The Merchant of Venice – Globe to Globe festival 29th May
First, a word on the boycott issue to get it out of the way. So companies from all over the world are doing short runs of Shakespeare plays at the Globe. Habima, the Israeli National Theatre, with boring predictably that seemed not in the ‘overcoming prejudice and stereotypes’ spirit of the festival at all, chose The Merchant of Venice because that’s the one with a Jew in it. I went because my dad wanted to go.
The argument for The Globe to ‘boycott’ or not allow Habima to take part in the festival runs, in my head at least, something like this:
Habima are funded by the Israeli government. By inviting them to perform, you are giving legitimacy to the actions of the government, their funders.
Which is OK up to a point but boycotting the arts tends only to limit freedom of expression and marginalise alternative voices still further.
Also, why not, if you’re on that sort of thing, boycott the arts of other countries who occupy Arab or Muslim lands? Such as the U.S. and Britain for what they’ve done in Iraq and Afghanistan or Morocco for Western Sahara. Should we not also be boycotting the work of Cheryl Cole, David Jason, Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff, Katherine Jenkins, David Beckham, Gary Lineker, Ross Noble, Rhod Gilbert, Jason Manford, Lee Evans and Tim Westwood who have all gone out to meet or perform for the British Army in Afghanistan – thereby conveying ‘legitimacy’ to that particular occupation? Why just Israeli artists? I can think of some possible answers, but none of them look that pretty.
The anti-Israel campaign leaflets that I picked up at the theatre did not make the legitimacy argument. They say that Habima performs in “settler only ‘Halls of Culture’ from which Palestinians are excluded” and that Emma Thompson says no to Israel.
Well, that’s not very good, is it? Not that I care very much what Emma Thompson thinks about international relations. But, I agree it would be nicer if Habima decided actively to take a political stance against Israeli settlement in Palestinian areas. And is it OK to ask again if anyone asked whether the Turkish Oyun Atölyesi stood up for Kurdistan? Has the National Theatre of China defended the independence of Tibet?
The protest outside wasn’t up to much. Lots of English people waving Palestinian flags and chanting. Inside it was OK. At regular intervals throughout the play, people in the audience (who presumably had had to swallow their morals and support Habima by paying The Globe £5), shouted out their messages – the best, and most predictable coming during Shylock’s famous speech when someone shouted “If you prick a Palestinian, does he not bleed?” or something similar. It meant that it was hard for the audience to forget about the Palestinian issue too long.
The counter-protest was (to take a generous view) badly planned. To protest against people protesting for a boycott which was never going to happen anyway … people stood around waving Israeli flags. Unfortunately, say the Zionists, the EDL jumped on the bandwagon and in among the Magen Davids flew some Union Jacks. This is not unfortunate. The anti-anti-Israel people brought it on themselves. Yes, the EDL want to gain that precious ‘legitimacy’ thing themselves by using support for a religious minority as a cover to shout at Arabs (or, in this case, supporters of Arabs). But they could only do so because Zionists wrapping themselves in a national flag and chanting at Arabs is so damn similar to the EDL’s own blind nationalism that a happy home could be found for the fascists. You don’t get EDL parading around on Stop The War marches or joining the consensus decision making meetings at Climate Camp.
Why didn’t the anti-anti-Israel people make some ‘Shalom / Salaam’ banners or do a peace dance or something? Anything a bit different to the Palestinian flag-waving people. It’s like the Anti-Nazi League, all fired up and shouting at the skinheads who are doing exactly the same back at them. To be fair, there were some badges with ‘art unites, boycotts divide’ on them. Which was nice, but didn’t appear to be true by the look of things tonight. And, the Met police and the Israeli security confiscated the badges on entry.
Anyway, this has gone on too long. We need a blog post about the play and the production not the endless Israel debate. Watch this space…