Why the boycotters of Habima didn’t persuade me of their cause


4:17 pm - May 30th 2012

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contribution by Sarah Hesketh

Earlier this week, a man was arrested after pro-Palestinian protesters disrupted a performance by a theatre company at London’s Globe theatre.

Tel Aviv’s Habima company was performing Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice during the Globe to Globe festival when a small number of demonstrators unfurled banners and displayed a Palestinian flag.

I can’t claim that I came to the event as a completely neutral party.

I worked for free expression advocates English PEN for five years and I think ‘banning things is bad’ is a good general mantra, but then I’m not especially well informed about Habima’s performance history.

I’m also generally sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and was keen to talk to the protesters outside the Globe to see exactly what it was about this production that they felt was worth boycotting.

Down on the Bankside, the Zionist Federation seemed a fairly cheery bunch, despite the fact they were penned quite tightly. Nobody offered me a flyer, and they didn’t seem that keen to engage the public in conversation.

The pro boycott, pro-Palestinian group seemed to have been given freer range. When I and the friend I was with approached some of the protesters, what we were looking for was a conversation that would help expand, possibly colour our understanding of the performance.

What we got was an aggressive browbeating that attempted to make us feel guilty and didn’t answer any of our questions.

We were repeatedly accused of colluding in the ‘theft of land, water resources and the massacre of innocent children’, but at no point did anybody say to us ‘this play won’t ask difficult questions about Israel’ or, ‘what does it mean to watch a company that plays to segregated audiences?’

The audience inside the theatre was overwhelmingly behind the company completing their performance. This might have been the British theatre-goer’s sense of decorum – the audience began to shush protesters as a form of counter-protest – or there might have been a genuine commitment to the company’s right to be there.

The anticipated protests did little towards restoring the balance. The silent protesters were allowed to remain, which was right. I don’t think the flags draped over the balcony needed to be removed but the timing on the part of the protesters was crude and simplistic.

The most disturbing feature of the night was the speed with which the audience turned against the protesters in their midst. People took to pointing at hecklers: ‘This one!’ they called to the ample security; we saw someone spit at a protester as they were removed, and I heard another man call out ‘Off to Syria with you!’

This was the pit at the Globe after all. Shouldn’t a little bit of heckling be tolerated?

Shylock’s final, exiled circle of the stage – forced upon him in this production by Hebrew speakers, was an eloquent expression of dispossession whatever your nation state.

If you want to persuade people of your point of view, you have to make them to think for themselves, and you have to be so much better at communicating what it is you have to say.

—-
Sarah Hesketh is Events and Publications Manager at the Poetry Translation Cente

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Reader comments


1. flyingrodent

Yes, that sounds about right. Net result – not a lot, beyond annoyance.

A lot of time and effort has gone into making this issue so entrenched, incendiary and utterly pointless. Just about the best you can hope for is to give the more egregious propaganda lines of each side a public kicking, and that’s more or less it.

cultural boycotts were an important part of damaging apartheid south africa and are an important part in damaging this aparthied/terror state. The Israeli state has explicitly said that they’re using ‘cultural ambassadors’ to improve their standing in the world, we musn’t give that state what they want. plus the people that got pissed off by those protesters were probably a bunch of reactionary toffs so anything that pisses them off sits well with me.

the people that got pissed off by those protesters were probably a bunch of reactionary toffs so anything that pisses them off sits well with me.

Mmmm, I can just feel myself coming around to your way of thinking. Almost hypnotic powers of persuasion.

This was the pit at the Globe after all. Shouldn’t a little bit of heckling be tolerated?

Perhaps there are circumstances in which disrupting a performance might be justified but one shouldn’t feel aggrieved if those who disagree aren’t all that tolerant. Try staying in character while people in the audience are kicking up a stink. It’s like trying to maintain an atmosphere of sexual intimacy while someone outside is wielding a pneumatic drill.

I went to the first night – I didn’t see any unpleasantness directed against protestors (apart from the odd cross look, tut and one ‘piss off’.) I take your word for it about the Syria comment and the spitting which is obviously completely horrible. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to identify trouble makers though. I’ve just read someone quote something said to her by a protestor:

“We don’t care if its counterproductive, we need to have our condemnation heard.”

Rather telling. It was *seriously* counterproductive in fact, as I think it could have helped prop up people’s sense of being on a ‘side’, and inhibited people exploring all the different ways into the production – for example, it occurred to me the day afterwards that all the long computer printouts used to represent contracts etc echoed all those interminable threads about I/P, trying to work out who started it, who got there first, and whose fault it was that talks hadn’t succeeded.

6. flyingrodent

I think it could have helped prop up people’s sense of being on a ‘side’

While I agree with much of what you’re saying Sarah, I think it might be shutting the gate after the horse on that score.

Although I imagine there were quite a lot of people there wondering “Who are these tiresome bores” and “Do they really have to be such dicks about it”.

These boycott people are annoying. I had a similar experience at LSE once when I went to listen to a (rather left leaning) Israeli historian who gave a balanced talk.
The disruptions by the Palestine activists were childish and aggressive.

If you want to boycott, boycott. But don’t prevent other people from enjoying what they enjoy.
I will also boycott the Euro 2012, but I won’t push you in front of the train if you are on your way to Ukraine.

Anyone fancy turning up and getting ranty about Tibet or general human rights abuses and executions here: http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/titus-andronicus-at-globe-review.html

No? Thought not.

9. Chaise Guevara

@ 3 Tim J

“Mmmm, I can just feel myself coming around to your way of thinking. Almost hypnotic powers of persuasion.”

Heh.

10. Chaise Guevara

@ 2 montes

“plus the people that got pissed off by those protesters were probably a bunch of reactionary toffs so anything that pisses them off sits well with me.”

Yes, but the other side seems to include you, which is far more off-putting.

@ 8 Ted Maul

No? Thought not.

Oh c’mon Ted. This is a post about Israel/Palestine, Habima and the BDS movement. Not every post on human rights has to mention every human rights abuser.

Its not as if LibCon has never mentioned Tibet now is it?

This post is interesting because it is about how people with a cause often alienate people, and even alienate people who are temperamentally sympathetic. This is an important point.

And the you come on here and post… alienating snark. That might help promote your own sense of righteousness, but its doing nothing to help the Tibetan cause. Reading the OP, and taking its insight to plan better pro-Tibetan protests, would be a better use of your time.

Only a little off topic, but I notice that the author works for the “Poetry Translation Centre”- a fake charity almost wholly funded by the Arts Council (to the tune of £150k public donations last year of £15).

Its main work last year seemed to be organising a tour of the UK by three Mexican poets attracting an average of forty odd people to each performance. According to the accounts each ticket at these events attracted a taxpayer subsidy of about £50.

I have complained before about the Arts Council funding free holidays for KT Tunstall and Jarvis Cocker to look at polar bears, but can somebody here please explain to me why public money is being squandered pandering to the egos of Mexican poets?

At the same time as meals on wheels services for the elderly are being cut?

13. Chaise Guevara

@ 12 pagar

“can somebody here please explain to me why public money is being squandered pandering to the egos of Mexican poets?

At the same time as meals on wheels services for the elderly are being cut?”

The answer is brought to you by the words “totally”, “fucked-up” and “priorities”.

14. TorquilMacneil

” but can somebody here please explain to me why public money is being squandered pandering to the egos of Mexican poets?”

Are they good poets? That is the essential point that you have missed out. Culture has a price, you know and it is as important as meals on wheels.

@ Torquil

Culture has a price

Well, it’s certainly hard to see how Shakespeare could have written his plays, or how they could have been performed, without his Arts Council honorarium.

Or, indeed, how George Osborne could possibly afford his seat at the Royal Opera House if he had to pay the additional £80 that the current subsidy represents.

So maybe you’re right.

After all, a few old tossers starving to death is neither here nor there, is it?

16. TorquilMacneil

“Well, it’s certainly hard to see how Shakespeare could have written his plays, or how they could have been performed, without his Arts Council honorarium.”

You think that Shakespeare could have written and performed his plays without explicit state support? Why do you think they were called The King’s Men?

And people really did starve to death to subsidise that lot.

17. Shatterface

I’m on my way to buy some comics. And all around me old tossers are starving.

I’m a horrible, horrible person for placing my pleasure above sorting out the world’s problems.

Better people than me have cut themselves off from all forms of culture till the world sorts its shit out.

18. Janet Green

The campaign was asking the Globe not to give legitimacy to Habima, Israel’s national theatre company, which performs in settlements. As an audience member you too were giving legitimacy to a company which performs in settlements.

That is settlements which are against international law and which the UK government and even the US consider to be illegal. Settlements which only exist because they are constructed with the backing of the Israeli army and the threat of violence.

The whole of the West Bank is run for the convenience of settlers with on the one hand Israeli only roads and on the other 500 or more checkpoints and barriers which restrict Palestinians travelling to their places or work, education and medical facilities. Normal life is made impossible for Palestinians living in the West Bank.

It is unlikely that you knew nothing of these facts before deciding to attend the performance, so were you really open to persuasion? When Habima perform in the West Bank settlements they are performing to a segregated audience because Palestinians are banned from attending their shows. Should a UK theatre really be adding legitimacy to such practices? I don’t think so. It is not much use condemning settlements unless this is also followed up by action.

19. TorquilMacneil

Janet

Habima receives state sponsorship and a condition of that is that they must deliver performances in places they may not otherwise choose to perform in. The same is true, of course, of the Chinese state theatre group that will also be performing at the Globe. Do you agree that, in principle, the Chinese performances should be boycotted?

Would you agree that Habima should be boycotted if it were staffed exclusively by Palestinian Israelis, all other things being equal?

I

There should be a bit of critical analysis of the militant pro-Palestinian activist movement I think. The ones in Britain seem to be annoying eejits of the higest order, and aren’t much better that the worst of the pro-Zionists.
The opening post here was a good start, but the comments haven’t really taken off very far. I/P is a bit of a cesspit of a discussion most of the time, so maybe there’s not much point in even trying. On the Harry’s Place website, they insist on this idea of ”the new anti-Semitism” that is all over any discussion involving Israel.
I think that that is greatly exaggerated, but it might be a start to even work out how much concern about I/P…. is connected with a dislike of Jews like they say.

21. Sarah Hesketh

@Janet I was quite ignorant of Habima’s background. What got my attention was the fact that this play would be performed in Hebrew and that it might have a lot to say about I/P. The very act of performing somewhere isn’t necessarily an endorsement – theatre isn’t like sport. The Springboks couldn’t ask questions about their political situation through their spin passes, but actors can question where they, and the audience find themselves.

The fact that the Globe facilitated this production means that there was lots of coverage and conversations took place this week that wouldn’t have happened if the company hadn’t been here at all. That’s effective consciousness-raising. Having a go at passing audience members isn’t.

22. Janet Green

Sarah Hesketh – Palestinian civil society called for a boycott of Israeli institutions see http://pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=868 for further information.

This puts the responsibility on people who support Palestinian human rights to find out a bit about the background an Israeli theatre company before deciding whether or not to see them. Habima definitely falls within the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott guidelines. Furthermore there was a fair amount of publicity before the Globe performance.

Palestinian civil society is not asking for your sympathy, it is asking for your solidarity. I think that non-violent action such as respecting the call to boycott is the least we can do?

23. Janet Green

Sarah – The act of performing in a illegal settlement to a segregated audience is participating in a violation of international law. It makes the company complicit in the occupation of the West Bank and the human rights violations that result. It gives a veneer of respectability and legitimacy to the settlements. Showcasing Habima at the Globe’s prestigious international festival only compounds this situation.

Your argument about coverage is irrational as the debate wouldn’t have happened without the hard work of those who campaigned against the Globe hosting Habima.

24. Churm Rincewind

@ 12 Pagar, and @ 13 Chaise Guevara: This is not a good argument, you know. It might with equal merit be claimed that it’s a disgrace that anyone in Britain gets any state benefit whatsoever – insert your own bete noir here – when there are people literally starving to death in other parts of the world for want of a couple of quid.

Janet Green re comment 22:

Firstly:

“Palestinian civil society is not asking for your sympathy, it is asking for your solidarity.”

Could you please define ‘Palestinian civil society’ for me?
Is there a definition of it?
One that we could actually agree asks for things?

Or is it another way of saying ‘decent people’?

Secondly:

I have my doubts about boycotts, especially cultural boycotts because the word culture can be stretched to accommodate nearly everything about a people or place. Food and cuisine is part of culture just as much as performing arts. So does it not follow that instead of people desisting from buying produce in the supermarkets marked ‘occupied territories’ you should actively find out who buys this stuff and boycott whatever they do as a livelihood?

See someone buying coriander marked ‘From West Bank’ in Sainsbury’s one lunchtime – follow them back to their shop, then stand outside on the pavement with rent a mob waving placards putting off their customers.

Please tell me I’m wrong and explain why.

Your article contains no substance or argument. You simply assert a claim that the pro Israeli state demonstrators were ‘cheery’ and oppressed by the police barriers while you found the arguments of the pro Palestinian protesters ‘hectoring’ while they had more freedom to protest than the other lot. You position yourself as a neutral punter with no particular agenda politically – only an enthusiasm for free artistic expression. Are we to take at face value your entirely anecdotal claims? Or should we think that in fact your sympathies lie squarely with those who believe that the deprivation of human rights caused by  Israel s illegal and immoral settlement project are of little consequence and that you don’t care if
The Israeli theatre company performs musicals for Jewish only audiences on land taken by force from Palestinians.

27. Janet Green

Kojak for more information about the the call for boycott see: http://www.bdsmovement.net/bnc#.T8hutNXtvmM

“The broad consensus among Palestinian civil society about the need for a broad and sustained Campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resulted in the Palestinian Call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel that was launched in July 2005 with the initial endorsement of over 170 Palestinian organizations. The signatories to this call represent the three major components of the Palestinian people: the refugees in exile, Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the discriminated Palestinian citizens of the Israeli state.”

28. Chaise Guevara

@ 24 Churm

“This is not a good argument, you know.”

It really is. “We’re spending money on luxuries while people suffer” strikes me as fairly compelling. If it’s not a good argument, let’s pull down the welfare state and spend all the money saved on new hats.

“It might with equal merit be claimed that it’s a disgrace that anyone in Britain gets any state benefit whatsoever – insert your own bete noir here – when there are people literally starving to death in other parts of the world for want of a couple of quid.”

You might indeed. I think this reductio ad absurdum is missing its absurdum.

Sarah tells us: “I’ve just read someone quote something said to her by a protestor: “We don’t care if its counterproductive, we need to have our condemnation heard.”

Please try to make an actual argument rather than quote someone quoting something someone else is alleged to have said in order to make generalised slur against people protesting against human rights abuses.

This post and comments thread seems to be based – not on the idea of arguing a case – but on smearing Palestine protesters as extremists. This is a familiar strategy to any one who has opposed the racism of Israels policies towards Pals. Sarah, you were never persuadable were you?

@ Torquil

Why do you think they were called The King’s Men?

I have no problem with patronage of the arts (people spending their own money), I have a problem with our state patronising second rate celebrities and dull Mexican poets with money they have forcibly extracted from taxpayers.

Whilst school dinner ladies and care assistants are being made redundant.

31. flyingrodent

I think we’re far past the point where anyone, anywhere (excepting maybe the President of the US*) is going to influence Israel’s behaviour towards the Palestinians. An entirely acceptable portion of the 1948 generation’s hardliners’ wildest dreams is within their grasp and will be achieved in a few short years, if they just play it canny and dick off any and all criticism. At that point, the whole idea of a peace process becomes entirely meaningless.

This isn’t to say that protests aren’t acceptable – they are! There’s generally no need to be a dick about it mind, especially since BADAI hands Britain’s tiresome pro-Israel panic-merchants so many easy propaganda victories, but such protests are largely academic.

The horse has bolted. All that’s left is to watch the border walls go up. Everything else is details.

*And it’s debatable even there.

Feltpen re Comment 26:

“The Israeli theatre company performs musicals for Jewish only audiences on land taken by force from Palestinians”

One shouldn’trewrite events to suit opinion. The pedant in me would like to point out your comment should read:
“The Israeli theatre company performs musicals for Jewish only audiences on land taken by force from Jordanians”.

If you state the facts correctly the boycott reveals another dimension to the affair.

feltpen – I don’t seek to smear all pro-Palestinian advocacy. I recently pointed out under a post by Steve Hynd that the absence of posts about Syria on this blog (which had been remarked on by someone else) was not a reason to object to, or ignore, what he had to say about events in the West Bank.

I thought the performance prompted many thoughts and questions. For example, as I was watching I started wondering whether the ‘Jewish daughter’ trope had drifted to Muslims – I thought of another Jessica, Jessica Moktad, whose memory, it seems to me, is being misused. I must emphasise that this is simply a thought which came into my mind unprompted – I don’t want to give the impression of trivialising honour violence (which I don’t think seems to be the appropriate term in her case) or any other form of oppression, or of criticising Muslims who choose to leave their religion.

There’s a much more thoughtful critique of the politics surrounding the play in this review of the play itself:
http://bloggingshakespeare.com/year-of-shakespeare-the-merchant-of-venice
Nailing the irony that’s been missed here.

Oh good, another post on Israelis?

How long is that since the last one ?7 days ? Less?

How many so far? Every month 2+ for the last few years?

Fantastic, that Israelis are so popular with the English intelligentsia, must be a latent Christian hang-up. 2000 years and still going strong!

Pity Liberal Conspiracy has decided to stop using the services of Ben White?

Then again with his softness and not too subtle racism on Twitter it would be a bit obvious?

36. flyingrodent

Oh good, another post on Israelis?

BADAI.

Flying,

Whatever our disagreement, you are a smart man, that’s clear.

So even you must acknowledge how the Liberal Conspiracy tacitly believes that Israelis are incredibly important people.

Every couple of weeks for years there is a post on Israelis at LC.

Why else post on them with such a repetitive frequency?

38. flyingrodent

Why else post on them with such a repetitive frequency?

Why not ask your ex-mates over at the Sauce, or even Jim D? They never shut up about it, but I don’t see you hanging about ticking them off every time they raise the issue.

39. Sarah AB

I have to say, FR, that was rather my thought too – ;-)

And they do seem to have got more of a mixture of views on Lib Con recently, as reflected in this post.

Does this theatre company play in front of ”segregated audiences” as has been alleged here? As theatre can attract a pretty self-segregated audience all over the world, it might not be so easy to tell. I know that my local theatre only attracts a very middle class audience. But performing in the Occupied Territories might be akin to playing at Sun City in apartheid South Africa. I don’t support any boycotts myself here though.

Yes, we are talking about racial segregation here Damon. Drive along Jewish roads to Jewish settlements and you don’t have to trouble yourself to see any Palestinians because even though you are in the Palestinian West Bank, Palestinians aren’t allowed to drive on the roads, or live in the settlements (unless they are building them that is).

You may not wish to boycott apartheid, but plenty of people will.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Why the boycotters of Habima didn't persuade me of their cause http://t.co/HoSFDsLu

  2. Alex Bjarnason

    Why the boycotters of Habima didn't persuade me of their cause http://t.co/HoSFDsLu

  3. Jason Brickley

    Why the boycotters of Habima didn’t persuade me of their cause http://t.co/PJ2i1WtA

  4. leftlinks

    Liberal Conspiracy – Why the boycotters of Habima didn’t persuade me of their cause http://t.co/1ZHxrua9

  5. Padraig Reidy

    The second comment here is a thing of true beauty http://t.co/hFOq6AUN

  6. Shane

    The second comment here is a thing of true beauty http://t.co/hFOq6AUN

  7. representingthemambo

    Why the boycotters of Habima didn’t persuade me of their cause | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/6x2P9gfj via @libcon

  8. Cyril Nutkins

    The second comment here is a thing of true beauty http://t.co/hFOq6AUN

  9. Patrick Cusworth

    "Why the boycotters of #Habima didn't persuade me of their cause" – interesting take, from @LibCon of all places: http://t.co/EUzwsft8

  10. smileandsubvert

    Why the boycotters of Habima didn’t persuade me of their cause http://t.co/8WjQq0Ag

  11. Richard

    Why the boycotters of Habima didn’t persuade me of their cause | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/nUbDixuA via @libcon

  12. slhesketh

    I lost my @libcon virginity http://t.co/wBcxwIJX #habima #globe

  13. Thomas Clark Wilson

    @jjjjumperface amusingly, here's a piece that seeks to review the politics, but ends up less thoughtful than the other:
    http://t.co/wXDJcI49

  14. Kevin Dykes

    Why the boycotters of Habima didn’t persuade me of their cause | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/CCfvQ3bL via @libcon





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