Walking down Kilburn High Street in north London is to be surrounded by multi-culturalism. The aromas of Middle Eastern super-markets, packed in between Irish pubs and the obligatory greasy air of low cost fried chicken establishments found in every British suburb, infuse the experience of a pedestrian on this bustling high street. Tucked neatly away is the Tricycle Theatre, a cool independent arts venue which this year has refused to host the UK Jewish Film Festival on account one of the sponsors being the Israeli Embassy.
For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of north London, Kilburn sits next to West Hampstead. In fact they’re so close that many aspirational residents of Kilburn refer to their home address as being in the somewhat more salubrious surroundings of West Hampstead. The demographic of West Hampstead is made up in no small part of culturally aware, socially over-active, hard working Jewish twenty-and-thiry-somethings.
I have enjoyed productions at the Tricycle Theatre many times, but today, upon hearing of this damning decision, two occasions immediately sprang to mind. The first was a play call ‘My Dutiful Laundrette’ written by Yasmeen Khan and performed by the MUJU Crew – a theatre group made up of Muslims and Jews, looking to strengthen relations between these two such similar communities by working together on pertinent cultural endeavors. It was a great play, the audience made up of both religious groups, all laughing at the same jokes, and mingling whilst sharing a (most probably) non-alcoholic beverage at the interval… Muslims aren’t allowed to drink whereas most Jews would always prefer a bagel to a Bellini. It is exactly these types of events that had made me proud of London, an admirer of the Tricycle Theatre, and keen to be involved in more inter-faith activity.
Another experience there was a Day for Darfur a few years ago. It was an 11-hour summit of performances, films, exhibitions, testimonials, music, and discussions, focusing on Darfuri culture and the ongoing crises there. I had photographed a survivor of a massacre by Janjaweed militia, a young man named Adam who had escaped to London, and these images were exhibited as part of the day. Around 500,000 innocent people have been slaughtered in Darfur, true victims of genocide without means to fight back. Ironically, considering the decision made by the Tricycle today, so many of the organizers, funders, performers and speakers on that Day for Darfur happened to be Jewish. You see, the Jewish people have faced existential threats before, and still face them to this very day. Jewish people have resisted genocide and are often first in line campaigning alongside other minority communities who face the same evils. Whilst many Jewish people understand the predicament in which Israel finds itself, and broadly support an attempt to demilitarize Hamas, do not think for even a split second that Jews around the world do not feel compassion towards the innocent people of Gaza, who have the calamitous misfortune of being positioned bang in the middle of a clash of civilizations between Hamas and Israel. What most Jewish people do know is, what we are seeing in Gaza is a bloody and horrible conflict, it is not genocide.
Indhu Rubasingham, the artistic director of the Tricycle, claims that the theatre still want to host this incredible celebration of diversity and intensely creative film-making, but not if it is to be associated with the Israeli Embassy.
Ms. Rubasingham, before discussing what this means for the Jewish people of London let’s begin with what this means for you. I ask you… Do you not believe that your actions have simply created a rod for your own curative back? What happens the next time any international film festival is sponsored by an embassy of any other country, maybe not a country engaged in heavily reported military action, but a country that is, for example, anti-gay or with a questionable human rights record? Do you stand by your list of stipulations then too? Will this landmark decision not become the watershed moment upon which all your future programming will be judged and potentially criticized for being hypocritical? Have you accepted any funding from any British government agency since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that have claimed so many thousands of civilian lives? Do you begin a magnanimous campaign to boycott movies that feature Jewish actors, or do you find out whether these actors support the policies of the State of Israel first? Ms. Rubasingham, the question I’m getting at is: Once you have started singling out the behavior of other democracies, and using this as a decision–making factor upon which you either allow or deny diverse cultural activities in your venue, where on earth do you stop? I used to see the Tricycle as a safe space, welcome to all, but today this positive perception has been tainted.
Ms. Rubasingham, let’s be clear, this is the UK Jewish Film Festival, not Israeli Movie Week. You know as well as I do the epic variety of subject matter contained in these movies. There will be films that are favorable towards Israel, there will be films that are massively critical of Israel, and there will be films that don’t mention Israel at all.
I have watched so many Jewish and Israeli films in the last decade, Ms. Rubasingham, from the controversial ‘Walking On Water’ to the absolutely epic, and also controversial, ‘Live and Become’. By virtue of Israel being such a young and such a unique country, there are many societal difficulties, which are often so deeply and captivatingly exposed by the talented film-makers of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. If, in the knowledge that many of these films would not show Israel in an exclusively positive light, the Israeli Embassy still wished to sponsor the event and still wished to espouse freedom of speech within creative endeavors, I seriously question your decision to oppose this. As I’m sure you know, the UK Jewish Film Festival is totally apolitical, by demanding that they actively reject funding from the Israeli Embassy, you have pushed them into a corner, a Catch 22 if you like, and demanded that they either become political, or they are not welcome in your establishment. This is deeply unfair and was only ever going to end one way.
The issue here, Ms. Rubasingham, is that you have not only prevented an incredibly powerful exchange of views and opportunity for people to gain deeper understanding about Jewish culture and, in some movies, the real issues faced within Israeli society. Oh no. You have opened the floodgates.
You have unwittingly created a policy which the Tricycle Theatre will now be morally obliged to follow, judging the behavior of many more international democracies before curating season-upon-season of creative events. You have unwittingly gone some way to preventing your own organisation from achieving their stated purpose of viewing “the world through a variety of lenses, bringing unheard voices into the mainstream” and presenting “high quality and innovative work, which provokes debate and emotionally engages.” Worst of all, you have unwittingly become a symbolic pawn in a political game, the end result of which is not only the abject demonization of Israel in every city in the Western world, but the ill-treatment of Jews to an extent that many of us no longer feel welcome in our own cities, our own cafes and our own theatres.
Ms. Rubasingham, allow me to explain… Hamas have been fighting two battles since their inception in 1987, the ‘War of the Gun’ and the ‘War of Minds’, the former openly seeking to kill civilians in Israel and bring death to the Jewish State and Jewish people worldwide. The latter however, is a campaign to delegitimize Israel in the eyes of the world, with tactics so murderous, shameful and dishonest that if they were to appear in a film at your wonderful venue, critics would say it was too unrealistic. You, Ms. Rubasingham, have unwittingly fallen into a trap and you didn’t even know it until now. You have decided to take a political stance in an apolitical arena, despite your statement of clarification yesterday stating that you “aim for a place of political neutrality.” To be blunt, Ms. Rubasingham, in the morally-perverse world of Hamas, the Jews of the diaspora would no longer feel particularly welcome in London, Paris or Brussels, so they naturally head to Israel as a bastion of safety. Then, committing genocide upon the Jewish people will be a lot easier, especially as when a two-state-solution becomes a reality and part of Israel will be nine miles wide, from the sea to the border of Palestine. It is not far fetched to suggest that this is what Hamas are attempting to do, as they seem to espouse these views in public on regular occasions.
I welcome a protest planned for Thursday outside the Tricycle Theatre, hosted by a group called the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, but anyway feel utterly bewildered by this decision. Ms. Rubasingham, you have already gone some distance to alienating your massive existing and potential Jewish client base. You have allowed the Tricycle Theatre to slide down an extremely slippery slope of politically motivated programming, and you have unwittingly contributed to the growing sentiment that Jewish people face an expiry date of when they will no longer be welcome in multi-cultural London.
You have given the UK Jewish Film Festival a choice: publically disagree with Israel by rejecting any funding from the Israeli Embassy, or look for another home. Whichever way you look at it, Ms. Rubasingham, it doesn’t look good for a supposedly politically neutral arts venue, does it?
A few years ago I sat in an Israeli theatre called Nalaga’at in Jaffa, watching a deaf-blind group comprised of 11 Jews and Arabs, perform a play called ‘Not By Bread Alone’. I sat in floods of tears, marveling at this group of inspirational people, all of whom have faced trials I cannot begin to comprehend. I felt so proud of Israeli ingenuity and originality, for creating such a fulfilling professional life for these challenged individuals, for bringing them together and subsequently touring internationally with their play, encouraging audiences to view the world differently. I felt like we, together as human beings, can bridge any gap and achieve anything; I was full of hope. Today, thanks to Indhu Rubasingham and the Tricycle Theatre, I am full of despair.