Judith Ornstein
Passionately moderate

National Disasters

Cultural Boycotting Failures  in London

Please forgive me if I am mistaken, but if you went to the theatre in London or New York, or anywhere, during the past year, you may inadvertently have given moral and financial support to cultural boycotters of Israel.

Let’s begin with ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’. That’s the one playing at the Apollo Theatre, London when the roof collapsed in December 2013. Despite this near tragedy, it later transferred to the Gielgud Theatre where it’s still running. It’s a terrific play, which started its run at the National Theatre, London in August 2012.

In 2014, ‘The Curious Incident’ opened in New York, where it’s still playing and has received five Tony Awards. Where am I going with this? You’ll see!

In February 2015 , just about a year ago, a letter appeared in the London Guardian calling for a total cultural boycott of Israel. Here is part of the letter:

“During South African apartheid, musicians announced they weren’t going to “play Sun City”. Now we are saying, in Tel Aviv, Netanya, Ashkelon or Ariel, we won’t play music, accept awards, attend exhibitions, festivals or conferences, run masterclasses or workshops, until Israel respects international law and ends its colonial oppression of the Palestinians”.

To date, 1090 so called UK ‘artists’ have signed up to this pledge. Many people opposed to cultural boycotts took a look at the names and decided they were a bunch of nobodies, or something less polite. Up to a point they were right, and most of them are just that – nobodies. But. Approximately 100 of them are players, amongst whom are Mark Haddon, the author, and Simon Stephens, the stage adaptor, of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’.

Does it matter if you go to see this play, or any other cultural event with boycotting input? When I asked someone who writes for the UK Jewish Chronicle why they were not pointing out significant input from cultural boycotters in their reviews, he admitted they weren’t bothered so long as the subject matter was ok.

Well… If you hold that Israel is equivalent to apartheid South Africa, and a colonial oppressor, as do signed up cultural boycotters, then the solution championed by these boycotters is to dismantle Israel and to hand it over to those whom you perceive it oppresses. That’s the end of Israel, warts and all. BDS after all is a movement that does not target Israeli policies, but rather the right for Israel to exist.

Since cultural boycotting began, attending certain cultural events has meant we are giving moral and financial support to people who slander Israel and have signed up to its destruction. Their motives are many, but include ignorant naivety, jumping on a bandwagon, and bigoted prejudice.

Can you imagine Shakespeare as a boycotter?

With his broad and open mind; his power to show all sides of a question; his ambiguity,  and his understanding of moral nuance, Shakespeare represents the zenith, to which all cultural figures should aspire. Cultural boycotting represents all that is the opposite of Shakespeare. It is the nadir, the lowest point to which gravity can pull an object, and it’s probably why so few A listers signed up. Whatever their views on world politics, a real artist is prepared to learn and have an open mind.

One month after the February letter appeared in the Guardian, the excellent director Rufus Norris took over as artistic director of the National Theatre, London. He is not a cultural boycotter. But if you google him together with The Royal Court Theatre, London, he will pop up on the same page as a map of the Middle East showing a blank space where Israel should be. Nice.

It became immediately obvious that the creatives given work at the beginning of Norris’s regime were top heavy with boycotters. This was confirmed when I listened to him talk about his new production of Everyman. Hoping for some sort of academic background to this 15th century morality play, I was instead subjected to a mutually self indulgent chat between Norris and cultural commentator and cultural boycotter Bonnie Greer, where he revealed his future plans to work with people he already knew. Far too many of them were school of Royal Court Theatre, where anti Israel sentiment is in the milk.

Directors Dominic Cooke, Ian Rickson, Roger Michell, and writers Caryl Churchill, Wallace Shawn (Jewish Voice for Peace – see more later) are just some of the people, boycotters all, whose work was staged in 2015. Usually, I see all the riches in the National’s repertoire, but 2015 was unusually lean.

At the same time, the National’s bookshop, was stocking Chomsky and Pappe’s ‘On Palestine’, one of whose chapter headings is ‘Israel’s Incremental Genocide’. Nothing else relevant to Israel, which might balance this venom, was a to be found on display in a bookshop whose speciality is drama.

As a result of this, a small group of us started a campaign. We set up a secret Facebook page and, with the help of some fellow activists, began writing determined and civilised letters. First of all we were treated with disdain, but our passion made us, and makes us, indefatigable.

One of the ongoing defences used by Rufus Norris is that artistic merit is his only criterion. Ha! Here’s part of a review from Dominic Cavendish, Daily Telegraph, 28/11/15:

“Quick, send for an ambulance! I think the National Theatre might be having a creative seizure. After an unlovely production of As You Like It, an underwhelming revival of Harley Granville Barker’s Waste and a tiresome new play from Wallace Shawn, Evening at The Talk House, the recent spate of lacklustre offerings is now dismayingly capped by the latest (Here We Go) from Caryl Churchil widely held as one of our leading playwrights”. Cavendish continues that its 45 minutes of “sheer tedium left me gasping to be let out of the Lyttleton”. You can add to Cavendish’s chronicle of disaster ‘Light Shining on Buckinghamshire’ also by Caryl Churchill.

From this list, all bar ‘As You Like It’ have significant input from cultural boycotters. And all these plays were papered, ie tickets were given away to fill the seats. That’s how, in its recent press statement, the National Theatre can  claim audiences are  still ok. So why are they cutting out Sunday performances to save costs?

Incidentally, this is not just happening in the UK. Last year two of Caryl Churchill’s plays were on the New York stage, with no apparent realisation of how she vociferously demonises Israel. Caryl Churchill is neither ignorant nor naive. And don’t forget ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog’.

Whichever way you look at it, nearly a year of many artistic and popular failures, plus lazy or biased reliance on people he knows, who just happen to be boycotters, give the lie to the official National Theatre’s and Rufus Norris’s line that artistic excellence is their only benchmark.

Of course it may be possible to suggest that Rufus Norris just doesn’t get it, viz his and Damon Albarn’s Christmas offering, ‘Wonderland’, which was reviewed badly and has no input from boycotters. He has a terrific back catalogue, so this is a bit of a puzzle.

A boost to the anti boycotting movement has come from Culture for Coexistence. Their letter to the Guardian in October 2015 promoting dialogue and understanding as a way forward to resolution may not have been signed by over a thousand motley people, but every one of the individuals is a true and real artist, such as, at random, Evgeny Kissin, Maureen Lipman, Hilary Mantel and JK Rowling. The signatories are not necessarily Israel supporters, but believe that cultural boycotts are unacceptable.

Nonetheless, those of us who have been trying to get the message out, via social media and word of mouth, still have much work to do. For instance, many have been going to see the five star ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’, in repertoire now. This would be fine if it were an educated choice , made knowing that this five star, and possibly must see, production is directed by Dominic Cooke, a signed up cultural boycotter. But they may have had no idea.

The National Theatre recently announced their upcoming programme for the year, and booking is about to open for their next season. Not all casting has been revealed but there does now appear to be a reduction in the use of boycotters.

Sadly, I will have to think about whether I can sit through Tony Kushner’s revival of the wonderful Angels in America. He sits on the board of the American Jewish Voice for Peace who crow every time an academic organisation decides to boycott Israel. I may not let boycotter Simon Stephen’s involvement stop me from seeing Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. And I adore all Lee Hall’s writing, but the director is Vicky Featherstone, boycotter and graduate of The Royal Court. I usually avoid Gillian Slovo, who has now written a docudrama about losing children to Islamic State. This seems, at first sight,  to be an example of an interesting paradox: someone Jewish who hates Israel so much that she closes her mind and signs up to the cultural boycott, and actually, to Israel’s dissolution. Simultaneously she may just be sympathetic to the motivations of those who are drawn to radical Islam. But I’m guessing, so let’s see. Except it’s most unlikely that I will see; like so many other cultural boycotters, Jewish ones in particular, she seems unable to analyse her own double standards.

Here’s the good news!

I have tickets for Yael Farber’s Les Blancs, and am looking forward to seeing director Ivo Hove’s take on Hedda Gabler. Another revival, Amadeus, looks boycott free, and hopefully Peter Pan will be worth taking the grandchildren to. In the past The National’s Christmas offerings have been dazzling; that’s how Warhorse started.

And there’s Tamsin Grieg in Twelfth Night; Ralph Fiennes in Anthony and Cleopatra; The Red Barn by David Hare; Helen McCrory in Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea; Howard Davies directing Sean O’ Casey’s The Plough and the Stars; The Flick, a Pullitzer Prize winner from the USA; and some new plays from Lucy Kirkwood and Nina Raine. I can’t wait.

If significant cultural boycotters in this list have been overlooked, please say. Going to a cultural event has become a major research exercise and I’m not a computer.

Proper creatives have every right to express themselves whatever their political opinion. However, they should not shut down that same right in others. To call for the destruction of a nation, Israel, however they perceive its shortcomings, is downright indefensible. The difference between them and me is that I can see Israel’s merits as well as its faults. They only see its faults.

In Julian Barnes’s wonderful new book about Shostakovich, ‘The Noise of Time’, Barnes shows how the composer’s very successes were turned against him with ‘vinegar soaked prose’. It’s exactly that Stalinist logic that is now being used against Israel, where its merits are reframed as faults in convoluted and impenetrable accusations of pink washing; in lies about apartheid and genocide; and accusations that its cultural success is just so much hasbarah.

We hope that persistent letter writing affects the biased book display  at the National’s bookshop, and for now there is a real reduction in boycotting input. If you do decide to go to a production, or a cultural event, there, or  anywhere in the world, and discover significant input from boycotters, here are two possible  ways to go: If you have no stomach for the production, then send the tickets back and explain why. If you decide to go anyway, write a letter to the people involved explaining why cultural boycotting is not a positive way forward towards dialogue and peaceful coexistence.

Enjoy your cultural year. And write, to the boycotters and those who give them work. And write again. And again. Each one of us counts!


About the Author
Judith Ornstein is UK and Israel based. She is a passionate supporter of the arts, who combats the cultural boycott of Israel. Judith is the instigator of both the ‘Whitewashed’ and ‘Forced Out’ projects, books and films using primary evidence from witnesses to expose Labour's problems with Jews. Whitewashed book and film, and valuable links can be found at www.whitewashed.co.uk Forced Out Links film and book https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B082DJ1LHD/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Forced+Out+Labour+Antisemitism&qid=1575581887&sr=8-1 Companion film here: https://youtu.be/b4f_TexfjbI
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