PACBI drives a wedge into coexistence inside Israel

Mira Awad is an Israeli performer. Recently I saw her in a production of Plonter at The Barbican after which she and other cast members answered questions. The rehearsals for the production had been taxing – some of the Palestinians had found working with former IDF soldiers hard, and one of the Jewish Israeli actors said that the process of negotiating a performance about the Israel-Palestine conflict with Palestinians had obliged him to confront his own defensive reflexes as an Israeli Jew. The atmosphere was so incendiary that cast and crew had had to come up with a rule that whatever was said, nobody could leave the room during an argument. The result was a play which took a view of Israeli society with which most British anti-Zionists were satisfied.

A day into Israel’s Gaza offensive, Mira Awad’s close friend and long-time collaborator the superstar singer Achinoam Nini (Noa) was selected to represent Israel in the 2009 Eurovision song contest. She suggested that Mira Awad join her and the selection committee was enthusiastic. Noa is of Jewish Arab Israeli background, Mira Awad is of Christian Arab Israeli background – they thought this showed Israel in a good light. It is permitted to try to look good for the Eurovision Song Contest.

Neither Mira Awad nor Noa is stranger to controversy. In an intemperate open letter to the Palestinian people in January in which she called Hamas a “cancer”, Noa stormed:

And today, today I say this; we have one joint enemy, one awful joint enemy and we must all work together to eradicate it! That enemy is fanaticism my friends. That enemy is extremism in all its ugly reincarnations and manifestations. That enemy is all men who put “god” above life, who claim “god” as their sword and shield, who claim “god” is on THEIR side. Jews, Muslims, Christians, all share this black streak. All have fallen to this destructive, horrible fanaticism at some point in their histories and the results have been devastating.

I have often spoken out against fanaticism in my country, for I find it repulsive and unbearable. In government, in settlements, in synagogues, I am passionately against it. I have risked my career and my wellbeing for this belief.

Mira Awad is no mindless patriot either – last year she said of Israel:

“I do feel, to some extent, that this country does not represent my true being … When the Israeli national anthem is played I am usualy sad and embarrassed cause it doesn’t stand for anyone of my national symbols”.

The New York Times reports that sections of the Israeli left turned on Noa, even though she has refused to perform in the occupied West Bank and recognises that in this conflict both sides have to “apologise, recognise and share”. They got together a petition demanding that the two stand down. The singers noted this, but:

“Neither Ms. Nini, 39, nor Ms. Awad, 33, has been deterred. But since they consider themselves peace advocates, they are a bit surprised. The antiwar movement, they say, seems to have turned into a Hamas apology force. That, together with the political turn rightward in Israel, means that while the two are being sent to represent this mixed and complex society, they also feel a bit orphaned by it.”

This determination from Mira Awad and Noa is strengthened by eight years of collaboration. People should leave them alone – this is an entry to an international song contest, obviously not an official commitment and obviously not a solution to the conflict, but a vision of a shared existence. Israel badly needs more of such partnerships, between two politically-engaged women of different religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds in a country where background on its own can determine ignorance, conflict and hatred.  You’d have to be eaten up with rancour to object to it.

PACBI – the campaign for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel – object to it. PACBI left Mira Awad alone over Plonter but for Eurovision they have mobilised against her with a particularly nasty open letter.  They address her not as an Israeli but as a “Palestinian living in Israel” and call her “utterly misguided”. They tell her she is administering a “slap in the face” to Palestinians and that they find her “appalling”. They attribute her decision to participate to her selfish desire for “professional advancement and career considerations”.

And yet they ignore Noa – or rather, they call her the “colonial voice of the occupier” and try to make Mira Awad ashamed to work with her. I think if Israel had entered two non-Jewish Israelis into Eurovision, PACBI would have targeted them both. But as things stand, PACBI demands that one Israeli who is not Jewish boycotts her friend, an Israeli who is. PACBI has lifted its figleaf again – it’s not solidarity against the oppressors it wants, it’s solidarity against Jewish Israelis. Noa and Mira Awad are trying to heal a wound in Israeli society. It is typical – and indeed crucial to it’s agenda – that PACBI is going all out to keep that wound raw and open.

For me, this latest from PACBI epitomises the destructive pressure that Israelis and Palestinians who want to move beyond Israel’s mosaic of different ethnic communities and towards a shared future will experience if this academic and cultural boycott is permitted to grow.

For an antidote, see The Abraham Fund.

Update 18 May: they came 16th. Rachel Shabi comments.

14 Responses to “PACBI drives a wedge into coexistence inside Israel”

  1. Another Observer Says:

    Intersting isn’t it.

    PACBI think that only Jews can be Israeli. They spend a lot of time telling people that Israeli is for Jews only. They spend a lot of time telling people that Jews have committed and continues its practice of ethnic cleansing.

    When confronted with overt evidence to the contrary, what is their response……………….?

    To demand that real life come to mirror their malevolent ideological fantasies of what they imagine Israel is like.

    It is not Israel that is calling for ethnic cleansing of non-Jewish Israelis. It is PACBI.

  2. Ami Nahshon Says:

    Thank you for providing a link to The Abraham Fund as “an antidote”. We are very proud of the work we do to build a shared society in Israel, and we invite UK readers to join the new “UK Friends of The Abraham Fund” as a way of supporting our vision and our work on the ground. For information about the UK Friends, go to

  3. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Mira, or whoever wrote this piece, not only anti-zionists (British or otherwise) found “Plonter” something which “satisfied” them. Five of us, all Zionists (though by no means uncritical – heck, people know my views and I’m a signatory of the Euston Manifesto to boot) saw it together, and it gave us plenty to talk about. Allowing for it being a drama and not a documenmtary, all five of us felt that it told a “true” story. Further, one of us had been living in Israel from 1965-68 (not me) and found resonances of _that_ period as well.

    Because of this dramatic “truth”, _of course_ PACBI (and I would imagine JfJfP, IJV, J-BIG, etc) found this uncomfortable enough to need to find a way to undermine the tale it told. Equally obviously (unless they’d actually _seen_ “Plonter”), they couldn’t attack the play, so they attacked one of the actors.

    The pity is that Palestinians won’t be able to see the play, although Israelis (Jew and non-Jew alike) could have: it started at the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv and had, for the UK audiences benefit, English surtitles as well as Hebrew and Arabic ones, too. No excuse for not understanding what was being said.

  4. R Says:

    “Noa is of Jewish Arab Israeli background”

    What a ridiculous thing to say. I am sure she does not identify heself as such. She is an Israeli of yemenite heritage. Key word: Israeli.
    I don’t know why you guys keep calling Sephardic/Mizrahi people arabs. It is deepy offensive to us. We are no more arabs than you are anglo-saxons

  5. Karl Pfeifer Says:

    Sincerity is a good thing and a way to progress.
    “I do feel, to some extent, that this country does not represent my true being … When the Israeli national anthem is played I am usually sad and embarrassed cause it doesn’t stand for anyone of my national symbols”. This has to remain for there is only one Jewish country. A country which is giving to its Arab minority rights no other minority enjoys in the region. But no Arab in Arab states enjoys the rights Arabs have in Israel. So Mira Awad will have to wait, until solid peace is established for changing the national anthem.

    Who is afraid of truth?

    To establish the truth – even with the methods of a theatre – is a good beginning.
    There is a post-modern theory, that peace can be achieved only if Israeli Jews accept the Palestinian narrative, which is to a big part invention.
    Peace can be achieved only if both parties accept the truth.
    Of course for the post-modern historian there are only narratives. However there is historical truth. One cannot accept that narrative is more important than truth, that there is no historical truth
    If Palestinians really wanted a Palestinian state, they would have established in all those years and with all that assistance at least the structure of a state. But – the sad fact is – that they have established the ministries and offices of a state but not the structures.
    In the West Bank utter corruption is rampant, in Gaza religious zealots are the rulers thus excluding the possibility of a necessary compromise.
    It looks as if the most important part of Palestinian elite believes that demography will solve the problem and that it is better not to make a historical compromise, but to continue to demand the withdrawal of Jews from territories occupied in 1967 and at the same time incite the Palestinian population including already small children against Jews. This is well documented by Memri.
    This is probably the main reason for the failure of the Zionist left. The anti-Zionist left tries to make forget such important facts but must fail, because most Jewish Israelis will not accept their mendacious “narrative”, which is blaming only the Jewish-Israeli side for the situation and asking for immediate withdrawal from territories. Israelis remember what happened after withdrawal from Gaza, how this was seen as a sign of weakness and how the rulers of Gaza avoided any constructive approach to better the life of the inhabitants. The worse is the better is their principle. And until now their policy to achieve the worse has been successful.
    That such a play can’t be performed in Gaza is not surprising. But why can’t it be shown on the West Bank?

  6. Classifications are all Says:

    Get over it!

  7. Mira Vogel Says:

    R, sorry to offend you. I think the key word is Israeli too, and I also think it is up to people to identify however they like, and that this is sometimes a political choice.

    I didn’t “call her Arab” though. A few questions – if ‘Arab’ is a cultural and linguistic description (as well as ethnic), is my use of “Jewish Arab Israeli background” really so inappropriate for somebody whose family comes from Yemen? And why do you think “we guys keep calling Sephardic/Mizrahi people Arabs”? And by “us”, are you disowning Albert Memmi, Ella Shohat, David Shashat, and Amiel Alcalay?

    I’m prepared to be put right on this, but it seems from your comment that while you don’t like my description of this one woman, you are more than willing to speak for all ‘Sephardic/Mizrahi’ people by proscribing a way of referring to all or any.

  8. Lynne T Says:

    R and Mira:

    I’m an Ashkenaz, but I have to say I find it an odd way to describe Jews from Muslim/Islamic countries. I do know of one Sephardi Jew — a Canadian journalist named Ralph Benmurgui, who called himself an ‘Arab Jew” in a documentary series he filmed a year ago called “My Israel”, but the question in my mind is whether Arabs see Levantine and Sephardic Jews as Arabs? I doubt it, but I don’t know. And really, this mirrors the experience of Ashkenazim too. Were we ever really accepted as native to any of the central and eastern European countries we settled in?

  9. Mira Vogel Says:

    I don’t really know either Lynne. But the difference between Noa’s Jewish background and Mira Awad’s Christian one being the difference that PACBI was trying to wedge, I wanted to refer to (though not emphasise) similarities. Fail!

  10. R Says:

    “Albert Memmi, Ella Shohat, David Shashat, and Amiel Alcalay?”
    My goodness , what a hodgepodge! Memmi and Shohat in the same sentence? Why mention writers with tortured souls who speak for themselves and muddy their anti-zionist world view with identity politics? It is like the Turkish PM quoting Atzmon.
    I am talking about ordinary Jewish people and how they self identify and view themselves. Are you at all aware that at least 50% of the Moslems of the Maghreb reject the Arab label because they identify themselves as Berbers? They consider the Arabs invaders. I don’t remember my ancestors riding with them from Arabia.
    Call them Tunisian Jews, Iraki Jews, American Jews, Mexican Jews. Or whatever. You would not call Mexican Jews, Aztec Jews or Mayan Jews, would you? I never heard anyone call Ashkenazim Slavic Jews.
    I do know what you were trying to say in your post and do appreciate the sentiment. I guess I should get over it as advised by another poster!!!

    Lynn: I know for a fact that Benmergui ‘s family is from Tangiers and he is a Spanish speaker. Have no idea why he would call himself that unless it is a new hip fashion I am unaware of.

  11. Evan Says:

    Lynne – interesting comparison. I have heard some pro-Palestinians activists/writers derisively term Israelis “Poles and Russians who came to steal Arab land” (hell, there was even one article I read which claimed that Natan Scharansky’s “kith and kin” were fighting wars in the Balkans!), while the truth is, if you asked your average Russian, Ukrainian or Pole whether the Jews that live (or used to live) among them were in fact Russians, Ukrainians or Poles, they’d laugh in your face.

    Funnily, Noa once mentioned in an interview that her partnership with Mira Awad subverts commonly held notions on the “racial” dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with her being a dark-skinned Yemenite Jew and Mira a light-skinned Israeli Arab.

  12. Frank Adam Says:

    Hear! Hear! to Evan; and now that we have Chief of Staff Ashkenasi whose father came from Bulgaria and his mother from Syria it is about time everybody concerned stopped bothering too much about where the immigrants to Israel came from and remembers that the Arab countries with Jewish communities were NOT too friendly either.
    Maimonides’ family fled to Fez because “fundamentalist” Almohade Moslems made life in Cordoba unpleasant for kaffirs, and till 1948 Yemeni Jews were forbidden to ride horses and all the other Code of Omar deliberate humiliations. Well int the sixties there were Hebrew primers in Israel which in one of their anecdotes madethe point th atso and so enjoyed being a mounted policem,enbecause in Yemen Jews were forbidden horses – [and government jobs].

  13. Frank Adam Says:

    Well into the sixties there were Hebrew primers in Israel which in one of their anecdotes made the point that so and so enjoyed being a mounted policeman because in Yemen Jews were forbidden horses – [and government jobs].

  14. Tali Shalom-Ezer won’t do Ken Loach’s work for him « Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism Says:

    […] to any kind of cultural week”, echoed by organisations which frequently aggess individual Israelis. As far as I know “the State” was not invited – Tali Shalom Ezer was. Posted in […]

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