8th May 2012

Hath a Jew not eyes?- Israeli Theatre and the BDS Movement

Curtis McLellan looks at the proposed boycott of Habima, the Israeli national theatre company.

There is legitimate criticism of Israel to be made. This I say with no caveat, no ifs or buts, no obfuscating or justification of things that are unjustifiable. Yet there is something I find more abhorrent about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement than anything else. That is its tarring of Israeli artists, academics and culture as complicit or synonymous with the government of Israel. I don’t agree with boycotting Israel because I believe it isolates an already small, encircled nation and creates a bunker mentality that manifests itself not just in government policy, but also permeates the very character of the Israeli people. They are a nation obsessed with security, and quite understandably so when the history of its often belligerent neighbours are considered: and anyone truly interested in peace knows that this is not a path conducive to creating an atmosphere of dialogue and mutual recognition.

Yet whilst the arguments made about boycotting produce in the West Bank may be persuasive, I am constantly amazed at the lengths the BDS movement will go to to promote a cultural and academic boycott of Israel. Last month, a letter signed by prominent theatre luvvies Emma Thompson, an actress and Mike Leigh a director, urged the Globe theatre to rescind the invitation to the Habima theatre company, the national theatre of Israel, to perform a version of The Merchant of Venice in Hebrew. They claim that, because Habima performs in the West Bank it is “complicit with human rights violations and the illegal colonisation of occupied land.” And I thought they were just a theatre company.

This boycotting of human beings by virtue of their nationality would in any normal scenario would be deemed utterly offensive; the outcry from Guardianistas would be deafening. But in this world where some elements are desperately seeking their own anti-Apartheid style campaign, this strange hypocrisy prevails. Two years ago, at this very University, the Deputy Ambassador of Israel was barred from speaking in our Union because of BDS policy. If our policy extends to equating the life of a human being to that of a Jaffa orange, it is a policy I want no part of.

But there is something else more troubling of this particular proposed boycott. When an artist decides that they want another artist censored or banned for a political motivation a part of being an artist, the bringing together of peoples and demolishing the barriers between them, is fundamentally challenged. Howard Jacobson, the Booker prize-winning author, put it rather eloquently: ““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.”

Poignantly, the luvvies that signed this letter have chosen to encourage The Globe theatre to boycott Habima in a production of The Merchant of Venice, a play that includes the famous Jewish money lender Shylock. This stereotype of the Jewish people has persisted for centuries, and that Habima will perform this in Hebrew is special and a wonderful moment. Of course, it isn’t for the rabid Israel haters. Their ever blurring of the line between an Israeli citizen and the actions of the Israeli state is fast resembling a victimisation of Israelis – and let us be honest, not Israeli Arabs, but Israeli Jews – that is tantamount to racism. I do not use the term anti-Semitism to attack any anti-Zionist (although, they will have you believe that anyone who dares speak out against Israel is vilified as an anti-Semite, which is clearly not the case), but there is something disturbing about the singling out of Jewish Israeli authors, actors, poets, lecturers and academics for a cultural boycott. Maybe someone can explain to me what justifies the boycott of someone who produces art and literature simply because they were born a Jew in Israel, but for the life of me I cannot see how anyone can justify it. It is certainly not left or progressive.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock gives the famous ‘Hath a Jew not eyes?’ speech, where he challenges his Christian antagonists to whether they are more noble than him. “Hath a Jew not eyes?”, he asks, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”. Israeli Jews are people also; they should not be subjected to boycotts on the virtue of them being born a Jew in Israel, and it is about time the BDS enthusiasts stop going after their pound of flesh.

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