Possible meanings of the Tricycle Theatre boycott of the UK Jewish Film Festival

The recent decision by the Tricycle Theatre to boycott the UK Jewish Film Festival has sparked the usual furore about anti-Semitism, Palestinian suffering, and the current conflict in Gaza and Israel.

This is an argument between a local film festival and an even more local London theatre. So, a storm in a teacup, hardly worth mentioning.

In fact, while the current debates are plenty to get one’s head around, and most people will look to avoid that by plumping for their partisan group of choice, I would argue that what is playing out here, in microcosm, is a much larger and more difficult issue. The Tricycle and UKJFF are the teacups, and the storm is out there, it’s big, and it’s challenging.

The problem writ large

It comes down to how far we (that is, anyone in the world) should go in identifying the state of Israel as synonymous with the Jewish people, and how far attacks on the former are the same as attacks on the latter.

At the heart of this lies the riddle of the definition of Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic state; a state for all its citizens, but a Jewish state: a definition which brews controversy and debate and, arguably, can never be resolved to the satisfaction of all.

But…but… How do I get from a film festival to such big questions?

The argument itself

I have no inside track on the argument, so am basing my reaction on what has been reported in the BBC, Guardian, by the organisations themselves, etc.

The Tricycle’s argument is that they are not boycotting the festival they have hosted for eight years, nor indeed Jewish people or culture: rather, this is a boycott of one of the festival’s funders, the Israeli embassy in the UK. The Tricycle claims that they offered alternative sources of funding for the festival.

The UKJFF, for its part, has rejected the Tricycle’s offer. The grounds for this rejection aren’t explicit, but I assume are because the UKJFF screens Israeli as well as non-Israeli films, has been funded by the embassy for many years, and isn’t going to get rid of one of its funders just because its venue asked it to do so.

Is the Tricycle right?

No. But.

I believe it is the wrong decision, but I believe it has been taken for the right reasons. In other words, if the Tricycle’s arguments are to be taken at face value – and I have no reason to do otherwise – then they are based on a set of principles that are coherent and reasonable.

The Tricycle objects to funding from “any party to the current conflict”. Given Hamas does not fund cultural activities in the UK, this is a de facto rejection of Israel. (I would be interested to know whether the Tricycle would at this time support a theatre group funded by Fatah.) (I’d also be interested to know how long the “current conflict” will be held to have lasted. As I write these words, we are entering a truce that might yet hold.)

Those outraged by the decision have begun looking for examples of hypocrisy. These haven’t been immediately forthcoming, so I assume we won’t hear of any big cheques from a missile manufacturer in Russia, or plays sponsored by President Assad.

That said, there is the theatre’s Arts Council funding. The UK has a complicated military record. It also has a three-quarters of a million pound annual commitment to the Tricycle. That is money from Muslim taxpayers, from Jewish ones, money that is no different to the money spent on bullets that have killed Iraqi children. Is that hypocrisy? No. Just as Israeli artists object to the country’s politics but accept state funding, we should expect the same of artists within any democracy.

The closest parallel to the theatre’s current decision is that of previous years to host the UKJFF, despite protester objections. The UKJFF has been funded by the Israeli Embassy for 17 years, and hosted by the Tricycle for the past 8 years, during which time Israel engaged in military operations in Gaza, Lebanon, allegedly Syria, and so on. So either the Tricycle sees the current conflict as different from previous ones Israel has engaged in, or it has changed its policy towards state funding from states engaged in conflicts. I would be interested to know which one of these is the case.

It is a pity that the Tricycle’s decision comes at the same time as protesters are trying to halt Israeli performers in Edinburgh, and other boycott movements are active around Europe and the US, couching their arguments in racist vitriol. But the vileness there need have no impact on the Tricycle’s independent decisions.

Above all, the Tricycle’s decision can be seen as a policy decision. As such, it must be careful to be consistent – and be seen to be consistent – with this decision in future. I do not envy the nuances they will have to deal with, deciding what is a conflict, who is a party to a conflict… I suspect that they will fail, which will further hurt the theatre. This is a pity, and is my main objection to the decision.

But that is the Tricycle’s decision, and I am comfortable that the decision was made based on a combination of policy, conscience (presumably more to do with dead Palestinian children than dead Israeli soldiers), and pragmatism (better to be attacked in the press than by protesters outside the theatre).

Is the UKJFF right?

Yes, so long as the argument is not about anti-Semitism.

The UKJFF has been accused of politicising the debate. But its decision seems to me more straightforward than the Tricycle’s. The Festival has a list of donors and sponsors, and there is no reason why it should reject one of them just because the host venue has an objection. The Tricycle’s principles do not need to be adopted by the UKJFF.

Should the UKJFF turn away from the state of Israel because it is engaged in a conflict? Surely not: it did not do so for the past 17 years, during which time there were still more difficult conflicts, including the Second Intifada.

Moreover, the UKJFF has been rigorous in not having its programme influenced by any of its funders, and screened films that were highly critical of the state of Israel.

There is an argument that Israeli state funding of cultural activities is a crime of obfuscation, trying to distract attention from its political sins. This is bizarre, first because most Israeli cultural activities are critical of the state; second because this argument is rarely or never applied to states who fund newsrooms and cultural activities while actively repressing freedom of speech in their countries. There is no moral absolute in the world. We have to start with the biggest sinners first. In other words, boycott the Bolshoi before you boycott the UKJFF.


So is the Tricycle the baddy?

I believe that both parties have acted out of principle. These principles were intractable with each other but were not, in themselves, wrong. So, sorry, but no one here is a baddy.

Indeed, I believe that, as it stands, this is not my problem: this is a spat between two cultural institutions with different value systems, neither of which are “bad”. The cultural spats in the world are still fewer than the number of armed conflicts. I pray for the day when the only fighting in the world is between drama queens (I’ll gladly include myself in this category) and arts impresarios, dressing each other down in flowery language while throwing plastic daggers, charging a good penny while they strangle each other with paper manifestos declaring how much better the world would be, if only they were listened to… OK, basta.


But they’re anti-Semites!

There is a bigger problem, say supporters of the UKJFF: the Tricycle is anti-Semitic.

NOW the problem is mine.

I am half-Israeli, Jewish, live in London, and attend the Tricycle Theatre. So I have to form a view: I have to decide, for example, whether I would boycott the Tricycle Theatre.

On the Tricycle’s Charity Commission site are registered thirteen trustees. Several are Jews; none are Arabs. So to argue that the Tricycle is anti-Semitic is to deem that either the Jewish trustees are anti-Semites, or they were outvoted.

I believe neither of these. Of course, Jews can be anti-Semitic, or be the dupes of anti-Semites. History certainly has enough examples of the latter. But these Jewish trustees have no obligation of loyalty to the state of Israel.

Remember that the state is Jewish and democratic. So, it is a state for the Jews. It is also a state for 1.7m Palestinian Arabs, who comprise some 20% of the population.

Anti-Semitic is used as shorthand for anti-Jewish (not Arab, though Arabs are Semites as well). Those who choose to conflate an attack on Israel with anti-Semitism need to be very sure what they are saying. The boycott attacks in Edinburgh, for example, which boycott Israelis because they are Israeli, are racist. But the boycott of funding from a state at war is not racism. It is a policy decision.

I as a Jew have a right to comment on the policies of Israel, but I have no right to influence them unless I go and live there. In the same way, defenders of the state have no right to drag my Jewishness into this teacup. If the Tricycle is anti-Semitic, then my going there is supporting anti-Semites. Well, I am not accepting that.

The Tricycle have been short-sighted. But at the moment, those attacking the theatre for anti-Semitism risk being even more short-sighted. Let the Tricycle reap what it has sowed here: a complex policy that will give it no end of difficulties in the future. Theatres should be able to make decisions – right or wrong – without fear of being branded racist. Meanwhile, let the UKJFF decamp to a new venue. Eight years is a long time anyway.

But the language of both sides will help influence the debates that will inevitably continue. If we insist on using terms like anti-Semitism, we force those attacked to parse the language of the attack.

Why might the Tricycle be anti-Semitic? Because the film festival is a Jewish festival? Because Israel is a Jewish state? But the film festival shows non-Israeli films, the state has non-Jewish citizens. Within each identity is its opposite. This is a duality that should be healthy, if we could only accept it. But when we accuse someone of being anti-Semitic, we accuse them of attacking only one side of this identity.

Or, perhaps, we are admitting that we only accept one side.

The teacup is the Tricycle and the UKJFF. The storm is out there: the storm is the relationship between Jews, Arabs, and the State of Israel. That is a much more complex subject, one I will hope to address further in the future.


A note of warning

If anyone concludes that I am in some way complacent, let me end on a note of warning. Paris is not far from London, and in Paris we see a tide of anti-Semitism – no nuance possible – on the rise. I have long said the UK is the most democratic nation in the world, despite its weird customs and monarchy and obsession with tea and bad football players. Where the Tricycle has found a position of principle, I fear others may not be so sophisticated. Beware the creeping tide. The Tricycle is not anti-Semitic. Many others are.