John Stalker: ‘Edinburgh should hang its head in shame over Israel boycotts’

city incubator edinburgh cancelled
Incubator Theatre's The City will now run at JW3 in London
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John Stalker is the promoter for Incubator Theatre’s The City, which was cancelled following anti-Israeli protests at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Here he shares his experience of an extraordinary couple of weeks

It turns out to be many, many more years than I care to remember since I performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, perhaps 31 or 32 years. The production was Progress, performed by Edinburgh University Theatre Company at the then recently founded Bedlam Theatre.

The intervening years dim the memory somewhat regarding the precise narrative of the piece but it was set in a dystopian state where the challenge was to confront the realpolitik and replace it with a more ideologically and morally sound form of government.

[pullquote]Theatre and politics are both theoretically a force for change and good[/pullquote]

It appealed to my twin passions for theatre and politics and I have been constantly struck throughout my life by the inter-relationship between the two. Both are theoretically a force for change and for good but I have always been tempted to nail my colours to the ‘power of art over politics’ mast. I write this, therefore, with a strong sense of irony.

Spin forward some 30 years and I find myself supporting a longstanding friend in his desire to bring a production by his satirical theatre company to the Edinburgh Fringe from – wait for it – Jerusalem.

It has become the best advertised but least performed show of this year’s fringe and the first production in the history of the fringe to be emasculated by protests in this way. Edinburgh Festival Fringe has now capitulated to the forces of pro-Palestinian supporters and the production of The City ended its run almost as quickly as it began.

The protests were justified by activists on the basis that Incubator Theatre receives annual subsidy from Israeli cultural funds, a matter of fact that is not in dispute.

I dislike boycotts. They are seldom determinate or proportionate and mean too many different things to different people. I find boycotts of artistic endeavour particularly odious. I find artists who support boycotts of artistic endeavour particularly troubling.

I watched for many years during which the boycott of goods and services from South Africa allegedly held the line against apartheid. I recall the triumphalism of those who broke the boycott when it suited them to bring the Market Theatre of Johannesburg and others to Edinburgh and to many other places across the world.

[pullquote]I witnessed at first hand a level of menace, intimidation and coercion that I had previously thought impossible to witness on the streets of Edinburgh[/pullquote]

On July 30 I watched as members of the public arrived to attend the performance of The City at the Underbelly Cow Barn and witnessed at first hand a level of menace, intimidation and coercion that I had previously thought impossible to witness on the streets of Edinburgh. A 14-year-old girl was yelled at so loudly and at such close quarters that the transfer of spittle from a protestor was evident. Nice.

The task of enforcing the boycott was, surprisingly, not left to those who had summoned it. These included some prominent voices in the arts in Scotland, including our makar, Liz Lochhead, and playwright David Grieg, all of whom were, remarkably, absent on the day I have just described.

No, this precious responsibility was passed on to the ‘professionals’ who had the simple objective of closing the show down – the exact words of the euphemistically titled 'project manager' allocated to the task.

incubator theatre city edinburgh fringe protestsThe boycott had moved beyond a protest and had become very quickly a blockade. This not only had troubling implications for artists and companies performing all around the Bristol Square area but the impact upon the police, the city authorities and members of the public was also clear and just as the blockaders intended.

After discussion the remainder of the run was cancelled at that particular venue and attempts to obtain an alternative venue, easier to police and to manage, have come to nothing.

Incubator Theatre found itself without a home and without an audience. There was nothing, in the eyes of the boycotters, the blockaders and the protestors, that Incubator achieves in Israel that could stand in their defence. One penny or, more accurately, one shekel of state funding is apparently enough to damn artists for their association with the State of Israel, even though this financial support brings with it no commitment on the part of the company artists to support or condone the actions of the Israeli government (however inaccurate or out of date some of the statements by protestors and initiators of the boycott actually are).

The cross-cultural work that Incubator Theatre undertakes counts for nothing, its promotion of dialogue that goes right to the heart of its very being counts for nothing. It is damned and must be neutered at all costs.

Living in the UK, living in Scotland as I do and, to a certain extent, living in Western Europe, this position worries me terribly. I find it indefensible, even if I find the current assault on Gaza by Israel intolerable, as I do.

We are not talking about a group having a democratic mandate to protest. There was nothing illegal about Incubator travelling to Edinburgh to perform. Simply, by association, they have been blamed for something that is not their responsibility.

The City Israeli Fringe performance cancelled protests

It has certainly garnered great headlines during the early weeks of this year’s Festival but the coverage across all the media is depressing – it advertises to the world that for the first time in over 67 years Edinburgh’s festivals and artistic freedom within Edinburgh is subject to the whim of whichever fanatical protestor shouts the loudest. And the world knows – coverage has included the New York Times, Australian broadcast news and a whole panoply of international media. The damage to Edinburgh’s festivals from this incident is real.

So, is Edinburgh feeling any better as a result of the events of the past two weeks? I sincerely hope not. There should be a collective head hanging in shame. The Edinburgh Festival was itself created in the lee of the Second World War with a remit to provide "a platform for the flowering of the human spirit" and enrich the cultural life of Scotland, Britain and Europe.

[pullquote]The Fringe is, from this year forward, no longer an open access festival[/pullquote]

The Fringe has grown into the largest open access arts festival in the world except that it is, from this year forward, no longer an open access festival. Productions can only now come if they do not upset protestors of whatever cause happens to be raging in that moment. The Scottish Government, the city fathers and the festivals’ authorities would be wise to learn a lesson that has been bitterly felt by five actors from Jerusalem.

And back to irony. The hideous intolerance currently evident in the Middle East between and among communities that have to find a way of living together is unlikely to be eased by intolerance and brute force on the streets of Edinburgh. It panders simply to those who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
  - John Stalker, promoter, The City

Read more opinion pieces from The Stage
Richard Jordan: Holding Israeli artists to account for their government is absurd

Honour Bayes: Don't take money from oppressors in the name of free expression


  1. Absolutely wholeheartedly agree. Blaming a group of artists for the actions of their government is simply wrong. If we’re going to take that route (and we won’t be long censoring all artists everywhere if we do) then what about the war crimes of the US, or the UK for that matter? Direct invasion of a sovereign state on the basis of a series of big fat lies? What about the thousands upon thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians murdered by governments in the West? Who’s boycotting the work of American and British state-funded artists? Is the mutilated corpse of an Iraqi child murdered by American bombs less valuable than the body of a Palestinian child murdered by Israeli bombs? Or have they simply been forgotten. How utterly hypocritical and ridiculous this whole boycotting fiasco is. How naive and short-sighted. As if we artists don’t struggle enough. Theatre is a space where artists seek to find the truth; a truth that is so often manipulated and covered up in the world of politics. The decision to censor these artists is, as John Stalker says, indefensible. The guilty should be held responsible here, not the innocent. The Edinburgh Festival has been tainted by this, and David Greig and the rest should be ashamed of themselves.

  2. I attended the silent performance by Incubator on Saturday to give my support to them and to protest against censorship. I found myself in the midst of the ridiculous bullying idiocy of the rent-a-mob protesters. It was as unedifying a spectacle as I have been witness to in some time and frankly I found the whole experience shameful. The rank ignorance and hypocrisy of the protesters was amplified by the dignity and patience of the performers. The lowest point for me came when the cries of ‘Israelis out of Scotland’ went up- utterly sickening. The fringe should hang its head in shame at this gross injustice. For the record this is the first time I have found myself in this position having traditionally been very critical of Israel’s behaviour towards the Palestinian people – the issues are not mutually exclusive though.

  3. It is commendable that the few comments so far and the article itself make valid concerns regarding what amounts to blind hatred and intolerance of this Israeli company.
    Also what is rather upsetting by the comments is the implied acceptance that Israel in defending itself is somehow beyond the pale but this still should not rebound on artistic Israelis/Jews as they know not what they do.

  4. I agree with you… but those Scottish artists won’t feel bad about it. Boycotting Israel to the point that it can’t function is seen as morally right… they do honestly think it’s the same as South Africa (despite the two places having nothing whatsoever in common)… and Israelis are so heavily demonised that no one thinks of them as real people… Our country has done terrible things in the world & our artists are happy to take the money. It’s horrible, disgusting, pious hypocrisy.

  5. @Lazerbenabba
    Just to address your point that comments imply acceptance of Israeli wrongdoing- that is not what I meant. Traditionally I was aligned with this position somewhat naively- the current experience and observation have changed my position and I better understand the situation that Israel finds itself in without fully understanding all the historical and contemporary complexities.
    To put it another way my observation of uncritical, bullying judgementalism of Israel while ignoring the barbarism of Hamas has led to me rethinking my position and empathising with the Israeli people.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly. The irony given John’s previous association is that the rot set in at the Birmingham Rep which disastrously capitulated to violent protest over its production of BEHZTI, which they cancelled in the face of the protests. Suddenly those opposed to freedom of speech realised for the very first time that if their intimidation was strong enough they could close shows. They subsequently did it to JERRY SPRINGER THE OPERA and now they’re doing it to THE CITY. British theatre practitioners need to wake up to the reality that WE are the guardians of free speech. We cannot rely on the government, the police or any kind of authority to protect this essential right of a free society – it is up to us, who live by the word. WE have to fight this intimidation ourselves, even if it involves personnel risk. Why should we expect people across the world to risk their lives for freedom when we in the privileged West allow ourselves to be cowed at the first sign of violence? BEHZTI was a very dark day for British arts: we must never let it happen again.

  7. In answer to John Stalker and those who agree about the argument of ‘Freedom of Speech’ attached to this protest.

    I live in Edinburgh, I’m a musician, and I have been on a number of demos protesting the bombardment of Gaza. I was also at Teviot Hall last Saturday when Incubator performed their play “The City’ outside. I was one of the protesters…… and I’m not ashamed.

    I am not a fanatic, and I don’t jump at the chance to join ‘whatever cause happens to be raging at that moment.’ And, I am not a professional protester. It’s unfortunate that a lot of John Stalker’s use of words seems to be trying to belittle many ordinary people’s outrage and frustration over the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

    For me it is valid when faced with the intolerable treatment of a people by a government, decade after decade, and who through an ideology will never negotiate, or stop this inhuman abuse. The Palestinian’s culture has been, and is being systematically and deliberately wiped out by the Israeli government. This is a ‘cause that has been raging since 1945”.

    So yes to culturally boycott Israel I think is valid. While I was outside Teviot Row last Saturday I was able to engage with a couple of supporters of Incubator, and discuss the merits of the boycott. One young man was very articulate in his opinions about ‘Incubator being an easy target, and he also voiced many of the points John Stalker made about “ artists who support boycotts of artistic endeavour.” Some of these I could agree with, and we were able to have a reasoned, calm discussion despite the protest going on around us. For me this was an opportunity to meet some Israelis, and put forward my objections to what their government is doing.

    There were other participants who ‘nailed their colours’ during this exchange, like the supporter of Incubator who held the Israeli flag high taunting the Muslim protesters, and who had allegedly snatched and torn a Koran from one of their hands; or the other one who accused an Irish protester of probably being an IRA supporter. Some are entrenched, and others have a desire to seek.

    If John Stalker had brought over a Palestinian theatre company who were portraying life as it is now, and has been for decades, and if the Israel government had funded such a theatre company, I’m sure there would not have been a call for a boycott.

    So I regret that a lot of work has been put into bringing Incubator to the Fringe, and their opportunity to use this platform to promote their work has been denied. But hopefully the issues regarding the Palestinians has reached many more people, and hopefully they will try to become better informed about how and why the situation in Israel continues.

    It’s not enough to live in a bubble protected by ‘culture’, ‘sport’ or any other endeavor that would let us ignore the inhumanity being carried out in the name of whatever ideology.

  8. Edinburgh has failed miserably in not understanding the importance of supporting freedom of expression. Shameful.

  9. I saw the production in London tonight. Fantastic. Thanks Mick Napier for giving us the chance to see it in London.

  10. I have family and friends up in Glasgow
    And Edinbourgh . They are of different faiths
    They are disgusted how Scotland has acted
    In the way have . You’ve got Glasgow
    With its town council building flying a flag
    For A terrorist run country by Hamas
    And then you’ve got the Edinburgh
    Festival boycotting a group of young
    Great artist who are very talented
    Just because there Jewish and I say this
    Because if they new that a couple of their group
    Are Palistian they live in Israel . If they did their home work the BDS should of known this
    This has nothing to with Israel or Palistian
    The BDS are just out and out Jew Haters
    . I have friends who live in Gaza two are doctors
    Some work in luxury 5 star hotels and
    One owns a bakery shop . People haven’t got a clue
    What really happens with Hamas and the Palistians
    They are petrified of Hamas . What people see on the Internet and biased UK news stations
    Are full of Properganda . People shouldn’t believe
    Everything they see on the TV but unfortunatly
    People are very nieve . By the way
    I also have very close family who are muslium
    By marriage . We seem to be going back 70 years
    Ago that our country went to war to fight against
    Nazis and its starting all over again
    The BDS are no better them Nazis that
    Our families fought and died for and
    It’s ended up like this Shame on them .

  11. It is interesting, and highly unedifying, that some commenters while rightly condemning the behaviour criticising by the article, still slip in completely baseless accusations against Israel.
    As to censorship in the UK: it is highly selective. Remember the Jew-baiting play put on at the Theatre Royal (if I remember rightly) a few years ago. Few protested. Now, that was equally shameful.

  12. I agree with all the anti-censorship comments. However, I don’t get the sense that many people care. I protested at the Fringe Society’s AGM (August 19th, reported in The Scotsman and the Herald the next day) about the Society’s pusillanimous response, claiming to have supported free speech but actually unwilling to take a stand. The board’s reaction was feeble. they obviously just wanted the issue to go away. I also protested about Liz Lochhead’s support for the anti-Incubator campaign by handing out a leaflet I’d written to people queuing for her show at the Assembly Rooms. Lochhead supports freedom of speech for herself and I’m sure those who agree with her, but not for her critics Wonderfully brass-necked hypocrisy. However, I was forced to leave the building at the behest of Tommy Sheppard, the boss of the company that had hired the venue – the same Tommy Sheppard who sits on the Fringe Society’s board. More hypocrisy.

    So what do we do to raise awareness?

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