Top playwrights tell Lincoln Center not to help Israel’s crimes

Israel’s Habima theater, which has played an active part in government propaganda, is seen in the background as activists protest Israel’s attack on Gaza in July 2014.

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More than 80 theater artists and 12 Palestine-based theater and performance groups are demanding that New York’s Lincoln Center cancel upcoming Israeli government-sponsored performances by two Israeli theater companies.

The letter signed by renowned playwrights, actors, directors, writers and theater scholars was organized by Palestine solidarity group Adalah-NY.

The signers include award-winning playwrights Wallace Shawn, Tracy Letts and Naomi Wallace.

Lincoln Center is advertising the performances of the play To the End of the Land, based on a novel by Israeli author David Grossman, as presented “with support of Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs in North America.”

The theater artists write that it “deeply troubling” that the iconic performance institution “is helping the Israeli government to implement its systematic ‘Brand Israel’ strategy of employing arts and culture to divert attention from the state’s decades of violent colonization, brutal military occupation and denial of basic rights to the Palestinian people.”

Brand Israel is the Israeli government scheme to market a liberal image of the country in order to advance commerce and tourism, as well as to improve its international standing.

Lincoln Center president Debora Spar rebuffed the call, telling The New York Times, “While we acknowledge the feelings of those who would prefer that we not allow that performance to continue, we will not be canceling it.”

Complicity in repression

In a response to the artists themselves, Spar asserted that “as a cultural and education organization, however, we do not make political statements and hope that the art we present can stand on its own.”

The artists maintain that Lincoln Center cannot claim that hosting Israel’s Habima and Cameri theater companies with support from the Israeli government is “apolitical patronage of the arts, when these Israeli institutions are directly involved in supporting the repression of the Palestinian people, including Palestinian theater artists.”

“We are not raising concerns about any artists’ content, or their nationality, but rather about institutions’ structural complicity with a repressive state agenda that repeatedly violates international law,” the artists add.

The two Israeli theaters have repeatedly held performances inside Israeli settlement colonies in the occupied West Bank, the letter points out, despite opposition from artists and writers, including David Grossman.

“I think the phrase ‘cultural boycott’ scares people,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker, a signatory to the letter, said.

But Baker stressed that “it’s not a boycott against individual artists or nationalities” and noted that the boycott “has historical precedent as an extremely effective way to call attention to apartheid” in South Africa. She added that Israel is also “an apartheid state.”

A second Israeli play set to be performed at the same Lincoln Center festival is being held without Israeli government sponsorship, Adalah-NY notes. As that performance does not violate the guidelines Palestinians have set out for the boycott, it was not raised as a concern in the letter.

Israel’s consul-general in New York, former settlement leader Dani Dayan, feigned nonchalance about the artists’ call, claiming it was insignificant compared with Israel forging closer ties with India’s right-wing Hindu nationalist government.

In reality, Israel expends enormous sums to try to fight the BDS movement, an effort its propagandists concede is failing.

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'In a response to the artists themselves, Spar asserted that “as a cultural and education organization, however, we do not make political statements and hope that the art we present can stand on its own.”'

Well, guess again. No work of art can stand on its own. In fact, to assert otherwise is senseless. Art neither comes into being "on its own" nor is it engaged with by readers, spectators, or audiences "on its own". The social nature of artistic expression is so patently obvious that it shouldn't require this reminder. As for the equally preposterous claim, that "we don't make political statements"- that in itself is a political statement. Imagine if you will a realm of educational and cultural endeavor somehow devoid of political content. Goodbye to Shakespeare and Brecht. No more Sophocles- or superhero movies, for that matter. All art- good, bad or indifferent- would be disqualified as contaminated by something called politics. At which point, the only thing you'd have would be politics- and that of a particularly debased order, such as Zionism.

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This is yet another sign of the decreasing influence and strength of Israel, Zionism, and the Israel Lobby in the U.S., regardless of anything Ms. Spar says. The fact that as many as 80 artists, including Wallace Shawn, Tracy Letts, and Naomi Wallace have openly staged a protest against "Brand Israel", in the guise of the Habima and Cameri theater companies, is indicator enough.
Moreover, Annie Baker is absolutely right, "... 'cultural boycott' [does] scare people", and it should. As Ms. Baker correctly and justly states, Israel is "an apartheid state."

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So, the fact that this play (which is good but not the greatest work by Grossman) got a ton of extra attention and the protests at the site didn't even materialized...would you call that an "indicator" too, Stefano? Or does an indicator only apply to stuff where your side didn't get their ass kicked in?

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The sophomoric, jeering tone of your reply to Stefano- all about winners and losers, attention-grabbing and ass-kicking- doesn't address the fundamental question of what people of conscience should do in the face of an openly racist regime now tipping into fascism. He used the term "apartheid". Do you think that's an inaccurate description of the social system Israel has constructed and imposed on Palestinians? If so, how would you characterise that system? Feel free to comment at length.

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).