Cultural boycott is more than a gesture for Gaza

People demonstrate against the Israeli festival show The City, outside the Underbelly at Teviot Place. Picture: Lesley Martin
People demonstrate against the Israeli festival show The City, outside the Underbelly at Teviot Place. Picture: Lesley Martin
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IT IS apposite the row over whether or not Israeli-funded theatre companies should be prevented from performing at the Edinburgh Fringe should take place just after Glasgow 2014’s opening ceremony celebrated the strong stance the city took against apartheid at a time when Margaret Thatcher opposed sanctions.

The gestures Glasgow made back then – renaming the road on which the South African consulate stood Nelson Mandela Place, for example – were unlikely to influence the regime, but they mattered because of what they said about Glaswegians and because sometimes small gestures are all you have. Particularly if your government stands by and does nothing.

Edinburgh, of course, paid the price of Thatcher’s intransigence in 1986, when its own Games were boycotted by 32 of the 59 countries, plunging them into financial difficulty, yet organisers protested when England tried to field South African-born Zola Budd and Annette Cowley, and city councillors joined an anti-apartheid picket outside Meadowbank and the athletes’ village in protest at the then prime minister’s attendance.

This was a sporting boycott. But, as we know, there was a cultural boycott too, with the United Nations calling for a ban on all academic, artistic and other exchanges with South Africa, and Artists Against Apartheid making the record Sun City, an attack on all who performed in the vast entertainment complex.

Opprobrium was heaped on Paul Simon when he breached it, even though his album Graceland gave the black musicians he loved a wider audience. The power of cultural boycotts to effect change was hotly debated, but the consensus was that a temporary loss of freedom of expression was a small price to pay to help end an iniquitous system.

Given Mandela’s death and the Games have brought all this back to mind – and that the relentless images of dead children make Gaza impossible to ignore – the mixed reaction to the 50 writers who signed an open letter condemning the Incubator Theatre’s Fringe attendance seems odd, as does the treatment of protesters who stood shouting outside Underbelly last week until the venue said the noise was affecting other performers and cancelled the show.

The writers, including David Greig, Liz Lochhead and Alasdair Gray, have been cast as a self-appointed elite, whose liberal credentials are undermined by their desire for censorship. They are hypocrites too, apparently, because they accept state funding while criticising the Israeli company for doing the same. In an apparent dismissal of everything achieved by the anti-apartheid movement, culture secretary Fiona Hyslop has set herself against them, saying she doesn’t believe such boycotts are consistent with the rights of artists. Ironically, Israel does. Until a few years ago, Israel banned the performance of the music of anti­semite Richard Wagner. As for the protesters, they have been portrayed as rabble-rousers rather than grassroots activists expressing outrage at atrocities being perpetrated by a rogue state that uses art to distract from an illegal occupation.

Arguments that Incubator Theatre’s show The City is not political, but a hip-hop crime fable, and that its members have been unfairly silenced, miss the point. This is not about what the company is saying or what it stands for, but the financial means by which it secures itself a platform. If it had rejected Israeli state funding – as other artists have before – it would not have been targeted. Indeed, two other Israeli companies at the Fringe have been left alone, while campaigners continue to protest against the presence of student dancers from Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who are putting on La Karina at the St Brides Centre.

There seems to be a misconception too that the Scottish protest is a naive, unilateral action with no wider support. In fact the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (Pacbi) and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement have been gathering momentum since the mid-2000s, winning support from figures such as Desmond Tutu and Stephen Hawking. Pink Floyd and Massive Attack have refused to play in Israel and last month a group of Nobel laureates and others wrote a letter calling on governments to implement a binding military embargo on the country.

As the death toll in Gaza mounts, the demand for action will only build. After all, Israel is operating a form of apartheid and what is taking place in Gaza is at best a massacre and at worst genocide.

So, yes, perhaps what has happened to the members of Incubator Theatre isn’t ideal. Like Budd and Cowley, they are pawns in a wider game, ordinary people forced to forfeit their dreams for a political system they didn’t create and may not endorse.

However, when whole families are being wiped out and all governments do is wring their hands, what can you expect? In the absence of political leadership, people with a social conscience will do what they can to raise awareness. And if that means turning their ire towards a couple of Israeli theatre companies, so be it.

Even the smallest gestures of defiance make a difference, piling pressure on governments to change. In the end, such gestures decide whether, at the opening ceremony for the next big sporting event we host, we are boasting about the way we stood up for Palestinians or playing down our collusion in their oppression.

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1