Culture Shock: Anything’s better than doing nothing about Gaza
In times of conflict, culture also becomes a battleground
Ediburgh Festival Fringe: last year, Ballad of the Burning Star, written and performed by an Israeli artist, explicitly engaged with the politics of Israel and Palestine
It sounded like a typical fringe show. A detective story in the film noir style, performed entirely in rap and advertised as a “hip-hop opera”, it had all the dizzy ideas and genre confusion of a small local success determined to try its luck at Edinburgh and maybe reach the world. But what was already unusual about The City was just how much publicity it had received before opening – all of it bad.
Before the show had arrived from Jerusalem, travelling with the financial assistance of the Israeli government, a letter signed by Scottish artistscalled for its cancellation as the war in Gaza worsened.
Once the production reached Edinburgh’s Underbelly venue it became the subject of a vociferous street protest organised by the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign. After one performance the venue cancelled all remaining dates. “Israel doesn’t fund art for its political views,” the director, Arik Eshet, argued while the actors, left without a stage, took to the streets to sing for peace.
This was the logic of cultural boycotting in effect, expressing a popular revulsion for Israel’s attack in Gaza which had, by the time of the most recent ceasefire, claimed more than 1,800 Palestinian lives, most of them civilians, and those of 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians. It was hard to consider it any kind of a victory.
The previous year in Edinburgh one of the most celebrated productions, written and performed by an Israeli artist, had much more explicitly engaged with the politics of Israel and Palestine.
Ballad of the Burning Star came without Israeli government assistance – it was produced by the British company Theatre Ad Infinitum – but, beginning with a mock bomb warning and following the biography of a belligerent drag queen named Star, it’s hard to imagine such provocations meeting a calm response this summer.
Neither production was likely to challenge anybody’s politics – and you could scour the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for a Palestinian performance in vain – but only in this feverish climate, where to be a distant onlooker at daily atrocities is to be shocked and horrified and powerless, could the prevention of a hip-hop opera seem like an achievement.
What role, if any, can artists play during such a conflict? The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement demonstrates there is a certain kind of performance in rejection. The display by the Scottish Palestiner Solidarity Campaign, like the ethical consumerism of people now removing Israeli-originated products from their supermarket trolleys, was intended to send a message beyond scolding local producers for the crimes of a state.
Since 2010 the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign has recruited Irish artists to sign a pledge to boycott Israel until “Israel complies with international law and universal principles of human rights”. Raymond Deane, the composer and pledge initiator, doesn’t see culture as innocent, seizing on the remarks of a former Israeli ambassador, Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, who said in 2005, “We see culture as a hasbara tool of the first rank.” (Hasbara, depending on the interpreter, can either be construed as “public diplomacy” or “propaganda”.)
When emotions run high, a rapid artistic response to such conflicts can also lead to sharply differing interpretations. Early in 2009, Caryl Churchill, a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, wrote a 10-minute play, Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, in quick response to a previous escalation in violence, when Israel responded to Hamas rocket fire by launching a major assault on the territory.
Performed around the world without fee, with collections for the people of Gaza, it was certainly a cri de coeur and thus easy prey to the charge of anti-Semitism. Its title, and its more enflamed lines, didn’t help: “Tell her we’re the iron fist now . . . tell her they’re animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out.”
Culture is certainly not neutral, and there are ways to isolate other than boycotting.
In this context a new association, Irish Artists in support of Palestine, has organised a fundraising event, Liberty 4 Gaza, to be held in Dublin’s Liberty Hall on Tuesday, with proceeds going to NGOs working with children in Gaza (thenewtheatre.com). The impact of its solidarity campaign may be modest, but the alternative, which seems far worse, is to do nothing.
In what seemed like an overly optimistic note at the time, the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney once speculated that peace in Northern Ireland may come when both sides learned to exchange their narrative memories, to recognize their own legitimacy and see each other through alternative eyes. “The same goes for Israel and Palestine,” he wrote, “where an acknowledgement of the narrative basis of their respective identities might lead to a greater willingness to re-imagine the identity of the historic enemy.”
It’s not easy to hear such words over the sounds of slaughter, and they hardly make culture seem any less contested, but the best intent of an artistic conscience has always been to encourage dialogue. Fintan O’Toole is away