Boycotts and freedom

5 Apr 2012 by CST

The front page of this week's Jewish Chronicle has two stories that go to the heart of the impact that anti-Israel campaigning can have on UK Jewish life, and on wider society.

The lead story is about arguments over the inclusion of Israel's Habima theatre company in the 'Globe to Globe' Shakespeare Festival, to be held at London's Globe Theatre from April to June this year. Several British actors and directors signed a letter in the Guardian (where else?) this week which called for Habima to be dis-invited. Several others have now criticised this call, with Sir Arnold Wesker comparing it to Nazi book-burning.

Underneath this is a second story, about Members of Parliament who express positions that are supportive of Israel, receiving death threats and abuse from anti-Israel activists. The article gives several examples of MPs who have been threatened. Some of them no longer advertise details of their surgeries and have police protection when they campaign in public.

Both of these stories involve anti-Israel campaigners trying to limit the freedom of people or organisations that are central to public life in this country: our cultural life, in the first example, and our political life, in the second. The fact that threats from anti-Israel campaigners can force MPs to stop advertising their contact details to their constituents shows that this is not just an issue for Jews or supporters of Israel to worry about.

However, these campaigns do have a specific impact on Jews, because diaspora Jewish life is wrapped up with Israel in a way that is impossible to separate. To take one example: each year, around half the films that are shown in the UK's highly successful Jewish Film Festival are made in Israel, or have some Israeli involvement in their production. Ban the Israeli films and you effectively disembowel the Jewish Film Festival.

The Globe to Globe Shakespeare Festival features 37 theatre companies from around the world, each performing in their own language. Clearly, it is mainly Jews who will go to see Habima's Hebrew-language play that the boycotters want to see cancelled. Meanwhile, as the Jewish Chronicleeditorial points out, the theatre companies from, for example, China, which occupies Tibet; Turkey, which imprisons more journalists than any other country on earth; or Russia, which killed tens of thousands in Chechnya and has armed Assad's regime to do the same in Syria; are all untouched by the boycotters. Perhaps the excuse is that none of these theatre companies have any connections to their governments. I am guessing, though, that over the past decade at least some of the 37 signatories to the Guardian letter have performed at UK venues that get Arts Council funding, at the same time that the UK government was at war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is understandable that Hebrew-speaking UK theatre-goers might look at these contradictions and worry that they were being singled out for special treatment.

Similarly, Jews have a particular interest in public debates about Israel. If expressing pro-Israel views leads to death threats, the impact this has on the willingness and ability of pro-Israel people to join in these debates will fall dispropotionately on Jews. It should go without saying that democracy has failed if any member of the public, much less an MP, is silenced through this kind of intimidation.

Anti-Israel campaigners call their efforts BDS - Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions - but the last two parts have completely failed to affect trade links between the UK and Israel, which went up by 34% last year. It is only the first part - the boycott of Israelis and Israeli organisations in cultural and academic life - which has made any headway whatsoever. Yet this is the area where British Jews are most affected, and arguably are affected much more than anyone in Israel. "The vast majority" of British Jews, according to a 2010 survey, "exhibit strong personal support for, and affinity with, Israel". BDS campaigners will fail to prevent new ventures like the UK-Israel Technologies Hub, but they may succeed in making the vast majority of British Jews feel intimidated, threatened and singled-out.

Tomorrow night Jews around the world begin celebrating the festival of Pesach, a story  of persecution, redemption and freedom. The Pesach Seder service ends with the line, "Next Year in Jerusalem". Perhaps someone in a BDS campaign will suggest that this should be amended to: "Next Year in West Jerusalem, within the 1967 borders". Or perhaps this year will see a new understanding amongst pro-Palestinian campaigners for the complex but legitimate relationship between Israel and diaspora Jews, and a new respect for Jewish concerns about where some of their activities might lead.

Wishing all our readers a Pesach Sameach.

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