Snubbed in Scotland, Israeli performers decry fringe fest protest

‘No one protected our freedom of speech,’ director of Jerusalem’s Incubator Theater says after pro-Palestinians disrupt Edinburgh show

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Members of the Victor Jackson Show performing silently in Edinburgh as part of their counter protest for free speech at the 2014 Festival Fringe (Courtesy Victor Jackson Show)
Members of the Victor Jackson Show performing silently in Edinburgh as part of their counter protest for free speech at the 2014 Festival Fringe (Courtesy Victor Jackson Show)

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Arik Eshet. The director of Jerusalem’s Incubator Theater has been in Edinburgh since late July for the annual Festival Fringe, a massive arts gathering in the Scottish capital. He accompanied the three members of the Victor Jackson Show, who were scheduled to perform “The City,” their original hip-hop opera.

The group, which receives a small grant from the Culture Ministry, was first kicked out of its original venue in Edinburgh because of threats from pro-Palestinian protesters, and now has been left high and dry by the festival’s organizers.

“They’re not giving up,” said Eshet, speaking from Edinburgh. “The guys are performing in every little place they can find. They did a silent show in the street as a protest for freedom of speech and now there are petitions going around for freedom of speech.”

The entire situation is a sham, said Eshet.

What began with a formal letter from local Edinburgh artists protesting the arrival of the Israeli trio has become a full-fledged act of discrimination, said Eshet.

Upon the Israeli troupe’s arrival, pro-Palestinian protesters surrounded the Cow Barn Underbelly in Edinburgh’s Bristo Square, where the alternative actors were supposed to perform. The venue operators canceled the show before opening night. When Eshet turned to local police and Festival Fringe organizers for help, they were “very passive,” he said.

“They talk a lot about free speech, but they didn’t go all the way,” he said. “Everyone gave up. It seems like no one has enough courage to stand up for this value.”

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe was founded in 1958 as an alternative arts event to the Edinburgh International Festival, open to any performer with a venue, and no one person or organization can determine who can or can’t perform at the Fringe. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society takes on the role of providing information to the performers, publishing the Fringe program and running the box office.

According to the festival website, the Society does “no vetting of the Fringe programme.” There is a board of directors that oversees the core Fringe Society staff and makes sure everything is in place for the festival.

But when it comes to protesters and counter protesters, it appears the festival organizers take a back seat.

Eshet said his actors haven’t given up just yet. Besides performing some scenes in one of the parks, they performed “The City” without words on Saturday, using only their instruments. The troupe was surrounded by a crowd of some 200 pro-Palestinian protesters, said Eshet, many of whom lay down at the actors’ feet.

“We were there for the full show, an hour and 15 minutes, while they were cursing us and shouting for Palestine,” said Eshet, chuckling. “We got a lot of applause from supporters, it was really surreal and kind of funny.”

There have been other pockets of support as well, said Eshet. People on the street recognize them and often approach the group with comments of support. There is also a counter-protest taking place, as some locals are circulating a petition calling for freedom of speech, that of the pro-Palestinian protestors and the visiting Israelis.

“There’s all this talk about freedom of speech, but no one protected our freedom of speech,” said Eshet. “The authorities had a complete failure here, it’s been a complete act of discrimination, from the police to the municipality to the Fringe Institute. They gave really big space to the pro-Palestinian protesters, and to us they were just very silent, letting us know we should be quiet, ‘don’t trouble us.’”

For now, Eshet and the Victor Jackson trio aren’t planning on leaving Edinburgh before the festival ends on August 25. The United Kingdom’s Zionist Federation is also trying to organize a tour for them this coming weekend in Glasgow, London, Leeds and Wales.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “We want to stand up to this, we don’t want to feel like we have to hide somewhere. That’s the feeling we got in the beginning, that everybody’s trying to hide us or make us go underground.”

It isn’t the first time that pro-Palestinian protesters have disrupted an Israeli performance in Edinburgh. In 2012 and 2013, pro-Palestinian protesters called for canceling the performance of the Batsheva dance troupe. The dancers, part of the troupe’s youth ensemble, are not all Israeli.

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