Israeli Performers and the Edinburgh festival: A Personal View

Also published in the Scottish Review on 27 August 2014

Jerusalem's Incubator Theatre company

This year's theme for the Edinburgh International Festival – 'War' – was more apposite than planned, disturbed as the city was this summer by the rumble of distant guns.

The Fringe, which took shape along with the festival in the years after the second world war, is an open access event, with every church hall and pub backroom being turned into a venue, along with temporary pop-ups, from the glamorous 'Famous Spiegeltent' to a tiny two-man housing the Thermos Museum. This year someone even put on a one-woman show in a Fiat, luckily a stationary one.

Across the last 60-odd years, performers from across the world, Argentina to Zimbabwe, have taken part in a kind of cultural pilgrimage putting up with all kinds of discomfort, struggling at times to be heard in the cacophony of voices, but wanting to join the conversation.

In the years after the second world war, Jewish artists who had been unable to travel during the war came, and so did Germans, performing the work of Beethoven and Bach. They believed that the language of art and culture could speak to the heart, across the boundaries of nationality and race. Wanting to participate was in itself an indicator of the desire for peaceful communication. That sentiment continued: whether it was ‘Balkan Club Night’ where Serbs and Croats shared the dance floor; or musicians from the new democracies of Eastern Europe playing Russian music, or in the days of apartheid, black and white South Africans demonstrating through the medium of theatre that there was another way to live.

Until this year, when for the first time actors were effectively prevented from performing because of protests about the policies of their government.

Before the festival there were calls for a boycott of a show from Jerusalem’s Incubator Theatre company, a hip hop opera called ‘The City’ which was scheduled for a run at the Underbelly Cowbarn. A letter to the Herald organised by freelance drama critic Mark Brown (no relation to the Guardian’s critic of the same name) was signed by two of Scotland’s leading playwrights Liz Lochhead and David Greig. Others who were invited to sign the letter refused.

After the first night, in the face of aggressive and disruptive picketing, the venue cancelled the entire run, concerned about the impact of the pickets on other shows and audiences in the narrow streets around.

Blood was flowing in Gaza, hundreds of children were being killed by Israeli bombardment. It felt difficult to defend what seemed a piece of light entertainment; it might have been easier if it had been a serious work which addressed some of dreadful problems facing the people of Israel and Palestine.

Next a group of students from Ben Gurion University were forced to withdraw a show about how war affected their lives due to threats of more aggressive picketing. Feelings were running high: like many people, I think, I felt uncomfortable about the situation but stood by with my pen in my pocket.

The Scotsman’s theatre critic Joyce McMillan wrote a well-argued column in which she called for another venue to be found for Incubator but this did not happen. David Greig wrote a blog in defence of the boycott but voicing ‘a hatred of megaphones’. He then launched an appeal on kickstarter called ‘Welcome to the Fringe’

to bring Palestinian theatre and Israeli theatre which rejects government funding to Edinburgh.

Incubator eventually performed their show in silence in the street as a protest against what they saw as the withdrawal of their freedom of speech. This was also disrupted. Then they left for London. Promoter John Stalker in an angry letter to the Stage pointed out that this was the first cultural boycott in the history of the Fringe, which, he wrote, was ‘no longer an open access festival. A lesson that has been bitterly felt by five actors from Jerusalem…The hideous intolerance currently evident in the Middle East between and among communities that have to find a way of living together is unlikely to be eased by intolerance and brute force on the streets of Edinburgh’.

Denunciations of Israel and declarations of fellowship with Palestinians seemed to be happening all over town and, of course, beyond. Across the central belt in Glasgow, the council raised the Palestinian flag from the City Chambers. As this happened, Glasgow’s lone Conservative councillor David Meikle waved the Israeli flag from a window below, resulting in a petition being circulated on the internet demanding his removal from office.

The Herald reported later that hundreds of US visitors had cancelled trips to Glasgow.

At a performance of Township Voices which I attended, by a choir from South Africa, a youngster announced to loud applause ‘We will never be truly free until the people of Palestine are free’.

A Polish friend of the family turned up touting a book called ‘Israel: An American Catastrophe’. The blurb urged European Jews to ‘sever their ties with Israel before it is too late’. At a stilted dinner in town we managed to avoid the subject of the Middle East completely thanks to my husband’s inexhaustible fund of kayaking anecdotes which for one I encouraged him to recount at length.

At the Book Festival, in a discussion about the future of the Middle East, asked to be positive and to paint a picture of the region in 15 years’ time, Palestinian poet Tamim Barghouti said demographics meant there was little point in a war between tens of millions of Sunni and Shia. He felt the Arab countries could unite around their shared hatred of Israel, which has, he pointed out, only five or six million people. Smiling, he predicted ‘a big war with Israel’. Then he read a rather menacing poem which appeared to be addressed to Israelis, which contained the line ‘we know when you sleep, we know when you eat’. It ended: ‘We will have you killed’. No-one challenged him.

( I did try to get a transcript of this poem. Tamim’s challneged this in the Scottish Review. )

I sat with my hands in my lap as the audience clapped politely, thinking that if a similar poem addressed to Rangers fans had been read at Celtic Park it might have led to arrests under legislation aimed at controlling sectarianism.

No-one from Israel was present. In a preview of the event in the Scotsman, Tim Cornwell wrote that ‘a cultural boycott of sorts appears to be falling into place in Edinburgh. ‘ I think he’s right. The withdrawal of Fringe venue space for two shows this year sets an undoubted precedent and questions were asked at the Fringe Society’s AGM this week.

I first became aware of the picketing of Israeli performers back in 2006 when a friend asked me if I fancied going along to picket the Edinburgh Filmhouse which was showing the work of Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir. Shamir is a filmmaker who makes serious, thoughtful and at times challenging work about the situation of his country. The ostensible reason for the street protest was a small travel grant he received from the Israeli government.

At the time, I thought questions over where he got the price of a plane ticket was a foolish reason to boycott important work. And a haggis would dance on Dunsapie Loch before I would stand in the street hurling abuse at Shamir, a serious artist, trying to tell the truth in his work, facing difficulties I can only imagine. I still think that. But I feel more and more lonely in my stance on this.

Over time this notional cultural boycott enforced by increasingly aggressive pickets seems to have become generally fairly well accepted. Opinion formers in the arts world back it and it can be hard to question without being accused of being callous towards the suffering of the people of Gaza. People have a right to boycott what they choose to. But the aggressive picketing strikes me as completely unacceptable.

Two years ago in 2012 at the Edinburgh International Festival I attended a performance by Batsheva, an Israeli dance group.
For me that night was instructive. The degree of hatred and aggression expressed by the largely Scottish crowd was unlike anything I had seen before on similar demonstrations. The performance was constantly disrupted in an alarming way. On my way out I bought an EIF fridge magnet with a picture of doves on it and decided to give it to a demonstrator in a gesture of peace and reconciliation. As I went over to the demonstrators from the theatre they started screaming abuse at me, and the police ushered me away. The EIF under Sir Jonathan Mills took a more robust position that the Fringe Society and the show finished its run.

Seeing the protestors in the grip of their extreme rage, eyes bulging, spittle coming out of their mouths, was life-changing. I was personally upset and scared by the experience and it took me some time to recover. I felt as if for a moment a lid had lifted off some dark sewer of the world and the ancient ugliness of anti-semitism had blown through a theatre in Edinburgh. I have never doubted since that it exists, a strange anti-rational passion that can grip otherwise sensible people.

Individually the demonstrators may not be anti-semitic but it seems to me that theirs is a fundamentally anti-semitic position because it denies the individual humanity of the artists. Nobody asked the actors or the students what their views were on the foreign policy of their government. No one needed to know. All they needed to know is that they are Israeli Jews who have not severed their ties with their homeland.

You can see how extraordinary this position is if you imagine for a moment people picketing a Russian orchestra or ballet company in a protest about Putin’s aggression in the Eastern Ukraine.
No-one would dream of assuming anything about whether an individual orchestra member supported Putin or not; it would seem presumptuous.

I don’t personally share any easy certainties about the situation in Israel and Palestine. As in many parts of the world, it seems that the voices of those who speak for peace are quiet voices that are all too easily drowned out by haters. For Jews born in the last half century in Israel, that is their country. They have no choice: an Israeli passport is what they hold. If Israel were to fall or Iron Dome to cease to work they have nowhere to run to, and for many the situation must feel like a desperate struggle for survival. As it must in Gaza.

It seems to me that before we who live here in comparative safety in Edinburgh can presume to know the solutions, we have to open our ears and listen to artists who are making sincere work about the daily experience of life on either side of the boundary. I don’t think you can presume to know what an artist thinks or feels without seeing their work.

One experience of this year’s festival which I shall cherish was seeing a show called ‘The War’ by the Moscow based SounDrama Studio. This was sponsored by the Russian Federation Ministry of Culture but there were no pickets outside.

In the theatre we saw the first world war evoked by lines of dancing greatcoats, dry ice and gas masks, flashlights for tank lights. It drew on the death of Hector in Homer’s Iliad; a satirical war novel by British writer Richard Aldington. The piece made the point that in this war, as in others, the soldiers on both sides drew strength from their comradeship with each other, not from hatred of ‘the enemy’ constructed by their leaders.

It was an immense piece and challenging. I had to crane my neck to read the subtitles and at times struggled to follow what was happening despite being tremendously impressed by the creative power and sophistication of it. But at the end my companion, a Ukrainian who is involved in her country’s struggle for independence leapt to her feet to applaud with tears in her eyes. Despite their dependence on the subsidy of a questionable and undemocratic government, the actors on stage had created a piece of living art which spoke across the barriers between them.

That’s what the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe should be about.

Jackie Kemp is a writer based in Edinburgh