The Edinburgh International Film Festival succumbed to pressure from Palm D’Or winner and RESPECT national council member Ken Loach to return, as filthy lucre, the small sum of £300 donated by the Israeli Embassy for the travel expenses of film director Tali Shalom Ezer. Under the auspices of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Ken Loach also demanded that audiences boycott her film, Surrogate* the festival. This is the kind of irrelevance which so often passes for pro-Palestinian activism these days.
Loach’s insistence that “We all know” that the individual herself is welcome seems like a strange mind game. Imagine you were presenting at an event and a celebrity-led campaign for your work to be boycotted* to demonise your country and prevent it from supporting you went unopposed by the organisers – would you feel welcome? Only if you were a masochist.
The film is a romance set in a sex therapy centre. Although the EIFF decided to put up the money itself, it gave credence to Ken Loach on his weakest subject, Israel. Ken Loach says he finds the rise in antisemitic attacks on Jews in Europe “understandable” and believes that most Jews, because they support the existence of Israel, are responsible for these:
“Nothing has been a greater instigator of anti-Semitism than the self-proclaimed Jewish state itself. Until we deal with that, until that is acknowledged, then racism, I’m afraid, will be with us.”
If the acts of a Jewish state are accepted as a license for antisemitism against Jews in general, and if this phenomenon is regarded as understandable by campaigning anti-Zionist bystanders, then they defeat their own argument that there is no need for a Jewish state. That’s even before you go looking for evidence that these moral beacons care equally about atrocities whether perpetrated by Sri Lankans, Sudanese, or Congolese – and find none.
Tali Shalom Ezer points out that Loach is attempting, in an act which bears comparison to political censorship, to pull art within his orbit of protest against Israel:
“He has created a situation in which going to see Surrogate means supporting the state of Israel. He has made this connection.”
It’s been a long time since anybody wanted to censor Ken Loach, but as Jeremy Isaacs points out, there was once a time when he cared about this kind of thing.
The EIFF organisers are sorry in unspecified ways. Their policy had hitherto been to avoid such “dangerous precedents” as refusing money from one or another country; now they have singled Israel out as their only pariah as if it were the worst state in the world.
Shalom Ezer originally said she would not attend EIFF. This is called self-boycott, and is practised by individuals who feel unwelcome, unwanted, singled out for political tests or particular scrutiny, and obliged to run gauntlets. In South Africa, where the academic, cultural and sporting boycott played only an illusary role in overthrowing apartheid, Haricombe and Lancaster found that academics who were not the stated target of a boycott were nevertheless driven away:
“Some of the affected respondents had encountered the boycott more directly. 16.4% had experienced the refusal of international scholars to collaborate with them. The largest proportion attributed this to pressure from the prospective collaborator’s professional or institutional peers, but refusal was also made on the grounds of moral support for the boycott. 49% had had to overcome problems with access to textbooks and/or periodicals. 25.9% had been denied conference participation or had experienced boycott action during the conference, such as denial of attendance at the official banquet or opening ceremonies, last-minute downgrading of presentations, and in its most extreme form, demonstrations or staged walk-outs prior to their presentation.
The anxiety and even fear this engendered in South African academics had a powerfully isolating effect on the individuals affected, one response to which was self-boycott. Haricombe and Lancaster define self-boycott as “the adoption of a self-imposed restriction by an individual to prevent/circumvent a penalty that would otherwise be imposed from elsewhere” (p96). Several interviewees had stopped attempting to participate in international conferences in order to avoid embarrassment.
The phenomenon of self-boycott emerged strongly, but it had not been explicitly anticipated in the questionnaire and the authors think that it was probably under-identified. Self-boycott is attributed to knowledge about boycott practice gleaned from personal experience or experience of colleagues, knowledge about the boycott policy of the country, institution or sponsoring agency, and expectation of rejection on the basis of nationality or residency. One respondent said “I don’t know what sort of response I’ll get because they … are the most anti-apartheid group … they just ignore you” and “we knew we did not have a chance” (p87). Another gave the following account (p72):
“I had problems… I could have gone on a British passport but I refused on principle to go. I’ve been in jail for my beliefs… I feel very strongly about not be allowed to go because I was in South Africa.”
This suggests that some anti-racist academics decided to self-boycott rather than avail themselves of opportunities to participate such as the selective support of the UDUSA [the then arbiter you get the impression that PACBI and BRICUP would like to be].”
It is very obvious that boycotters have no problem with this.
“Loach’s comments can’t help but be against the film-maker, the film, and their nationality, and there is no way he can support them and their film, and yet tell audiences to stay away from it. Frankly I don’t understand how he expects that to work.”
And academic boycotters in my union and beyond fuss and bluster and insist that their boycott is not at all a boycott of individuals, as if it had nothing whatsoever to do with the effects on people like Tali Shalom Ezer, and as if UCU had never circulated the PACBI call which led to these measures against individuals, or supported the Palestine Solidarity Campaign with its track record of antisemitism.
However to Shalom Ezer’s great credit she will attend the EIFF. By resolving not to self-boycott, she will deny Ken Loach and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign the inadvertant benefit of doing their work for them. Good for her.
Update 26 May: Open letters from Shalom-Ezer to Loach, and from Loach to Shalom-Ezer. Shalom-Ezer pleads with Loach to recognise that boycott helps Israel’s worst elements.
“I oppose, with all my heart, the Israeli occupation and settelments; I oppose an automatic resort to military solutions in times of conflict. I appreciate the wish to change the world by shunning what is perceived as an act of injustice, but I feel that what may seem right in theory, may be extremely wrong in practice.
In my opinion, every time a nation is subjected to a cultural boycott – be it a film or a lecture by an Israeli professor abroad – there is a tendency amongst its subjects to draw closer to more nationalistic elements; every time this happens, peace is farther away. Every time this happens, the concept of “A People that Dwells Alone” gathers more believers, and the conviction that the only way to survive is by strengthening the state’s military power, is reinforced. Every time this happens, moderate voices are hushed, art is weakened.
I do not know if you are aware of this fact, but Surrogate was filmed by Radek Ladczuk, a talented Polish cinematographer. For 21 years, Israel and Poland had no diplomatic relations; all I knew about the country came from the media and history lessons about WWII.
I approached Radek from purely artistic considerations. Our work, despite difficulties in verbal communication, has proven to me once more the power of art and the many points of similarity which join people together, everywhere. I have no doubt that collaborations of this kind promote dialogue and lessen prejudice.“
Loach’s response is generally wrong and weirdly breezy. From the end:
“Those who have attacked the boycott here are the usual suspects, old hacks and right wing extremists. One thought you were a man. They would embarrass you.
Please stand with the oppressed against the oppressor. I hope you enjoy the Festival.”
It’s clear who is being directly oppressed in this instance: Tali.
*Regarding the strike-throughs, prompted by Alec in the comments below I went looking for horse’s mouth evidence that Loach was calling for a boycott of Surrogate and found none. What Loach did was call on the world to boycott the whole film festival because Israel tried to assist a young director to attend. He conveniently passed over his party’s double-speak that “the State” of Israel should not be “invited to any kind of cultural week”, a view echoed by organisations which frequently aggess individual Israelis. As far as I know “the State” was not invited – Tali Shalom Ezer was.