Holding Israeli artists to account for their government is absurd

The City Israeli Fringe performance cancelled protests
Richard Jordan
Richard Jordan is an award-winning UK and international theatre producer. He has been a regular contributor to The Stage since 2005.
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Before August 1, 2014, few people had heard of The City. It was simply one of 2,700+ Edinburgh Fringe shows, a non-political musical theatre production playing at the Underbelly.

Today, it holds notoriety not because of its reviews but the fact the company, Incubator, is from Israel and in receipt of partial government funding to help present the production.

Its first preview saw protests outside the theatre, and ahead of this, a letter from Scottish artists to the venue objecting to the play’s inclusion in their programme.

Nobody can watch what is happening in Gaza at this time and not feel a great sense of concern and sadness, and need in some way to react. But is targeting the work of artists the right way to go? Or are they just an easy target, risking longer-term and potentially dangerous consequences as a result?

After one performance in Edinburgh, with the risk of the protests increasing further over subsequent days on the advice of the police, the production was halted. But what has this really achieved?

A small company who has stated that “they exist to be an agent of significant cultural change in Jerusalem” has had its run blocked. The protestors gain national headlines from journalists looking for “this year’s Edinburgh story”. But is this not a protest that would be better directed at the doorstep of the Israeli government? They are probably hardly bothered or even aware of a fringe show getting closed down. Does it mean that we believe that no artist in Israel should accept government funding for their work?

A similar protest was seen at the 2014 Adelaide Festival when choreographer Ohad Naharin’s work was performed. He had already spoken out to say he was against what was happening in his own country. The fact his work was being performed elsewhere thus afforded him a platform to speak out. In so doing, he made a stand against his own government thanks to the very international funding they had supplied.

In times of crisis, it’s often the voice of the artists from these countries that can serve to raise an awareness and help engender change. Is it our right to prevent these voices being heard by denying them a freedom of speech?

People in the global arts industry have always been supportive towards each other. Yet here a group of artists are discriminated against because of where they were born.

Nor can we expect them to refuse government funding. To survive and create, they need these grants. Is that funding model really any different to the UK? What if we began to see our artists blocked from performing in other countries? After all, there are many places around the world where the UK’s own government conduct is not that popular.

The right of protest and freedom of speech are vital constitutions to protect; but, in the context of the arts, we seem to be heading down a potentially dangerous path of sitting in judgement and censorship? Does this mean, for example, we next stop Russian funded productions from playing the UK, and if we do that, then where will it stop?

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