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.