Anti-Israeli Protestors Should Come with Clean Hands

Hypocrisy took the center stage inside and outside a theater in London in May 2015. A number of British theatrical people, actors, writers and directors, calling themselves Artists for Palestine, condemned those individuals who had protested the performance of the Palestinian play The Siege. The play, produced by the Freedom Theater Company, based in Jenin in the West Bank, had its premiere in Manchester, then opened in the Battersea Arts Center in London, playing to sold-out audiences, and then made a tour of British cities.

The Palestinians were not without resources. British Arts Council, in reality British tax-payers, contributed £14,000 for the UK tour. The tour of Freedom Theater was supported by the FT UK Friends, which provided financial help from the British Shalom Salaam Trust, an arm of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, run by Zoe Lafferty, British co-director of the play, well known for her support of the BDS movement. Lafferty has remarked that the aim was to present the truth of what was happening on the ground.

The Artists for Palestine published a letter in the Daily Mail on May 8, 2015, declaring that as “theatre practitioners” they were alarmed about the protest by “the pro-Israel lobby.” The group included prominent personalities such as the actor Mark Rylance, who played the lead as Thomas Cromwell in the TV series "Wolf Hall", and the playwright Caryl Churchill.

These pro-Palestinian personalities were annoyed that Palestinian voices were in danger of “being drowned out by a vociferous pro-Israel lobby that smears all Palestinians as terrorists and antisemites.” It would perhaps not be appropriate to regard these personalities as anti-Semitic, but they also were unhappy with the Board of Deputies, the representative body of British Jewry, that they described as “an organization with a shocking record of acting to suppress cultural and academic events.” In contrast, they declared that the FT was living proof that telling stories and entertaining audiences are powerful acts of resistance to oppression.

These pro-Palestinians have given hypocrisy a bad name for a number of reasons. Those very people have been active in the BDS movement, and in the attempt to prevent performances by Israelis and the showing of Israeli films in London. They provided funding and logistical and public support for the Palestinians. They, deliberately or otherwise, ignore the real nature of events. They said nothing about the sacrilege of a historic world-renowned church by Palestinian terrorists.

First, concerning the FT company, and the play itself. The company was founded in 2006, and its objective is to generate cultural resistance through popular culture and a catalyst for social change in the West Bank. No one can pretend that it, and the play it performed, is a neutral, impartial presentation of events rather than a propaganda vehicle. The artistic director, Nabil Al-Raee, of the Theater has asserted that the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians should not be called a “conflict,” but an “occupation.”

The Siege blandly refers to and concentrates on six Palestinian “fighters” who were among those seeking “sanctuary” during the events in April-May 2002, part of the Second Intifada stated by Yasser Arafat, concerning the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, considered to be the birthplace of Jesus. The actual siege lasted 39 days, during which 8 Palestinians were killed and one monk, who had been mistaken for a Palestinian “fighter,” was wounded.

The play addresses the Palestinians as “fighters” but they in reality were members of terrorist groups, Hamas, Al Aqsa Brigade, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Palestinian Security Forces, who had killed innocent civilians. These terrorists had fled into the Church of the Nativity, where more than 200 monks and others were present, to escape the IDF in Operation Defensive Shield. Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, claimed, incorrectly, that the gunmen had been given sanctuary and that the Basilica was a place for refuge for everybody, including fighters. 

Sabbah neglected to mention two things. One was that the gunmen had with them 40 explosive devices, several of which were booby-trapped. The other was that one of the gunmen, Ibrahim Abayat, whose role is featured in The Siege, was the commander of the terrorist cell that had murdered both an American-Israeli architect, Avi Boaz, who worked with a Palestinian partner on a housing estate in the Bethlehem area, as well as a female settler in her car.

The protest, which was joined by the actress Maureen Lipman, against the performance, aimed at counterbalancing the inaccurate, provocative, and tendentious nature of the narrative of the play, took place outside the London theater that staged The Siege, and other protests were scheduled to take place in other UK cities.

These protestors pointed out the hypocrisy involved. Their own protest was peaceful and respectful, aimed both at giving a true account of the events in Bethlehem in 2002, and in providing information about the terror employed by Palestinian groups. It was totally different from the hatred and violence exhibited by pro-Palestinian protests in trying to prevent cultural events of Israelis.

Mark Rylance, fine actor though he is, and Carol Churchill do not come to this issue with clean hands. Churchill who signed the Daily Mail letter of May10, 2015 had also on February 13, 2015 joined in a cultural boycott of Israel. She and several hundred other artists announced they would not engage in business as usual cultural relations with Israel. With an imperial gesture, Churchill, a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, declares she would not accept professional invitations to Israel, nor take funding from any institutions linked to its government. Though not known as an expert on Middle Eastern history and politics, Churchill in 2009 did write a ten-minute (sic) play, Seven Jewish Children: a play for Gaza, supposedly a reply to Israeli activity in Gaza in 2008-2009.

It is saddening that a fine actor like Rylance should have so little credibility on issues concerning Israel. In rejecting the protests against The Siege, he forgot his own shameful behavior in April 2002 when, and Churchill, were among the 37 personalities in the British theatrical world who called for the banning of a performance of the Israeli Habima Company, the most well-known and respected Hebrew language company in the world, at the Shakespeare Festival at the Globe Theater in London.

By inviting the Habima Company, Rylance and his fellow stalwart advocates of freedom asserted, the Globe, which had also invited China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia among others to the Festival, was associating itself with policies of exclusion practiced by the Israeli state and endorsed by its national theater company. He also forgot that while the protest in London against The Siege was peaceful and respectful, in contrast pro-Palestinian activists had disrupted the actual Habima performance by shouting and displaying banners of Palestinian flags.

The pro-Palestinian group also forget the many occasions when the reality of censorship as well as the spirit of hatred and violence, erupted in London and other cities against favorite targets, Israeli performers. In the same week in August 2014 protestors prevented a performance by student dancers from Ben-Gurion University at the Edinburgh Festival, while the Tricycle Theater in Kilburn, London refused to host the UK Jewish (sic) Film Festival.

On a number of occasions, performances of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (Royal Albert Hall, 2011), and the Jerusalem Quartet have been disrupted. The most recent occasion was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on April 24, 2015 when pro-Palestinian activists interrupted the Quartet playing of Mozart’s String Quartet no.14 in G Major, K 387. Even Mark Rylance and the other Artists for Palestine must be puzzled that Mozart was complicit with the Israeli players in what the disrupters called “Israeli war crimes?”

Equally, objective commentators must be puzzled why these Artists for Palestine and fellow believers adopt their negative attitude to cultural performers and events only when Israelis are involved. What can explain their continuing support for animosity, intellectual if not physical, against musicians and actors, or their ludicrous assertion that playing Mozart is one further example of Israeli belligerence? As a minimum, the Artists should be ashamed of their censorship of other artists, even when they speak Hebrew, and especially when they play Mozart.