”
In order to provide a long-term deterrent, community officials hope that any agitators will be prosecuted, something that never happened following the IPO ruckus.
For Hirsh, who lectures in sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, the abiding irony is that all this will be happening against the backdrop of “The Merchant of Venice,” in which a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, is hated and abused.
“Arguably the play isn’t anti-Semitic at all. Rather it is a sensitive study of the nature of anti-Semitism. People who want to get up and boo and hiss at Israelis producing ‘The Merchant of Venice’ don’t have anything like the profound understanding that Shakespeare showed hundreds of years ago. He was very clear about the mechanisms of the Jews’ exclusion, and about what is said about them as they are persecuted. Shylock is de-legitimized and humiliated in the play. This should be painful and discomforting for an audience to watch. But the boycotters in the audience plan to take failure to understand and audience participation to a new level.”