Politicising art from the Middle East? It has already happened


by Ben White    
5:23 pm - September 15th 2011

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When pro-Palestinian activists interrupted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms, critics of the action often repeated variations of the same line: ‘Don’t politicise art!’

Without unpacking this formulation’s assumptions, there is something missing here – the fact that the Israeli government itself is deliberately ‘politicising art’ in order to distract from the occupation.

In May this year, leading Israeli chef Michael Katz told Australian media:

Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is trying to improve Israel’s image to the world. The government decided, through culture, to start improving Israel’s image. They started sending artists, singers, painters, filmmakers and then the idea came of sending chefs.

The use of culture is just one element in a long-standing propaganda effort by Israel and its supporters to ‘rebrand’ a state increasingly associated with human rights abuses.

In 2008, for example, London was identified as one of the cities to be targeted for initiatives like “organizing film festivals, or food and wine festivals featuring Israel-made products”.

Just two months after Israeli attacks on Gaza in 2009 provoked international outrage, Israel’s Foreign Ministry received new funds to “improve Israel’s image through cultural and information diplomacy”.

Their then-deputy director general for cultural affairs said:

We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theatre companies, exhibits. This way you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.

This then is a transparent effort to “‘rebrand’ Israel as a fount of ‘creative energy’”, a desire by the Israeli government to – in the words of a Jewish Telegraph Agency article – “tell the Western world, ‘Hey, we’re just like you.’”

It turns out that Israel and its advocates have no grounds for criticising the ‘politicisation’ of art.

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About the author
This is a guest article. Ben White is a freelance journalist who has written for Guardian's CIF, Electronic Intifada and others. His book 'Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide' (Pluto Press), was published in 2009.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Foreign affairs ,Middle East


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Reader comments


Thanks for adding the facts to back this article up. The BBC continually supports Israel with this policy across the majority of its media, more often than not in subtle ways. Its a shame the main media in this country helps publicise and market Israel’s artistic efforts whilst forming an embargo on Palestinians, so once again they suffer economic deprivation whilst Israeli’s profit. The primitive mindset of Israeli policy will have to change regarding their arab neighbours, the world is changing, it should learn from what happened to that other predator, who was once top of the food chain, all brawn and tiny brain, TRrex.

This then is a transparent effort to “‘rebrand’ Israel as a fount of ‘creative energy’”, a desire by the Israeli government to – in the words of a Jewish Telegraph Agency article – “tell the Western world, ‘Hey, we’re just like you.’

Nothing wrong or unusual with that. But perhaps to Mr White the Israelis should not export ‘culture’ lest they are seen as just like us?

It turns out that Israel and its advocates have no grounds for criticising the ‘politicisation’ of art.

Ah. The justification for hounding any and all Israelis from concert halls, universities, for boycotting their goods and services. For zealots, of course, Israel delenda est.

I’ve been faintly amused by the presumption, hyprocrisy and faux outrage regarding the demonstrations against the IPO.

I wonder if those who are screaming the loudest about what happened this time would have taken the same view of protests against one of the Soviet orchestras (Leningrad Symphony, IIRC) when it performed at the Proms some years ago. Would they have been so vocal in shouting “Keep politics out of culture!”.

Possibly not, given that the protests on that occasion were against the USSR’s supposed oppression of Jews in that country.

Politics and culture are inevitably intertwined, especially when those cultural manifestations are subsidised (either materially or in other ways) by a governing élite – of whatever stamp – which wishes to present a flattering image of their own power structure.

“Possibly not, given that the protests on that occasion were against the USSR’s supposed oppression of Jews in that country.”

Supposed? Su – f’ing – pposed? People being slaughtered something you like throw down the memory hole is it? Or is it “supposed” because it was merely the jews being murdered and you discount that?

Similarly, people sometime ask that politics be kept out of sport. But man is a political animal, and politics cannot be kept out of sport, art, or any other human activity.

[deleted, ad hominem crap]

Falco @4:

Jews were still being ‘slaughtered’ or murdered because they were Jews in the SU in the early 1980s (which was the period I was referring to)?

If so, then please – as they say – cite. From independent and verifiable sources, please.

“It’s all political, if my music is literal and I’m a criminal, how the fuck could I raise a little girl?”

Even Eminem gets it…

The main objection to the interruption to the Proms broadcast for many was the sheer uncouth, impolite and rude behaviour of those protesting. Protest outside if you want to – but don’t ruin ordinary decent people without an axe to grind’s evening. Otherwise Bennet@6 is correct to say anyone can disrupt any public gathering. And where will that get us?

Ben White’s argument here is weak. All countries will seek to publicise their ‘best bits’.

However Ben White is the author of a tome which assumes Israel to be an apartheid state. Therefore he is likely to be of the view that Israel should be destroyed as a state – as opposed to striving for a peaceful two state solution.’

Ben White’s position is an extremist one – not a mainstream one.

Will LC I wonder allow anyone on to write an article giving an opposite view. It is still possible you know to be on the left and not consider to be a nasty pariah state.

@4 Falco and @7 Judge

Pardon my ignorance, but I thought that the Soviets oppressed ALL religious groups.

Didn’t the Soviets also murder a few millions of their own people?

[deleted, ad hominem crap]

@Paul D

“Ben White’s argument here is weak. All countries will seek to publicise their ‘best bits’.”

Except that’s not the argument, as is clear in what it is a short post. Israeli officials (and lobby groups) are on record as explicitly seeking to hide or distract from well documented human rights abuses and breaches of international law through rebranding of various sorts. It’s that direct linkage, the fact that Israel sends ‘cultural ambassadors’ to try and make people forget what’s happening to the Palestinians, that is the point here.

“Jews were still being ‘slaughtered’ or murdered because they were Jews in the SU in the early 1980s (which was the period I was referring to)?

If so, then please – as they say – cite. From independent and verifiable sources, please.”

Slaughtered or murdered, no.

Thrown out of their jobs and then threatened with jail as “parasites” (for unemployment didn’t exist in the SU as you know) for applying for an exit visa to go to Israel, yes. Denied desirable jobs in the first place because they were Jews, yes. Discriminated against, yes. I know people this happened to….it’;s one of the reason so many of the fixers and wheeler dealers who beame oligarchs did so, because they were already necessarily on the fringes of Soviet society.

And I will admit to being rather shocked when I found out that the old Soviet internal passports would have, on the nationality line (Line 7 I think it was called) “Jew”, to distinguish from say “Russian” or “Kazakh” etc.

[deleted, ad hominem crap]

Firstly, no one is stupid enough to make up their mind about a countries domestic or foreign policy based upon a classical music performance. On the other hand, I think that the 5,600 people in the Albert Hall came away with pretty negative opinions of the obsessive loons that make up the PSC.

Even if what you say about “brand Israel” is true, there was no sense of any politics in the Albert Hall (and nothing distinctly Israeli about the IPO) until it was foisted upon us by the PSC.

Secondly, many regimes (with serious human rights abuses) use culture and sport as a way to brand themselves in a progressive way. I guess, if we were follow Ben White’s prescriptions universally then at next years Olympics we should be disrupting all events involving China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Burma (and why not the US and UK?).

Thirdly, as has been pointed out, protesting outside a concert is fine, if that is what floats their boat. However, those of us that wanted to hear Webern, Bruch and Rimsky-Korsakov (with little or no interest in the the I/P conflict) should have been allowed to so without disruption from a bunch of philistine morons.

To whoever deleted my comments 11 + 14:

Last I heard this site was called LIBERAL Conspiracy, not Illiberal (Delete-Happy) Conspiracy. So I’ll post comment 14 again. I would be interested if instead of deleting it again you could get Ben White to refute the points I made:

Sunny or whoever it was re my comment 11:

Deleting comments comments you don’t agree with is silly, and hardly a ‘liberal’ attitude to discussion.

If you want to you can reveal your true ‘colours’ and delete it again and again so I am re-posting it below.
You could even ban me if it discomforts you enough – just ask yourself why you are running this website for discussion if you merely want to delete views you find challenging. Ben White could even reply directly, if he doesn’t consider it beneath him to do so.

Ben White,

Considering you’ve built a career writing articles demonising every political aspect of Israel it really is a bit rich for you to conflate Public Retaions with politicising. You might as well say ‘Every activity is political, so it gives us carte blanche to target absolutely anything associated with Israel’.

Aren’t you a bit too old to be playing games of self-justification?

Sunny doesn’t allow people to point out the dangers of Ben White’s views. He just deletes any comment that he can’t answer. Unfortunately Sunny has a weak spot with regard to Jews and antisemitism if it is within the context of Israel. He either gets abusive or deletes. He’s a Jew baiter.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. thelawmap

    Politicising art from the Middle East? It has already happened http://t.co/Kin71UkV

  2. Ben White

    Politicising art from the Middle East? It has already happened | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/0F5N4qpQ via @libcon <<< my blog post

  3. Ben White

    Who's really "politicising art"? My post on @libcon about the Israeli gov's deliberate use of culture to 'rebrand' http://t.co/0F5N4qpQ #BDS

  4. Ben White

    "the Israeli government itself is deliberately ‘politicising art’ in order to distract from the occupation" http://t.co/0F5N4qpQ #BDS

  5. Daniel Shunra

    Who's really "politicising art"? My post on @libcon about the Israeli gov's deliberate use of culture to 'rebrand' http://t.co/0F5N4qpQ #BDS

  6. Ben White

    "We'll send well-known novelsts & writrs overseas, theatre companies, exhibits. This way u show Israel’s prettier face" http://t.co/0F5N4qpQ

  7. ???? ?? ????

    Politicising art from the Middle East? It has already happened | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/0F5N4qpQ via @libcon <<< my blog post

  8. Heavenwatch

    "the Israeli government itself is deliberately ‘politicising art’ in order to distract from the occupation" http://t.co/0F5N4qpQ #BDS

  9. fitsum

    Politicising art from the Middle East? It has already happened …: Politicising art from the Middle East? It ha… http://t.co/vGMHza0L

  10. Ali I

    Politicising art from the Middle East? It has already happened …: Politicising art from the Middle East? It ha… http://t.co/2MDU8RZX

  11. Daniel Shunra

    RT @benabyad: Who's really "politicising art"? My post about Israel's deliberate use of culture to 'rebrand' http://t.co/ohBjlv61 #BDS

  12. Dean Cutting

    Israel and its advocates have no grounds for criticising the ‘politicisation’ of art. http://t.co/JRucpIX8

  13. kppotatoes

    RT @benabyad: Who's really "politicising art"? My post about Israel's deliberate use of culture to 'rebrand' http://t.co/ohBjlv61 #BDS

  14. Daniel Shunra

    Politicising art from the Middle East? It has already happened http://t.co/SbFnhCDO by @benabyad

  15. maya

    Politicising art from the Middle East? It has already happened http://t.co/SbFnhCDO by @benabyad

  16. Ben White

    Israeli chef Michael Katz: "The government decided, through culture, to start improving Israel’s image." http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #Habima #BDS

  17. Khaled Hishma

    "the Israeli govt itself is deliberately ‘politicising art’ in order to distract from the occupation" http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #Habima #BDS

  18. Wobin

    "the Israeli govt itself is deliberately ‘politicising art’ in order to distract from the occupation" http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #Habima #BDS

  19. Wobin

    Israeli chef Michael Katz: "The government decided, through culture, to start improving Israel’s image." http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #Habima #BDS

  20. gail mcmillan

    "the Israeli govt itself is deliberately ‘politicising art’ in order to distract from the occupation" http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #Habima #BDS

  21. MP

    "the Israeli govt itself is deliberately ‘politicising art’ in order to distract from the occupation" http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #Habima #BDS

  22. John Dorman

    Israeli chef Michael Katz: "The government decided, through culture, to start improving Israel’s image." http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #Habima #BDS

  23. fljf

    "the Israeli govt itself is deliberately ‘politicising art’ in order to distract from the occupation" http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #Habima #BDS

  24. Littlebird

    Israeli chef Michael Katz: "The government decided, through culture, to start improving Israel’s image." http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #Habima #BDS

  25. Littlebird

    "the Israeli govt itself is deliberately ‘politicising art’ in order to distract from the occupation" http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #Habima #BDS

  26. Ben White

    Israeli govt & advocacy groups deliberately seek to use culture as a means of ‘rebranding’ apartheid http://t.co/zjMbPGtj #lovejustice4all

  27. Ben White

    Chef Michael Katz: "The government decided, through culture, to start improving Israel’s image" http://t.co/zjMbPGtj #lovejustice4all

  28. Sam P

    Chef Michael Katz: "The government decided, through culture, to start improving Israel’s image" http://t.co/zjMbPGtj #lovejustice4all

  29. Pauline

    Israeli govt & advocacy groups deliberately seek to use culture as a means of ‘rebranding’ apartheid http://t.co/zjMbPGtj #lovejustice4all

  30. This is Gaza

    Chef Michael Katz: "The government decided, through culture, to start improving Israel’s image" http://t.co/zjMbPGtj #lovejustice4all

  31. BaselAbbas

    Chef Michael Katz: "The government decided, through culture, to start improving Israel’s image" http://t.co/zjMbPGtj #lovejustice4all

  32. PEACE

    Chef Michael Katz: "The government decided, through culture, to start improving Israel’s image" http://t.co/zjMbPGtj #lovejustice4all

  33. maya

    Israeli govt & advocacy groups deliberately seek to use culture as a means of ‘rebranding’ apartheid http://t.co/zjMbPGtj #lovejustice4all

  34. iNabulsiyeh

    Israeli govt & advocacy groups deliberately seek to use culture as a means of ‘rebranding’ apartheid http://t.co/zjMbPGtj #lovejustice4all

  35. Ben White

    Remember. Israel's govt & advocates already "politicise art", using culture to rebrand apartheid crimes http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #BDS #Batsheva

  36. LondonBDSgroup

    Remember. Israel's govt & advocates already "politicise art", using culture to rebrand apartheid crimes http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #BDS #Batsheva

  37. ectomorfo

    Remember. Israel's govt & advocates already "politicise art", using culture to rebrand apartheid crimes http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #BDS #Batsheva

  38. Khaled Hishma

    Remember. Israel's govt & advocates already "politicise art", using culture to rebrand apartheid crimes http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #BDS #Batsheva

  39. Fadi Elhusseini

    Remember. Israel's govt & advocates already "politicise art", using culture to rebrand apartheid crimes http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #BDS #Batsheva

  40. Andrea Summers

    Remember. Israel's govt & advocates already "politicise art", using culture to rebrand apartheid crimes http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #BDS #Batsheva

  41. Just Peace

    Remember. Israel's govt & advocates already "politicise art", using culture to rebrand apartheid crimes http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #BDS #Batsheva

  42. No2BrandIsrael

    Remember. Israel's govt & advocates already "politicise art", using culture to rebrand apartheid crimes http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #BDS #Batsheva

  43. ShahnazAbdu

    Remember. Israel's govt & advocates already "politicise art", using culture to rebrand apartheid crimes http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #BDS #Batsheva

  44. Débora Gomes

    Remember. Israel's govt & advocates already "politicise art", using culture to rebrand apartheid crimes http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #BDS #Batsheva

  45. LONDON BDS

    RT @libcon: Politicising art from the Middle East? It has already happened http://t.co/HPVbk473

  46. bds tiplijn

    Verhaal over inzet cultuur door Israël als imagoverbeteraar. Politicising art from the ME? It has already happened http://t.co/mqfsymzt

  47. bds tiplijn

    RT @libcon: Politicising art from the Middle East? It has already happened http://t.co/HPVbk473

  48. bds tiplijn

    Verhaal over inzet van en staatssteun aan cultuur door Israël om haar imago te verbeteren. http://t.co/mqfsymzt

  49. Ben White

    Two things I wrote on cultural boycott & #Israel, one for Habima http://t.co/6LxC2hW9 & one for Proms protest http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #BDS

  50. Kiran N

    Two things I wrote on cultural boycott & #Israel, one for Habima http://t.co/6LxC2hW9 & one for Proms protest http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #BDS

  51. LondonBDSgroup

    Two things I wrote on cultural boycott & #Israel, one for Habima http://t.co/6LxC2hW9 & one for Proms protest http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #BDS

  52. Chez_Em

    Two things I wrote on cultural boycott & #Israel, one for Habima http://t.co/6LxC2hW9 & one for Proms protest http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #BDS

  53. Hannah Gretton

    Two things I wrote on cultural boycott & #Israel, one for Habima http://t.co/6LxC2hW9 & one for Proms protest http://t.co/0F5IwQgG #BDS





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