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.