Judith Ornstein
Passionately moderate

How every theatregoer can stand up to cultural BDS.

Stickers calling for a boycott of Israel
Stickers calling for a boycott of Israel
2014 was halcyon pre Corbyn time. But that  summer the Jewish community felt betrayed by a small, much loved London arts centre, The Tricycle,  who reneged on their long standing hosting of The UK Jewish Film Festival because of Israel. It was also pre IHRA’s definition of antisemitism: “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.”
Early 2015 saw the formation of UK Artists for Palestine whose purpose is Cultural BDS. That summer also saw a Guardian letter from usual suspects such as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh calling for BAFTA to boycott the London Israeli Film Festival. Around then I began to hear whispers that some arts organisations were quietly refusing to invite Israeli artists to perform.
And in September 2015 we got Corbyn.
But here we are at the end of 2018 and there seems to be a blind spot with some who stand together against BDS but don’t notice the cultural version unless it’s a high profile hater like Roger Waters or offering support for Netta, and Israel hosting the Eurovision Song Contest. This is all good stuff but there is another level where we can take effective action.
A group  of artists boycott Israel; not only do they slip through the net but some of them are put on a pedestal they don’t deserve. Sometimes it’s complicated as in the case of Tony Kushner who exemplifies a recent knotty example. Jewish American Tony Kushner’s Caroline or Change is transferring to the West End from Hampstead. Kushner is possibly one of the most significant writers of our time. He is also a member of the board of the American Jewish Voice for Peace whose mission statement supports partial BDS as does Kushner, who specifically gives support to cultural boycotting. He believes that ethnic cleansing was integral to the foundation of Israel and his opinion is influential.
For years I’ve done research before booking an event. I want to know if the team has artistic integrity but their politics don’t have to agree with mine. it’s clear that Kushner is a rare example of someone of integrity. He’s a deep thinker and knowledgeable but I disagree with him profoundly.
The contrast between Kushner and some of our home grown boycotters couldn’t be greater. Most are good but not great, and they don’t engage knowledgeably or objectively with the intricacies of the Israel Palestine story.
I used to circulate a list of plays with major boycotting input; some recipients sent feedback and took action; others didn’t acknowledge the newsletter, or continued to support such events. I stopped soon after Corbyn became Labour leader because standing up to Labour’s failure to eradicate antisemitism takes priority and making the Whitewashed Project (www.whitewashed.co.uk) squeezed it out.
But the truth is that both these battles are entwined.
Our communal organisations are hard working, under resourced and facing a crisis that is, despite all the criticisms of the word, an existential threat to our future as UK Jews. We can’t expect everything to be done for us, and challenging cultural BDS can be undertaken by anyone who goes to the theatre and believes in Israel’s right to exist.
Unlike BDS hooligans who have disrupted performances by the Israel Philharmonic and the Jerusalem Quartet, our modus operandi is low key and civil. It’s effective and, with help from like minded and supportive friends, there has been some significant behind the scenes success in changing the agenda.
When you live in the UK, and are within travelling distance of a hub like London, there is a rich choice of cultural life. When booking something, I take into consideration not only writer, director and leading actors, but also whether boycotters are on board. Decisions are subjective but recently the presence of a boycotter didn’t deter me from watching a play by Arthur Miller.
There are some signed up boycotting mainstays of the UK stage whom I have chosen not to support, such as director Ian Rickson, actor Maxine Peake, and writer Simon Stephen, stage adaptor of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, together with its original author, Mark Haddon. Making such decisions doesn’t markedly cut down the quality of the choice available and indeed since the quiet campaign began the choice has grown. London still has more things to see than there are days in the year.
Everybody has a right to their own opinions, and that includes me, you and the artists involved, but I adamantly oppose any decision to sign up to a cultural boycott which closes down dialogue; doesn’t contribute to progress or understanding and helps nobody. Cultural boycotting of the only Jewish Homeland is an ill considered betrayal of artistic integrity.
Some people ask why I bother to think in such detail before booking because “It’s only a play”. Whatever one’s taste it’s never “only” a play. Whether we go to the theatre to laugh, cry, or be shocked, good theatre will always make us think, and I don’t want to be unexpectedly jolted by the revelation that the writer or person inhabiting a role believes that the only Jewish homeland was born in sin.
Understandably some  have accused me of applying a double standard but I defend this position. If people in the public eye sign up to a cultural boycott of one country only, Israel, then I’m also allowed to take a position and choose where to spend money and time. Having experimented I’ve discovered it interferes with the way I relate to a performance. How can I enter into a theatrical pact with, say, Mark Rylance, knowing that he’s a boycotter who stands with Galloway and Corbyn in the Israel hating Stop the War Coalition?
Such people are influencers who were allowed to remain unchallenged for too long. Years ago London’s Royal Court Theatre became a no go area for anyone who supports Israel’s right to exist. Until recently their website cache carried a map of the Middle East with Israel missing.
This quiet but unceasing anti-boycott campaign seems to have been successful so far in preventing other institutions from going the same way as the Royal Court but it’s fragile and needs ongoing vigilance.
Cultural boycotters are proponents of BDS and more than a few signatories are feeders for our current Israel linked antisemitism crisis. They are sometimes, as with Rylance, mates with Corbyn.
What you can do
Please look at the list of boycotters attached here and read their statement before you book.(1)
If you decide not to go ahead with booking have a standard letter prepared. Now you’ll be ready to fire an email to, for instance, The Hampstead Theatre or the National, telling them firmly but courteously that you’re not booking because a specific cultural boycotter is on board.
If you decide to go ahead and book then your choice will be educated and not accidental. Enjoy. But write a letter telling them, if it applies, that you were put off by the presence of so and so who supports BDS but have decided to see the play for other reasons, such as it’s by Shakespeare, Miller or Sondheim. This overrides the disturbing presence of the boycotter.
People and institutions need to be aware that we are watching more than the play itself. We are an important part of the theatre-going public; let our voices be heard.
About the Author
Judith Ornstein is UK based and a passionate supporter of the arts, who combats the cultural boycott of Israel. She is the instigator of the Whitewashed Project, fighting Labour's problems with Jews. The book, the film, and valuable links can be found at www.whitewashed.co.uk
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