hillel-2015-infographic-web-vertical-01The Australian branch of an organisation that openly supports and advocates for Israel, and whose internal policies lead to the exclusion of dissenting voices, has repackaged itself as an ‘apolitical,’ pluralistic Jewish community group. With the help of the local press.

On Monday 23 March, the Australian Jewish News (AJN) reported that a staff member of a theatre in Sydney, The Red Rattler, had rejected a request from Hillel Sydney to rent the premises, with an email stating ‘Our policy does not support colonialism/Zionism. Therefore we do not host groups that support the colonization and occupation of Palestine.’ In response, New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies CEO Vic Alhadeff wrote to the theatre manager on behalf of Hillel Sydney, complaining that Hillel had been discriminated against ‘based on conflicts taking place far from Australia,’ claiming that,

Hillel is an apolitical body which provides educational, cultural and social activities for Jewish students and young adults [and the decision was] at best ill-informed and at worst racist and discriminatory.

The theatre board subsequently sent a letter of apology to AJN, saying it ‘condemns racism of any kind.’ The Red Rattler is now a target of a growing online and media campaign to paint the small theatre as the headquarters of (some combination of) radical, leftist anarchist neo-Nazis.

Whether one agrees with the approach taken by the theatre staff member, it is arguable that the ‘global Hillel family’ – of which Hillel Sydney is a part – is boycottable for the partnership role it plays in Israeli government hasbara efforts. Alhadeff’s plea of political neutrality is insincere: it is Hillel which implicates itself in ‘conflicts taking place far’ away – and on the side of the occupier.

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Hillel International practices exclusion and censorship in a bid to silence criticism of Israel’s human rights record including laws that racially discriminate against Palestinians. Hillel’s guidelines forbid chapters from hosting or organising events featuring speakers in support of BDS and those who oppose Israel’s self-declared status as a ‘Jewish and democratic state’ – a policy that has led to dissenting chapters’ dropping the Hillel name.

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It was clear from early on in the row over the Tricycle theatre, during summer 2014, that government interference and threats to funding had played a significant role in the theatre’s capitulation. Now we have incontrovertible evidence in the form of a boast from the mouth of the UK Culture Secretary himself.

Sajid Javid joins Prime Minister David Cameron this week in conflating non-violent boycott actions – or in the case of the Tricycle simply the rejection of Israeli government funds during that state’s military assault on Gaza – with violent attacks on Jewish individuals and institutions. At a speech to the Board of Deputies of British Jews on Sunday, Javid referred to his unblemished record of bolstering the bullying tactics of pro-Israel lobby groups. According to Jewish News, Javid branded cultural boycotts ‘a form of the oldest hatred in the world.’

Javid told deputies he had “no tolerance for cultural boycotts of Israel”. He added: “Whether cultural, educational or divestment, the answer is the same.”

Citing last year’s boycott of the UK Jewish Film Festival by the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, Javid said: “I intervened. I thought it was totally and utterly unacceptable and wrong. I have made it absolutely clear what might happen to their [the theatre’s] funding if they try, or if anyone tries, that kind of thing again.”

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On 13 February, a letter was published in the Guardian, announcing,

we will not engage in business-as-usual cultural relations with Israel. We will accept neither professional invitations to Israel, nor funding, from any institutions linked to its government. Since the summer war on Gaza, Palestinians have enjoyed no respite from Israel’s unrelenting attack on their land, their livelihood, their right to political existence. “2014,” says the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, was “one of the cruellest and deadliest in the history of the occupation.” The Palestinian catastrophe goes on.

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Ha’aretz is reporting that the Israel Prize for Literature may not be granted in 2015, ‘after the entire judges panel resigned this week to protest efforts by the Prime Minister’s Office to intervene in its composition’ following Netanyahu’s veto of two candidates for being insufficiently Zionist.

It is the Education Ministry that puts together the judges’ panels, and the appointments are formally signed by the education minister: a post Netanyahu has held since December 2014, when former minister Shay Piron resigned. An Education Ministry source told Ha’aretz ‘nobody dreamed there could be any substantive reason to disqualify two of Israel’s leading literature scholars.’

It should be understood that the Israel Prize – awarded in four areas, including literature – has always been political, and frequently controversial: it is presented annually, on Israeli Independence Day (or the Nakba for Palestinians), in a state ceremony in Jerusalem (note the symbolism; the capital is Tel Aviv), in the presence of the President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Knesset (Israeli parliament), and the Supreme Court President.

Netanyahu defended his purge of candidates, writing on Facebook, ‘Over the years, more and more radical figures, including anti-Zionists … have been appointed to the panel along with too few authentic representatives of other parts of the nation.’

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In an interview conducted in Jerusalem with the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare for Agence France-Presse, it was proposed to the recipient of Israel’s ‘Freedom of the Individual in Society’ 2015 award that, ‘Here in Jerusalem, the Palestinians could object that their freedom is restricted,’ to which he responded:

I haven’t asked myself the question. I am a writer. I create literature. I come from one of the rare countries in the world that helped the Jews during the war […]. The [Albanian] population has always defended the Jews, under the monarchy, under communism, after communism. That is why I have not thought about that other problem here (that of the Palestinians).

Kadare clearly feels his self-image is not enhanced by any reflections on the suffering of Palestinians, as it is when linking his national identity with the salvation of European Jews. Never has the historical murder of millions been so beneficial to an artist’s brand. In such a context, a contemporary injustice is merely inconvenient:

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Jonathan Chadwick is artistic director of Az Theatre:

The aim was to visit my colleagues in Gaza in order to pursue our project to create an original new Arabic stage adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in Gaza. Now it looks quite unlikely that I will get permission from the Israelis. But I will still be going to the West Bank.

… Theatre for Everybody in Gaza have produced a good Arabic translation of a stage adaptation that was produced in the 1950 in Germany. We have presented two events as benefits to finance the work. Both events were at Rich Mix. One in September and the other in January. At both these events there were readings of stage adaptations of Tolstoy’s works and skype conversations with our colleagues in Gaza.

The work in Gaza has been held up by the recent ‘war’ and the subsequent ‘peace’. The situation there is dreadful. We thought that if I visited Gaza and worked with Theatre for Everybody it would get things moving and it would help to break down the isolation they feel.

He will be joined by playwright Caryl Churchill:

I was advised that there might be a way of securing permission to go to Gaza by meeting people in the Palestinian government in Ramallah so when Caryl Churchill said she would like to go to Palestine because she’d never been, I suggested to Ashtar Theatre that we go together and we could do a workshop on her recent play Love and Information.

We are going to the West Bank on Saturday 7th February and we will be welcomed and accommodated by the British Council and we are really looking forward to meeting friends old and new there and doing the work on this exciting and challenging play.

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The winner of the Jerusalem Prize for 2015 has been announced: 79-year old Albanian author, Ismail Kadare.

If he chooses to accept the accolade, Kadare will be awarded the prize by the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, in an invitation-only ceremony on Sunday 8 February which will mark the opening of the Jerusalem International Book Fair. In 2011, author Ian McEwan was the subject of a campaign led by British Writers in Support of Palestine (BWISP) that took the form of an exchange in the letters page of the Guardian. BWISP expressed ‘profound disagreement with his decision to accept the Jerusalem prize,’ reminding McEwan that ‘the Jerusalem Municipality, which awards the Prize, openly pursues apartheid urban planning policies.’ As British-Palestinian filmmaker, Omar Al-Qattan wrote in response to McEwan’s widely lauded acceptance speech, ‘He refers to the Jerusalem prize, which he accepted despite the pleas of his admirers and colleagues, as a “tribute to a precious tradition of democracy of ideas in Israel”, giving the example of a novella about the destruction of a Palestinian village that was required reading in Israeli schools. He fails to mention, however, that while this precious tradition was maintained, so were the expulsions, military rule, house demolitions, confiscation of land and homes, bombing of refugee camps and so on…. McEwan should at least have had the decency to compare the astonishing achievements of Palestinian artists who have moved the world with their work, with a fraction of the support available to their Israeli counterparts.’

Four years on, Israeli human rights defender Ilana Hammerman has written a piece in the Hebrew edition of Ha’aretz (29 January 2015), entitled ‘Freedom of the Individual in the Shuafat Refuse Heaps,’ which has been translated into English by Richard Flantz. (h/t Sol Salbe)

FREEDOM OF THE INDIVIDUAL AT THE SHUAFAT REFUSE HEAPS

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Update: By the time the Angoulême festival opened on 29 January, the number of signatories to the open letter had reached 110, including 2013 Grand Prix winner and Charlie Hebdo contributor Willem.

We, cartoonists, illustrators, writers, editors, distributors, translators, critics and workers in the comic book industry … urge the Angoulême [International Comics] Festival, and all festivals, conventions, and celebrations of comics and cartooning art in which we participate, to reject any partnership, funding, or co-operation with any Israeli company or institution that does not explicitly promote freedom and justice for Palestinians, as well as equal rights and equality for Israeli Jews and Palestinians, including the Israeli government and its local consulates, so long as Israel continues to deny Palestinians their rights….

You can read the letter in full – in French, English, and Arabic – with a list of signatories here.

The 2015 letter expands on a 2014 letter that called for the Angoulême Festival to drop all ties with the Israeli company Sodastream. The new letter’s signatories include workers in the comics industry beyond cartoonists, including critics Jeet Heer and former heads of the Cité internationale de la bande dessinée Thierry Groensteen and Gilles Ciment, and organizers of the first-ever festival of comics held in Palestine, Palestine Comics, which opened in November of 2014.

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A series of five minute plays will be premiered in London next week, 26-31 January, responding to issues of censorship and boycotts in the arts. Offstage Theatre, in association with Theatre Uncut, have commissioned playwrights Caryl Churchill, Ryan Craig, April De Angelis, Tim Fountain, Hannah Khalil, Neil LaBute, Hattie Naylor, Gbolahan Obisesan, Julia Pascal, Evan Placey, Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Solemani; several of whom were outspoken in their support of London’s Tricycle Theatre that was vilified in the press over its offer to UK Jewish Film to replace Israeli embassy funds for its annual film festival.

Offstage Theatre company names the events of Summer 2014, including the Tricycle decision, as the inspiration for this series of short plays: in July at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Underbelly pulled an Israeli show, The City, after protests in solidarity with the Palestinian people, and in September, the Barbican closed the live art installation Exhibit B, following protests that it dehumanised Africans.

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Chronicling what they see as ‘a deeply disturbing, and increasingly common, trend toward censorship in the American Jewish community,’ Jewish Voice for Peace have warned in an open letter of how damaging this trend is to the arts, and have called ‘on arts institutions to recommit to plurality.’

In the US, being Zionist and anti-BDS just isn’t enough to placate Israel’s self-styled defenders.

Last week’s firing of playwright Ari Roth from his position as Artistic Director of Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s Theater J has elicited expressions of sadness and outrage from artists and activists across the United States: a letter signed by over 60 prominent theatrical Artistic Directors in America deplores the actions of the JCC, which ‘in terminating him for blatantly political reasons, violate the principles of artistic freedom and free expression that have been at the heart of the non-profit theater movement for over half a century. Such actions undermine the freedom of us all. A free people need a free art; debate, dissent, and conflict are at the heart of what makes theater work, and what makes democracy possible.’ They have called upon the full Board of the JCC to renounce this action of the Executive Committee of the JCC. A further letter signed by 34 writers, theatre artists, academics, musicians and community activists, to the board of the JCC characterizes Roth’s firing as an act of censorship and the circumstances surrounding it ‘a form of creeping McCarthyism.’ Read the rest of this entry »

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