Anti-Israel activists in London engaged in twin protests both outside and inside of Sadler’s Wells theatre on Monday night as Israel’s Batsheva Ensemble arrived for the first of three performances, but their disruptions could not ruin a triumphant evening of Israeli dance.
As I walked down from Angel tube station in Islington and approached Sadler’s Wells, I passed by a patrol of eight beefy London police officers in bright yellow jackets, a sight more commonly seen at English football matches rather than outside a cultural event, the first indication that this was not going to be a regular night at the theatre.
Directly across the street from the entrance to Sadler’s Wells, several hundred angry protesters led by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign stood enclosed in a fenced-off pen. A drummer drummed loudly while a man with a megaphone led the group in screeching cries of “Zionism, Terrorism” and “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free,” which sounds like a call for Israel’s elimination, as the State of Israel now exists precisely between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, alongside the West Bank and Gaza.
As the megaphone protest continued at ear-splitting volume, other anti-Israel campaigners went up and down the queue of ticket holders handing out leaflets. There was no way to avoid the protests, as tough security checks at the entrance meant the line moved very slowly. Yet despite the inconvenience and chants of “shame on you” directed at ticket holders, the anti-Israel crowd seemed to be unable to persuade a single person to turn away and leave. Instead, most ignored the protests and sported a face of resignation, simply waiting for their opportunity to enter the theatre and order a drink at the bar.
Further down the street, also enclosed within police fences, the Zionist Federation held a spirited, good-natured counter-rally in support of the Batsheva troupe, waving Israeli and British flags and playing Israeli folk music, while their campaigners handed out leaflets saying “Culture Unites, Boycotts Divide.”
After having my bag and pockets checked thoroughly, a security procedure familiar to those living in Israel, I was finally inside Sadler’s Wells. I spoke in the lobby to a non-Jewish English woman who had driven several hours down from Norfolk, East Anglia just to see Batsheva because she loved dance and heard that Israel dance was world-class. When a protester outside tried to hand her a leaflet, she said she told him: “Do I interrupt your dinner party? Please don’t interrupt my evening out.” I had the feeling most attendees felt the same way, that they came to see dance and were turned off by the aggressive and thuggish behaviour of the anti-Israel protesters.
Just before the 7:30pm performance time, the bells rang for people to take their seats, but due to the large number of those still waiting to pass through security, the show didn’t actually begin until 8:10pm. In a country whose cultural venues are quite punctual, it was a pretty lengthy delay, which was exactly the intention of the protesters. While the crowd waited, male dancers from Batsheva warmed up the crowd with improvisational dance routines.
As the lights finally went down and the dancers appeared on stage, there was tension in the air as security staff and ushers waited expectantly around the three levels of seating. Previous performances in London by the Israel Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall and the Habima Theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe had been disrupted, and it was expected that tonight would be no different. This had nothing to do with the current fighting between Hamas and Israel; the anti-Israel protesters object to performances by Israeli cultural institutions in Britain at all times.
The first fifteen minutes of Batsheva’s performance were fast and loud, but during a quiet moment the inevitable happened when several protesters stood up and screamed “Free, Free Palestine.” I heard an audience member nearby yell “piss off,” and then the crowd starting clapping loudly to drown out the protesters. Security staff quickly shone their flashlights onto areas where the shouts were heard, and the protesters were efficiently ushered out. The dancers had paused on stage, waiting for security to do their work, and then promptly resumed after a disruption of less than one minute. Similar disruptions happened twice more during the evening, with decreasing effectiveness, the final one lasting a matter of seconds.
And so to the dance itself. The Batsheva Ensemble is the younger branch of Israel’s world-renowned Batsheva Dance Company, consisting of dancers aged 18-24, and this was their first tour of the UK. In the first half they performed “Deca Dance,” a collage of the greatest hits of their choreographer Ohad Naharin, but the show really took off in the second half, when the dancers constructed a piece with audience participation that was wildly original and had the crowd whooping with delight. I won’t give away any more for those who are attending tonight.
The closing piece was a dance backed by a loud and frenetic punk version of the Hebrew song Echad Mi Yodea, traditionally sung at the Seder table during the Jewish festival of Passover (“Who knows one? I know one. One is God, in heaven and on earth”), with both the male and female dancers dressed in quasi-Hasidic garb of black suit, white shirt and black hat. When they finished, the crowd jumped to their feet and roared thunderous applause, giving the Batsheva Ensemble multiple curtain calls. When I turned around to ask a group of young dance students sitting in the row behind me what they thought of the final number, one boy smiled and told me: “wicked.”
You can get a sense of the reaction through this video clip and report posted by blogger Richard Millett.
The next day, London’s Evening Standard newspaper ran a lead editorial, Israel’s Gaza war and a protest too far, which criticised the anti-Israel protesters and called their actions “ignorant and pointless.”
While from inside Sadler’s Wells it felt like the protesters had scored a spectacular “own goal,” to use English football parlance, by creating a more intense performance by Batsheva and heightened sympathy from the audience, one can probably expect similar hate-filled protests to accompany Israeli cultural events in Britain for the foreseeable future.