How a London theater became a BDS battleground

Israel’s UK ambassador and his allies in the British government viewed a 2014 row over the sponsorship of a film festival as a key battle against the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, according to documents released under freedom of information rules.

London’s Tricycle Theatre had agreed to host the UK Jewish Film Festival that summer. The festival was partly funded by the Israeli embassy in London.

Yet with Gaza under a major attack, the venue’s board decided in August that it would not accept Israeli government sponsorship for the event.

After learning of the theater’s decision, Member of Parliament Sajid Javid, then Britain’s culture secretary, acted swiftly to have it overturned.

Amid a media uproar, he publicly described the theater’s decision as “misguided.” Privately, Javid also sought a meeting with Indhu Rubasingham, artistic director at the Tricycle, a detail not reported before now. He appears to have used the meeting to put pressure on the theater.

Javid later boasted that he had “made it absolutely clear” to the theater “what might happen to their funding if they, or if anyone, tries that kind of thing again.”

He appears to have threatened that the Tricycle could lose assistance it receives from the publicly funded Arts Council.

Praise from Israeli ambassador

Daniel Taub, then Israel’s ambassador in London, praised Javid for opposing the theater’s stance. Javid’s intervention “constituted an important statement at a time when calls for cultural boycotts and shutting down cultural ties are regrettably gathering stream,” Taub wrote, in a letter acquired under Britain’s freedom of information rules.

Israel’s grant to the festival was small – less than £1,500 ($2,500 in 2014).

In August 2014, Rubasingham said, “at this moment, the Tricycle would not accept any sponsorship from any government agency involved in the conflict,” referring to Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza. Her comment was made before her meeting with Javid was held.

While the Tricycle offered to pay the equivalent of Israel’s grant from its own funds, the organizers of the festival decided to withdraw the event from the theater.

Following Javid’s pressure, however, the Tricycle climbed down. Later in August, it was announced that the theater would be willing to hold the festival “with no restrictions” on Israeli funding. In the end, the festival took place elsewhere.

“Underhand conduct”

Two pro-Israel organizations – the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council – argued that the Tricycle’s opposition to Israeli funding had set a “troubling precedent.”

In a joint letter to Javid, the two groups pointed to how previous questioning of Israeli arts sponsorship in Britain had been made by Palestine solidarity activists. In the row over the film festival, it was a venue in receipt of British public funding that “was making the political demands – not a group of protesters.”

The groups admitted that there were “limits” to government influence over such venues and claimed to appreciate “artistic independence.” Yet they argued that “Tricycle’s behavior crosses the line into political activism,” adding, “we hope you will find a way to make your views known to the theater.”

The Arts Council had been contacted by some members of Parliament during the row. In contrast to Javid’s threats, the council’s then CEO Alan Davey made clear that it was not involved in the management of activities by organizations that it funded. “It is not for the Arts Council to second guess whether a sponsorship fit is appropriate,” Davey stated.

Daniel Taub regarded the Tricycle’s eventual U-turn as a victory for Israel.

In his letter, Taub thanked Javid for his “quiet and effective intervention.” Taub added that he had recommended to the festival’s organizers that Javid be invited as “a guest of honor” to its opening.

The government department Javid headed at that time has acknowledged it “kept closely in touch” with Taub during the row over the film festival.

Javid has been one of Israel’s most vocal supporters in the British government over recent years. After holding the culture and media portfolio, he was appointed business secretary in 2015. He used the new post to advocate an expansion of trade between Britain and Israel.

He has also taken a prominent part in activities organized by Conservative Friends of Israel, a lobby group within the ruling party.

“Anti-democratic”

The close ties between Israeli diplomats and some British politicians were recently revealed in a four-part documentary series by Al Jazeera. The investigation showed how lobby groups within Britain’s political parties maintain close working relationships with Israel’s London embassy.

Riya Hassan, a representative of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, said British government attempts to punish arts groups or other bodies that take a stance against Israel were “unabashedly repressive and anti-democratic.”

The attempts, Hassan emphasized, “may also indicate the kind of corruption and co-optation that the recently broadcast Al Jazeera investigative film captures so well.”

Miranda Pennell, a filmmaker involved in Artists for Palestine UK, said it was “absolutely outrageous” that Javid “summoned the theater’s director to a private meeting at which he appears to have threatened the [Tricycle’s] funding.”

The affair “shows how UK ministers involved in Conservative Friends of Israel are not only in hock to Israel over foreign policy but are also willing to use underhand conduct and bullying to intimidate independent arts organizations here in Britain on Israel’s behalf,” Pennell added.

“Political interference of this kind in the affairs of a cultural institution is an abuse of power more fitting of an authoritarian state than a mature democracy.”

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I have the pleasure to inform you that BDS is working:

1. In 2016, Israel’s hightech sector raised $4.8BN, compared to $4.3BN in 2015, $3.4BN in 2014, $2.4BN in 2013 and $1.9BN in 2012.

2. In Jan. 2017, Israel’s foreign exchange reserves reached $98.4BN.

3. In 2016, Israel’s GDP grew 3.8%.

Keep up the good work, BDS activists !

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Statistics are meaningless if taken out of context. The truth is that the BDS movement is a serious threat to Israel. Why else would Netanyahu and the rest of the Israeli zionazis be so scared of it? Their actions speak louder than your statistics.

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I agree that they see it as a real and worrying threat. But, I doubt that they're worrying about it, primarily, as a threat to the Israeli economy. I think that their primary concern, is with the message. As BDS expands, even if its overall *economic* pressure doesn't attain significance, it still indicates that they're failing to control the story. Their story, is that they're the victims. As it becomes ever more clear, that this story generally isn't taken seriously; then they're confronted by the fact that they're generally considered to be the bad guys, not the good guys, in this play. The warriors of Israel have been considered, by the White/Western mainstream, as the good guys, because they were easier to identify with, than the brown-skinned, primitive, scary Arabs. But the world has largely outgrown such ignorant, simplistic prejudice. BDS is the world's way of saying, now, "We don't like what we see, of your behavior, towards the Arabs within your power; so, we don't want to be a part of it; and, we choose not to participate. Count us out." It's essentially a shunning. Shunning is the most basic, traditional, evolutionary form of social control. The shunned are left outside the magic circle of the community. That's what I meant by, "it's the status": their loss of status, in the global community, is what they fear, even more than any loss of income. The whole point of the Nationalist-Zionist project, was for the unemancipated, Eastern-European Jews, to raise their status, in the eyes of Gentiles. BDS means that they've essentially blown it. It means that the alternative movement--the 'Cultural-Zionists', who didn't want a Jewish state, but instead wanted a Jewish spiritual center in Palestine; which would also support the Arabs' liberation from foreign imperialism--it means that the Cultural-Zionists were right, when they predicted that Nationalist-Zionism would only result in endless war, and expanding antisemitism. BDS is the judgement.

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I guess you can close down the Ministry for Strategic Affairs and Hasbara now. With the kind of success you cite, there can't be much point in carrying on with that project- or interfering with democratic political processes in other countries.

Here are a few more boasts you can add to your victory chant:

The number of Palestinian children held in Israeli custody is at an all-time high.
The proportion of Palestinian land illegally colonised by Israel is at an all-time high.
The number of racially discriminatory laws applied in Israel and throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories is at an all-time high.

House demolitions, travel restrictions, expulsions of Palestinians from their homes, collective punishment, theft of resources, torture, assassination, infliction of prison-like conditions on civilian populations- these and other measures are humming along nicely. Summary executions by border police and IDF soldiers are commonplace- and it isn't even lawn-mowing season in Gaza.

As with all previous Israeli governments, the current regime operates with impunity, ignoring the Geneva Conventions and in defiance of international legal judgments.

The most recent election produced a cabinet stuffed with Kahanist maniacs openly calling for genocide and war throughout the region.

But enough of these milestones on the road-map to peace.

On the other hand, with that kind of success, perhaps you can see why people of conscience offer their voices in growing resistance to this sparkling series of achievements.

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Mahatma Gandhi, 1938:
"Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French...What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct...If they [the Jews] must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home.... A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They [Jews] can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs... As it is, they are...despoiling a people who have done no wrong to them.... [A]ccording to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds." Quoted in "A Land of Two Peoples"

I'm quite sure that if Mahatma Gandhi were alive today and said the above he would be labeled an anti-Semite, Holocaust denier, and worse. He would most certainly be smeared by AIPAC, the ADL, B'nai B'rith, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, or even assassinated by the IDF or Mossad (that's what they do best) for uttering those words.
As the late Israeli Minister, Ms. Shulamit Aloni said to the American reporter Amy Goodman, "...Jews are not ready to hear the truth about Israel and the attitude is 'My country right or wrong'".
As the late Victor Hugo said, "There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come".
And, finally, that idea is the demise of Israel a white supremacist, racist, fascist, apartheid, imperialist, genocidal state; a parasite (to the tune of 38 billion American taxpayer dollars a year), rogue, criminal, gangster, illegitimate state.

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Hilary Aked

Hilary Aked's picture

Hilary Aked (@hilary_aked) is a London-based freelance writer and researcher, an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a PhD student at the University of Bath researching the pro-Israel lobby in the UK. They also write for Spinwatch, Ceasefire, OpenDemocracy and Huffington Post.