In Praise of Political Rallies

Peaceful protests can have a significant effect on decisions. On August 15, 2014 the Tricycle Theater, located in an ethnically diverse area in London, withdrew its objections to the funding arrangements for the UK Jewish Film Festival (UKJFF). The artistic director of Tricycle had made it a condition that the Festival organizers not accept funding, about $2,000 that was being provided by the Israeli Embassy in London. The organizers of the Festival refused to accede to Tricycle’s demand and cancelled the event during which it was due to show 26 films.

However, following public demonstrations and strong criticism of its decision the Tricycle changed its mind. It withdrew its objection to the funding arrangement and said there will be no restrictions on funding from the Israeli Embassy. It invited the UKJFF back on the same terms as in the previous eight years when its premises were used for the festival. It is now too late for the UKJFF to be held this year, but the Tricycle hopes, together with UKJFF, to begin the process of “rebuilding trust and confidence with a view to holding events in the future”.

This is a welcome victory for common sense and justice. The Tricycle now acknowledges, “dialogue, reconciliation, and engagement will resolve points of difference.” Whether the Tricycle is sincere or not is open to argument and it is beside the point. What is clear is that the protest staged outside the Theater after its original decision had its effect. The Tricycle was relating its attitude to the Film Festival to its opinions, expressed or presumed, to events concerning the conflict in the Gaza Strip between Hamas and Israel. The British actress Maureen Lipman put it succinctly, “The Tricycle have decided to punish Jewish people in the diaspora for one view of what is taking place in the Middle East and that is quite unacceptable.”

The Tricycle’s artistic director, Indhu Rubasingham, at first had wanted even more. She asked to review and vet the 26 films to be shown, an argument for outright censorship that the UKJFF rightly refused. She then brought up the issue of the very small token amount of funding provided by the Israeli embassy. She claimed, in language somewhat oblique, that she wanted to keep the Tricycle “politically neutral in a very combustive area.” As Lipman pointed out, she was conflating Israel with Jews in general.

This explanation, or excuse, of “neutrality” is surprisingly naïve and somewhat confusing coming from a 43-year-old sophisticated individual of Sri Lankan descent. By her own admission, she said that the UKJFF was a “Jewish Festival,” and she regarded it as a celebration of Jewish culture that is imperative and important, not an Israeli event. She had linked a critical, or what she thought was a “neutral,” view towards Israel with the censorship of a Jewish event. In fact, she had chosen, inadvertently, a form of BDS over a meaningful Jewish experience.

Surprisingly, Nicholas Hytner, the director of the National Theater, supported the Tricycle decision. In a rather unclear if safe statement, he defended it by saying, “Tricycle has a clear responsibility to make no statement about the dispute that is behind the current conflict.” His statement is oblivious to the implications of Tricycle’s actions, thus revealing his own bias.

Tricycle can justifiably be accused of hypocrisy. Earlier this year, without expressing any qualms, Tricycle hosted the London Asian Film Festival, which was partly funded by the Indian Government, whose record on human rights is not exactly stellar. Tricycle’s attempt to censor the UKJFF was not only wrong but also foolish and counterproductive. Every experienced filmgoer knows that a Jewish Film Festival includes some films that are favorable to aspects of Israeli life, but also consistently some that are critical.

The original decision of Tricycle was particularly irresponsible at a moment when in central London pro-Palestinian demonstrations about Gaza featured statements of “Kill the Jews,” and “Hitler was right.” Tricycle may have sincerely thought it had a policy of “neutrality.” Now that it has changed its mind, one can assume it understands that banning a Jewish film festival has no relevance to and does not contribute to peace in the Middle East. On the other hand, an anti-Israeli attitude creates a context in which anti-Semitism flourishes.

An even more important lesson can be drawn from the Tricycle case: peaceful protest against and rational criticism of anti-Israel behavior and of anti-Semitism, subtle or more open, does have an impact. Demonstrations in a number of European countries, as well as in the United States, organized by pro-Palestinian groups, have relentlessly demonized the actions of Israel for defending itself against the several thousand rockets rained against it by Hamas, the terrorist group that occupies and controls the Gaza Strip. Those events have been characterized by heated passion, rage, violence as well as non-violence, and expressions of hatred towards Jews as well as the State of Israel. Paradoxically, the Palestinian rhetoric of demonization is not shared by most of the Arab world today.

Considerable emotion has been aroused in the U.S. and in Europe by the media photos of civilians, especially children, who have been killed or injured in Gaza by Israeli retaliation against the rockets. At no point do these expressions of emotion express themselves at the horror of the war crimes committed by Hamas in using those civilians as human shields to protect its terrorists from an Israeli strike. Rarely does one see photos of the schools, mosques, and hospitals from where the Hamas rockets are launched.

The truth has not yet fully penetrated that Hamas is carrying out the mission of Iran with the assistance of the Muslim Brotherhood and their patrons Turkey and Qatar. Israel is combatting the terrorist groups, Hamas and Hizb’allah, not the Arab states. Those groups have no interest in any peaceful negotiations but have the objective of the elimination of Israel. The moral asymmetry is clear. If Hamas stopped firing there would be peace. If Israel stopped firing it would be eliminated.

This truth should be known so that well-meaning people can reach rational judgments on the hostilities begun by Hamas. Traditional ways of disseminating the truth by books, articles, letter writing, lobbying, petitions, and discrete diplomatic means must continue. These traditional methods have recently been augmented by social networking. Protests as well as news can be conveyed by the use of online social networking services, especially that of Twitter with the sending and reading tweets of 140-character text messages. The sheer amount of these messages -- countless hundreds of millions -- now affect political and economic events.  

But there is something powerful about people protesting in the streets that none of the other means of protest can match. They are important for countering the falsehoods and negativism in the hostility to Israel and for instilling excitement, enthusiasm, and courage in those challenging those falsehoods. They can influence political behavior and views on the Middle East as well as energizing supporters and building coalitions.

Not everyone, particularly those in mainstream organizations, will agree that this form of organized activism is desirable as the way to express opinion on a complex public issue such as the Arab-Israeli conflict. But at a time when anti-Israeli emotions are running high, when the Palestinian demonstrations are well organized and apparently well financed, and when much of the “international community” is biased against Israel, it is well to remember the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which provides for the “right of the people peacefully to assemble.”

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