The unprecedented support by leading theater artists for a call for New York’s Lincoln Center to cancel July Israeli government-sponsored theater performances represented another breakthrough, signaling growing mainstream support for a cultural boycott of Israel. Despite the artists’ appeal, Lincoln Center held the performances, closely associating itself with the racist, anti-Palestinian leaders of Israel’s right-wing government who attended the opening performance. Unsuccessful efforts to discredit the BDS effort at Lincoln Center through op-eds tarring it as bigoted foundered on the basic fact that it wasn’t, leading four newspaper editors to correct anti-BDS attack pieces they had published.
Artists Increasingly support cultural boycott of Israel
Over 80 performing artists, including winners of four Pulitzer Prizes, three Tony’s and nine Obie awards, signed a letter initiated by Adalah-NY calling on Lincoln Center to cancel the production because the production was sponsored by the Israeli government, and the Israeli theater companies performing, Ha’Bima and Cameri, have legitimized illegal Israeli settlements. The willingness of artists, many of whom had never previously taken a position on this issue, to sign a public letter to Lincoln Center that explicitly called for a cultural boycott of Israel was hard to imagine in years past. The letter follows other similar efforts worldwide, including a successful appeal, signed by over 240 well-known writers, poets, and publishers, for PEN America to drop Israeli government sponsorship from its annual literary festival.
This increased outspokenness by artists led longtime anti-cultural boycott activist Lana Melman, to warn last week in an article entitled “Do You Think the Cultural BDS Movement Is Failing? Think Again” that, “pressure on international venues to rescind invitations to Israeli artists by other artists is growing. Regardless of whether a boycott campaign results in a cancellation, Israel’s reputation is damaged by the mere efforts alone.”
Lincoln Center will likely think very carefully before proceeding with a similar, future Israeli production due to the number of prestigious artists calling for cancellation, the widespread media coverage of the artists’ call, and the very predictable outcome: liberal Lincoln Center appeared to ally itself with the very illiberal right-wing Israeli government. Lincoln Center’s all too typical defense of its partnership with the Israeli government and the complicit Israeli theater companies – claiming, “we do not make political statements” – was belied by events. Choosing to partner with the Israeli government is a clear political statement.
Hardline Israeli government officials bask in Lincoln Center’s glow
The artists warned that Lincoln Center was playing into the Israeli government’s “Brand Israel” PR strategy of diverting attention from its brutal treatment of Palestinians by highlighting Israeli arts and culture, and burnishing Israel’s flagging image by associating itself with influential institutions like Lincoln Center.
Indeed, Israel, a settler-colonial state, was appropriately represented at the opening of this Israeli performance at Lincoln Center by hardline Israeli officials – a settler leader and a former spokesperson for the Israeli army – who basked in Lincoln Center’s liberal glow. Dani Dayan, Israel’s Consul General in New York, has a settlement home in Israel, led Israel’s council of settlers for six years, and says that Israeli settlers’ illegal colonization of occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank is “irreversible” and will continue. Dayan and his New York office tweeted out their “pride” and “delight” at partnering with Lincoln Center.
Dayan’s companion at Lincoln Center, Miri Regev, has spent her career enforcing Israel’s apartheid rule over Palestinians. As a Brigadier General and Israel’s military spokesperson she defended to the world Israel’s 2006 military onslaughts on Gaza and Lebanon, that killed 416 Palestinians and over 1100 Lebanese. As Israel’s Minister of Youth and Culture, Regev has stirred opposition from artists in Israel and worldwide by repeatedly trying to ban the works of renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, requiring artists to perform in illegal Israeli settlements, and shutting down shows about Palestinian prisoners. On top of Dayan’s tweets, thousands of people watched the video that Regev proudly posted on Facebook about her visit to Lincoln Center with Ha’Bima and Cameri.
Israeli government officials Dayan and Regev celebrated Lincoln Center’s partnership with the Israeli government as the political statement they had aimed for when they sponsored the performance, legitimizing their continued colonization of Palestinian land, violent denial of basic rights and repression of Palestinian culture.
Editors compelled to correct false claims that BDS is bigoted
Attempting to counteract a barrage of largely respectful mainstream media coverage about the BDS letter to Lincoln Center, Dani Dayan, the ADL’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, Eli Sperling of the Center for Israel Education and Kyle Smith of the National Review all attempted to portray the letter in op-eds as a bigoted attack on Israelis. But editors at the publications where their op-eds were published – the New York Daily News, The Forward, the National Review, and the Atlanta Jewish Times – had to correct these writers’ factual misrepresentations of the BDS campaign.
The ADL’s CEO Greenblatt, ostensibly a leader in identifying and fighting against bigotry in the US, initially made this false claim in the New York Daily News (per the original of his op-ed, still on the ADL website):
When you reject a piece of art based solely on its national origin and when you try to prevent others from enjoying it and drawing their own conclusions, that isn’t a political statement. It’s prejudice, plain and simple.
The New York Daily News was then compelled to correct Greenblatt’s op-ed because the Lincoln Center letter very clearly did not criticize the performance on the basis of “national origin.” The letter to Lincoln Center noted, “We are not raising concerns about any artists’ content, or their nationality, but rather about institutions’ structural complicity with a repressive state agenda that repeatedly violates international law.”
Adalah-NY’s July 5 press release publicizing the letter explained further, “A second Israeli play set to be performed at the same Lincoln Center festival … was not raised as a concern in the letter signed by artists.” That second Israeli play at Lincoln Center, “Yitzhak Rabin: Chronicle of an Assassination” by the Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, was not a boycott target per Palestinian cultural boycott guidelines because it was neither sponsored by the Israeli government, nor performed by Israeli cultural institutions complicit in Israel’s repression of Palestinians.
Consequently, the Daily News corrected Greenblatt’s op-ed to read, “When you reject a piece of art based on the fact that it’s sponsored by the Israeli government … It’s prejudice, plain and simple.” With the revision, the self-proclaimed anti-bias ADL was reduced to making the very dubious argument that rejecting art due to Israeli government sponsorship constitutes “prejudice.”
For the same reasons, The Forward corrected Dani Dayan’s false claim that artists were “trying to prohibit Israeli theater from New York stages.” The National Review and theAtlanta Jewish Times also deleted similar incorrect statements.
Organizations like Lincoln Center will have to choose
Despite attempted smears, support for the cultural boycott of Israel continues to grow because artists increasingly see boycott efforts like these as an appropriate, ethical response to Israeli repression. Organizations like Lincoln Center will have to choose between this growing chorus of moral voices or continued alliance with Israeli settlers and soldiers in support of colonization and military violence against the Palestinian people.