We welcome Israel’s national theatre

Some letters responding to the ‘dismay‘ of Richard Wilson, Caryl Churchill, Emma Thompson, Mike Leigh, Mark Rylance and other boycotters who hope to wipe Israel off the stage of The Globe Theatre, where Israeli company Habima have been scheduled to perform the Merchant of Venice in Hebrew.

One letter, We welcome Israel’s national theatre,

We are delighted to see the Globe theatre welcoming Israel‘s national theatre, Habima, to perform The Merchant of Venice in London (Letters, 4 April). Founded in the early 20th century in Moscow, Habima is one of the first Hebrew language theatres, and is a symbol not just of the cultural success of the state of Israel, but also of the resilience of a people who have united to overcome continued persecution throughout their history. Habima itself encountered persecution under the Soviet government as well after the Russian revolution. Now, as then, there are those who wish to oppose their work, seeking to delegitimise the state of Israel and its success, the Jewish people, and even the Hebrew language itself.

Habima’s productions have always explored the challenges faced by the Jewish people, and its presentation of The Merchant of Venice on the London stage continues that important mission. Those who wish to hijack the artistic and cultural work of Habima for their own narrow political aims simply remind us of the vital importance of such work. No artists should attempt to silence the expression of other artists simply because they are Israeli. By trying to suppress the cultural exchange of ideas they demonstrate the continued persecution of Jews and Israelis even occurring in 21st-century Britain. We condemn the acts of cultural terrorism that some may try to carry out during Habima’s performances. We welcome Israel’s national theatre to London as another fine example of the UK and Israel’s many shared values.

Arnold Wesker, Ronald Harwood, Maureen Lipman, Simon Callow, Louise Mensch MP, Steven Berkoff

And another – For artists … it is an act of self-harm

If there is one justification for art – for its creation and its performance – it is that art proceeds from and addresses our unaligned humanity. Whoever would go to art with a mind already made up, on any subject, misses what art is for. So to censor it in the name of a political or religious conviction, no matter how sincerely held, is to tear out its very heart.

For artists themselves to do such a thing to art is not only treasonable; it is an act of self-harm. One could almost laugh about it, so Kafkaesque is the reasoning: The Merchant of Venice, acted in Hebrew, a troubling work of great moral complexity (and therefore one that we should welcome every new interpretation of), to be banned not by virtue of itself, but because of where the theatre company performing it had also performed.

But the laughter dies in our throats. With last week’s letter to the Guardian, McCarthyism came to Britain. You could hear the minds of people in whom we vest our sense of creative freedom snapping shut. And now we might all be guilty by association: of being in the wrong place or talking to the wrong people or reading the wrong book. Thus does an idée fixe make dangerous fools of the best of us.

Howard Jacobson

Boycotters of Israel’s artistic and cultural bodies fail in their stated aim on behalf of Palestinians. The boycott is badly conceived, discriminatory, badly targeted activism which abandons a sober look at how Israeli society and politics works and instead lashes out at Israel’s little guys – who are (and there may be a weird psychology at work here) often the ones in Israeli society most likely to share the boycotters’ view of Palestinians as subjected to grave injustice. Does anybody seriously believe it likely that those little guys will suddenly start refusing state money – taxpayers’ money, their livelihood – and hold their government responsible for their ill fortune rather than the boycotters who are most immediately responsible for harming them and the various genocidal entities dotted round their regional neighbourhood, who threaten to? Seriously? And if they do, where is the mechanism for Palestinian emancipation or a change of heart in the Israeli electorate? And it goes without saying that the boycotters don’t offer them any compensation or alternative support, which is the ultimate chutzpah. Refusal to join in with this weird boycotting game is the only dignified response. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which itself exists in a very unstable Middle East context, and a very oppressive world, obviously needs a different approach – creating reasons to cede ground and power.

And in the absence – over the decade-long lifetime of this particular incarnation – of any gains on behalf of Palestinians as far as I can see, boycotting Israel has counter-productive side effects. Paradoxically in the case of the cultural boycott the fabrications and authoritarian pieties of boycotters represent a new orthodoxy which brings out many people’s instinct for transgression. The trouble is, even if the boycotters of Habima aren’t themselves harbouring antisemitic beliefs (and maybe some of them are) their hostility, closed-minded bias and heroic self-image are midwife to a much more intentional antisemitism of a ruthlessness they can’t or won’t imagine, where the stakes for those who resist it will be far higher. So the renovated far right Harts, Atzmons, Eisens of this world gain ground, slipping onto programmes and campuses where they would never have been invited before boycotters started making out out that attacking Israel was the same as speaking truth to power.

The Globe Theatre deserves credit for refusing to participate in laying that ground.

12 Responses to “We welcome Israel’s national theatre”

  1. John Lesser Says:

    Emma Thompson? Mike Leigh? I can’t believe it! Boycotting Israeli theatre? I’m speechless. My only hope is that their names were mixed up with someone else’s. Mr. Jacobson has so eloquently reacted to the boycott that all I can add is: Though I would never stoop to such misguided policies as boycotting them and their films it won’t be the same for me – watching a Mike Leigh film or seeing what I thought once was the ultimate Shakesperian-Jane Austen actress, Emma Thompson.
    I feel so disillusioned…

  2. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    I, for one, won’t be going to the Habimah production of “Merchant”. However, it is hardly for the same reason(s) as the signatories to that letter linked to in the first paragraph above. Others of the “usual suspects” could be added: Trevor Griffiths, Miriam Margolyes, Jonathan Miller (he always has seemed to want to distance himself from any identification with the Jewish community) and Alexei Sayle. One name does surprise me: that of David Aukin. Back in the days when he was Artistic Director of the Leicester Haymarket Theatre, his children and ours were friends and attended the local Maccabi together. Further, he and his wife (the director Nancy Meckler) appeared to have no problems associating with the the local Jewish community, which was very pro-Israel. I do note that Nancy Meckler’s name does not appear on the list of signatories.

    However, i won’t be going, because I neither speak nor understand Hebrew (other than for liturgical purposes). Actually, even that isn’t a particularly good reason. Back before the regime fell, we saw, in Leicester, a production, in Romanian, of Richard III. The Caucescu regime must have thought that a 400 year old play would be politically harmless. How wrong they were! The company interpreted the central role as of a ruler who went mad _because_ he murdered all who stood in his way. It was political dynamite.

    Actually, even that’s not the whole story: I feel that I’ve seen enough productions of the Merchant to last me another lifetime. I saw Olivier’s at the National (before the south Bank complex was built); Anthony Sher, playing Shylock as a Levantine Jewish merchant; Dustin Hoffman (yes _that_ Dustin Hoffman) playing him as an East European Jew, knowing he’s doomed, but forced to play out his role, nevertheless; a small theatre production somewhere, set in Mussolini’s Italy; even, would you believe, a musical version. Enough already!

    Actually, given the motives of the signatories above, perhaps I should go after all, if only to show solidarity for freedom of the arts and artistic interpretation everywhere. My wife is going (she understands and speaks Hebrew). Perhaps I need to find out if there any tickets left…

  3. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Oh, I meant to add: John Lesser, it’s okay for an individual to “boycott” anything at all. The offence is demanding that everyone else does it as well. I’ve decided (after his refusal to attend an arts festival/conference in Israel, where he would be free to criticise the Israeli government) not to go to any Mike Leigh films. My loss, but everyone else can attend or not as they wish. I refuse to start, join or support in any way any “Boycott Mike Leigh” movement. Same goes for all the others on the or any list.

  4. Ignorance is Bliss Says:

    At the 1972 Olympics, Israeli athletes were killed for no reason other than they were Israeli.
    Now 40 years later, a sentence of global, cultural death has been passed on an Israeli theatre company and Israeli actors for no other reason than they are Israeli.
    Once again, Europe’s and especially the British obsession with Jews rises to the surface that includes the belief that, somehow, Jewish ‘crimes’ are are of different quality to non-Jewish crimes. How else to explain why Israel and only Israel?

  5. Lev Bronstein Says:

    Like the first letter I also fear there will be an act of “cultural terrorism” designed to disrupt the performance, which is a great shame for the audience and the actors involved. I’ve seen Habima in Tel Aviv and they are really good.
    There was another letter in response to this in the Guardian pointing out that there is a Chinese theatre company performing at the Globe, and yet no one in favour of boycotting Israeli actors is suggesting a boycott or complaining about China’s illegal occupation of Tibet ‘in defiance of international law’. And why not? Only Israeli actors are complicit with the actions of their government apparently. The irrationality and hypocracy of this mind set is fairly obvious to all except the sanctimonious involved in it.

  6. Brian Robinson Says:

    28 & 29 April, National Theatre of China, Richard III (Tibet, human rights etc)
    25 & 26 May, Theatre Wallay, Pakistan, Taming of the Shrew (“Explores the difficulties encountered by modern Pakistani women” — Globe programme. Sexual violence against women, bride burning, “honour” killings, nearly 1000 reported last year, and on and on. Not sure how this Shakespearian comedy can convey these horrors.)
    2 & 3 May The South Sudan Theatre Company (Cymbeline) (Ethnic violence seems ongoing — more horrors)
    And a few more I’ve not mentioned.
    So there’s plenty to boycott if one is so minded.
    In my innocence when I joined the demo against the King of Saudia Arabia on his 2007 state visit (as he was dined by HMQ at Buck House) I thought I’d see all, no, at least some of, the gang I see when I join some demo’s for Palestinians, Not one of them. Same for the Rally for Free Expression in I think 2006. (And I have the photos to prove it in each case.)
    Selective moral righteousness. Or maybe a bit of displaced aggression? What Israel often does is bad, and I oppose it publicly, but what it does is nothing — nothing — when compared to what so many of these wretched regimes around the world do. (Of course their being thoroughly nasty doesn’t mitigate Israel’s ugly behaviour in the Occupied Territories, but we shouldn’t be selective and we shouldn’t lose our sense of proportion in our activism.)

  7. Jonathan Goodson Says:

    It’s also worth mentioning this comment piece in JPost which explains well how the old anti-Jewish prejudices of early 20thC Europe are effectively being transposed into a different, but essentially similar, anti-Israel key in the early 21stC:


    Although discussing the recent Gunter Grass poem, what it says arguably applies equally to the attempt to boycott Habima: “the fashionable anti-Israelism of European intellectual salons makes Ahmedinejad’s calls for our extinction palatable.”

    • Lev Bronstein Says:

      Interesting read. It is of course true that highlighting a concern of antisemitism in this instance will be seen as politically incorrect from certain quarters. These people want to understand antisemitism as something distinctly of the past, with no connection to the present other than as moral point of reference to the Israeli Palestinian conflict in which of course the victims have now become the victimisers.
      I think Howard Jacobson’s article from the Independent (2009) ‘Let’s see the “criticism” of Israel for what it really is’ is also worth while reading, and highly relevant still.

  8. Brian Robinson Says:

    As the British Council is a BBC-style public corporation, funded by the taxpayer, it is fair to say that its collaboration with a dictatorship is our collaboration too … “These big events give China’s Communist party the international face it craves and helps normalise its repression of free speech back at home”, [said novelist Ma Jian]

    — Nick Cohen here http://bit.ly/HGwurZ

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