The Edinburgh Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world. The creative chaos, unparalleled energy, and sheer size are just a few reasons why I love working the festival. It’s exhilarating. But the Fringe has had its share of controversy over the years, with reports of sexism, racism, inaccessibility – both physically and financially – and other forms of discrimination. Sadly, I can attest to an all-too-widespread pattern of casual and not-so-casual antisemitism.
Despite having experienced antisemitism in almost every facet of my life and for almost as long as I can remember, every incident still throws me. In my first year working the Edinburgh Festival, a co-worker confidently stated that I was not Jewish because I did not look Jewish; I did not have a Jewish nose. He then proceeded to move my face to one side with his hand, just to ‘check’. I was too stunned to say or do anything, other than awkwardly make an escape.
A friend at the festival once deigned to inform me, during a discussion on antisemitism, that actually, ‘antisemitism’ is not just for Jews and also applies to other groups of ‘Semites,’ a common retort that whitewashes the history of the term and implies that Jews somehow exaggerate claims of discrimination and oppression.
Another friend and I were discussing the relationship between religion and politics in the US and the power that it holds. I presumed we were both talking about Christianity until she started complaining about Hebrew. She then objected to having to interact with an Israeli family as they were “probably rich” and therefore “likely” associated with the Israeli government.
Israelis, you say? They’re just anti-Zionist not antisemitic. If only it were that simple.
Aside from the fact that no other nationalities were targeted for their attendance at the festival, the accusations of disproportionate power and wealth are textbook antisemitism. Simply exchanging ‘Jew’ for ‘Israeli’ or ‘Zionist’ when employing these racist tropes does not lessen the harm, whether inflicted intentionally or not.
During this year’s festival, I decided to resign from my position at an established theater company due to antisemitism. This was the culmination of several incidents that stemmed from an awkward and uncomfortable Holocaust ‘joke’ made during a comedic play. The joke in question – “hiding from the police like Anne Frank under the floorboards” – made in the context of the character being pursued over a crime he had committed – belittles the horrors of the Holocaust, and implies that Jews were inherently criminal (a core theme in historic antisemitism) and therefore deserved a modicum of punishment. After confronting the actor later on with a sarcastic “classy Holocaust joke,” I was met with laughs, a thanks, and an attempted fist bump. He believed my remark was a genuine compliment.
As an opponent of censorship, I also strongly believe that there is a line between an unsavory opinion and hate speech, or speech that encourages and normalizes hateful ideals. I neither expected nor wanted the show and those involved to be ‘canceled.’ What I wanted was perhaps a basic level of empathy and understanding from a company that purports to stand against every form of discrimination. The company instead refused to take any action, violating their own code of conduct which states that they “Do not tolerate racism.” Racism against Jews, though, is tolerable.
Mocking a young Jewish girl who is arguably the most renowned victim of the Shoah and is often considered emblematic (albeit sanitized) of contemporary Jewish oppression, is racist. Particularly due to recent antisemitic efforts to discredit Frank’s position as a victim of genocide by claiming she was a colonizer with white privilege. It’s evident, in this situation, that both the show and the venue demonstrated their contempt for Jewish welfare by trivializing the Holocaust and ignoring Jews’ concerns. Holocaust trivialization is just another dangerous facet of Holocaust denial, which still threatens the prosperity and safety of Jewish life, particularly in the Diaspora, where it is often weaponized as a justification for hate and violence against Jews.
I’m far from alone in these experiences. One Jewish performer, who wishes to remain anonymous, detailed an interaction in which they were referred to as a “bit Jewish” for inquiring about some owed money. Jewish comedian Katie Price, who has previously spoken about her experiences of antisemitism within comedy and the lack of support from fellow comedians, is also familiar with antisemitism at the Fringe, with audience members “making jokes about not needing to put money in the bucket as I probably have a full bank account.” Performers were also often the instigators, Price states, with many believing that “I come from wealth and therefore am better placed to afford the rising rents.” Another Fringe veteran Rachel Creeger details how “swastikas were scrawled across my posters and in front of my venues.” In other situations where her Jewish identity was a talking point, she was actively booed by audience members and targeted with “Free Palestine.”
Antisemitism in the arts industry does not exist within a vacuum, it merely reflects historic antisemitic attitudes that are already pervasive in society. Proving this, comedian Tommy Tiernan, actor Mel Gibson, and rapper Wiley have all professed classical antisemitic views in deranged and unhinged rants and continued to thrive professionally. While recognition of more blatant instances of anti-Jewish hate is of course vital, coded antisemitism can be equally dangerous and isolating for Jews. The nature of antisemitism is to mutate, and camouflage itself. It thrives on veiled and implicit intent.
Production companies and venues must take more responsibility during the Edinburgh Festival and further afield. As I said, these beliefs do not exist within a vacuum, they simply reflect pre-existing concepts. This is why education is crucial.