A cultural boycott compromises the Festival’s reputation for championing freedom of speech, writes Joyce McMillan
It’s one Fringe programme entry among almost 3,000; and it looks completely innocuous, even light-hearted. “Humphrey Bogart meets Jay-Z in this contemporary and darkly comic hip-hop fable, performed entirely in rap,” says the regulation 40-word blurb from Incubator Theatre of Jerusalem for their show The City. It’s the sort of entry that appears all too often in the giant brochure for the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe, aiming at a touch of street-credibility and audience appeal by mixing a hip-hop vibe with some other genre.
This show, though, is different, because it comes from Israel, with a small amount of financial support from the Israeli culture ministry; and this week in Edinburgh, as horrific images of the Israeli assault on Gaza spread across our television screens, it has become the focus of a campaign by those who believe that a complete boycott of Israel – commercial, academic and cultural – is essential in order to put maximum pressure on the Israeli government to end the current firestorm of violence and destruction in Gaza.
So the show’s first preview performance, on Wednesday, was disrupted by a small group of demonstrators who blocked the entrance to the Reid Hall complex at Teviot Row, where the show was appearing in one of the Fringe’s busiest and most congested areas; and the management of the Underbelly venue later decided, with regret, that the levels of disruption to the dozens of other shows in the area were such that The City could not continue with its Reid Hall run, although another venue for the show is being sought.
All of which is bound to seem sad to those who cherish the idea of the Edinburgh Festival as a home of free speech, an international meeting-place where nothing is banned, and where differences can be debated in one of the safest spaces on earth. Some leading artists in Scotland, including Liz Lochhead and David Greig, signed a letter circulated two weeks ago supporting the boycott, and the withdrawal of the show; but most did not, judging – rightly, in my view – that the principle of freedom of expression trumps the need to put pressure on any government, and that a cultural boycott of Israel, under current circumstances, will do nothing to help the suffering people of Gaza.
Yet it has been both salutary and depressing, this week, to learn just how polarised and extreme this debate has become, even in countries far from the conflict, and among people whose main concern is with the banning – or not – of a Fringe show.
The long history of Israeli occupation and human rights abuse in the Palestinian territories has stoked up huge banks of simmering rage across the Arab world, among Muslims everywhere, and among all those who sympathise with the Palestinian cause; and there is no point in pretending that there are not times, on the fringes of that movement, where anger spills over into outright, racist anti-Semitism.
Yet as the veteran British-Jewish politician Gerald Kaufman pointed out in a hugely authoritative speech in the House of Commons this week, the existence of anti-Semitism, and the fact of what happened during the Holocaust, does not provide one shred of moral justification for what is now being done to the children of Gaza in the name of the Israeli state.
And I have been shocked, glancing through social media strands on the side of the cultural boycott debate which I broadly support, to see how swiftly opposition to a cultural boycott can become associated with a systematic belittling of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza, with attempts to suggest equivalence between the current suffering of Israelis and Palestinians, and with a sneering, aggressive dismissal of everyone who supports the cultural boycott as a group of authoritarian left-wingers, a “coterie” of pseudo-liberals whose instinct is to ban everyone who disagrees with them.
Early in the debate, the Scottish culture minister Fiona Hyslop issued a well-argued statement declaring the Scottish government’s clear opposition to the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza, and their shock at the human suffering involved, but rejecting the cultural boycott as a response. Yet now, we seem on the brink of a situation where that eminently sensible position is almost untenable, so strong is the pressure to declare ourselves either for the boycott and against the Israeli government, or against the boycott and therefore, in some sense, on the Israeli government’s side; and where one side of the debate, so far from according respect to those on the other, is reduced to the absurdity of framing life-long human rights campaigners like David Greig as enemies of freedom, because they have concluded that in this extreme situation, a cultural boycott – long asked for by many Palestinian artists and intellectuals – should be imposed.
For myself, my instinct is to refuse any false choice between freedom and justice, and to insist that a young Israeli theatre company has the right to speak and perform, while utterly condemning what the Israeli government does in their name. I also reserve my right, though, to respect the opinions of those who have reached a different conclusion. For behind all of this there is the horror of watching a nation armed with great military power, embarking on what must be, by any rational measure, a course of suicidal self-destruction, stoking up and strengthening with every massive explosion in densely-populated Gaza the very forces of rage and vengeance that will threaten its future survival, and the peace of the entire Middle East.
At the end of his Commons speech, Gerald Kaufman dismissed the current Israeli leadership as “not only war criminals, but fools”; it’s a harsh judgment, but one increasingly difficult to dispute. And here in Edinburgh, I hope that the young Incubator theatre company will find a new venue for their show, but will also take the time to talk to some of those who have supported and opposed the boycott, and to listen to their reasons. For in the end, the Edinburgh Festival has always been about the meeting of minds, across cultural and political boundaries; and about how these meetings, by compelling us to see the world from new perspectives, can begin processes of change and understanding that are long, slow and subtle – but finally irreversible.