12 Positions on Cultural Sanctions

Theatre practitioners offer their views on a call to boycott Israel.

Compiled by Randy Gener

Omar Barghouti, Leila Buck, Daoud Heidami, Remi Kanazi, Gad Kaynar, Ismail Khalidi, Mousa Kraish, Motti Lerner, Sinai Peter, Ari Roth, Najla Said, Maysoon Zayid.

A controversial campaign for “cultural sanctions” against Israel, which dates back to 2002, gained momentum in August 2006 when 123 Palestinian filmmakers, theatre artists and cultural workers, along with 384 other artists from around the world, signed an open letter calling upon the international community to join them in a boycott of Israeli “cultural and artistic institutions that to date have refused to take a stand against the Occupation.” In December of that year, 95 prominent authors, filmmakers and performers, including such figures as John Berger, Brian Eno and Arundhati Roy, endorsed the idea by signing a letter that appeared in the Guardian of London calling on their colleagues not to visit, exhibit or perform in Israel. This past February, a separate international campaign, Israeli Apartheid Week, marked its fourth year with programming in Canada, Mexico, Norway, Palestine, the U.S., the U.K. and South Africa, aiming to leverage changes in Israeli policy by encouraging various kinds of sanctions. Supporters cite the effectiveness of cultural sanctions against South Africa during apartheid as a model. French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently raised the prospect of boycotting the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics if the violence continues in Tibet.

In opposition to such views, the PEN American Center issued a statement of principle last year opposing all academic and cultural boycotts, saying such actions threaten the internationally guaranteed right to freedom of expression.

As a matter of principle and practice, American Theatre and its publisher, Theatre Communications Group, have been long and enthusiastic supporters of international arts and cultural exchange. However, the issue is complex, and we thought it important to get beyond the occasional headline to hear some in-depth perspectives from theatre practitioners.

Should art and politics be mixed as a form of criticism and punishment? Isn’t a boycott the antithesis of free expression? What is at stake? It is difficult to even raise the issue without having one’s words and intentions misinterpreted or twisted.

In an effort to share a range of perspectives with our readers, American Theatre invited a number of Israelis, Palestinians, Jewish Americans and Palestinian Americans to tell us what they think: “Should theatre artists and theatre professionals heed the call for a boycott of the state of Israel? Should playwrights, actors, directors and international companies outside Israel bring their work to Israel or let their plays be produced there? Would a moratorium on international exchange be harmful or beneficial—or would it be a violation of academic freedom and free speech? What would be the real repercussions, negative and positive?”

Many of the statements we received, far from being polemical and one-sided, were nuanced, thoughtful and complexly argued. Four appear in the print edition of the magazine. Below are all 12 responses in their entirety: Omar Barghouti, Leila Buck, Daoud Heidami, Remi Kanazi, Gad Kaynar, Ismail Khalidi, Mousa Kraish, Motti Lerner, Sinai Peter, Ari Roth, Najla Said and Maysoon Zayid.

OMAR BARGHOUTI, freelance choreographer and founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

In 1965, the American Committee on Africa, following the lead of prominent British arts associations, sponsored a historic declaration against South African apartheid, signed by more than 60 cultural personalities. It read: “We say no to apartheid. We take this pledge in solemn resolve to refuse any encouragement of, or indeed, any professional association with the present Republic of South Africa, this until the day when all its people shall equally enjoy the educational and cultural advantages of that rich and beautiful land.”

If one were to replace “Republic of South Africa” with the “State of Israel,” the rest should apply just as strongly. Israel today—60 years after its establishment through a deliberate and systemic process of ethnic cleansing of a large majority of the indigenous Palestinian population (for an authoritative historical account of the “birth” of Israel, refer to Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine)—still practices racial discrimination against its own “non-Jewish” citizens; it still maintains the longest military occupation in modern history; it still denies Palestinian refugees—uprooted, dispossessed and expelled by Zionists over the last six decades—their internationally recognized right to return to their homes and properties; and it still commits war crimes and violates basic human rights and tenets of international humanitarian law with utter impunity.

Israel at 60 is a more sophisticated, evolved and brutal form of apartheid than its South African predecessor, according to authoritative statements by South African anti-apartheid leaders, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the country’s current government minister Ronnie Kasrils, who is Jewish. It therefore deserves from all people of conscience around the world, particularly those who opposed South African apartheid, the same measures of solidarity and human compassion, through an effective application of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it abides by international law and respects basic human rights.

Some may argue, though, that, to them, art should transcend political division, unifying people in their common humanity. They forget, it seems, that masters and slaves do not quite share anything in common, least of all any notion of humanity. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I recall the wise words of Enuga S. Reddy, director of the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid, who in 1984 responded to criticism that the cultural boycott of South Africa infringed the freedom of expression, saying: “It is rather strange, to say the least, that the South African regime which denies all freedoms ... to the African majority ... should become a defender of the freedom of artists and sportsmen of the world. We have a list of people who have performed in South Africa because of ignorance of the situation or the lure of money or unconcern over racism. They need to be persuaded to stop entertaining apartheid, to stop profiting from apartheid money and to stop serving the propaganda purposes of the apartheid regime.”

It is worth noting that the United Nations General Assembly adopted a special resolution on the cultural boycott of South Africa in December 1980, almost two decades after civil society unions and associations in Britain and, later, in the U.S., adopted such a boycott. That decision also heeded consistent appeals by black organizations in South Africa which effectively censured several foreign entertainers who violated the boycott. Accusing those who defy the boycott of complicity in apartheid, Reddy stated: “There is no parallel to this in history, except to some extent under Nazism. The issue in Germany then was not segregation of audiences, but inhumanity and genocide and that is the issue in South Africa today.” Despite all the obvious differences, so is the situation in occupied Palestine today as well.

LEILA BUCK, Brooklyn-based Arab-American writer, performer and teaching artist.

Theatre reminds us that all the great questions are both larger than and connected to the intimate details of our lives. So let’s make this loaded question specific and personal. If I were invited to do a production in Israel of my latest work, about my journey to Lebanon with my Jewish husband before and during the Israeli-Hezbollah war of 2006, would I go? My initial answer: Of course. This is exactly why I do my work—to create a connection with those who might not otherwise hear these stories.

Plus, from what I’ve heard from American and Israeli friends, I might be more warmly received in Israel than I’ve been at talkbacks in New York, where audience members make blithely bigoted pronouncements like “The Arabs are just more violent than we are.” There is more dialogue within Israel about the injustices committed by that state than there is in most places in this country, where in spite of being the product of a Lebanese mother of both Muslim and Christian heritage, American diplomat father, and marrying into a Jewish family, I've been told I’m “one-sided” by “liberal” audience members who’ve never actually spoken to an Arab. I’m more concerned with what we are and aren’t allowed to say in this country about Israel, than what we should or shouldn’t do there.

I imagine performing in some huge theatre in Tel Aviv. For crowds who served in the military that bombed my mother’s country back 20 years and left it on the brink of civil war. Again. Whose government just approved still more illegal obstructions to peace on contested Palestinian land. How can I do that? Or is that why I should? Should the only pieces done be ones that address the cycle of violence, the building of walls? In that audience are potential allies capable of reaching the world without being called one-sided, if we can move them to think differently of their country’s actions, as so many already have.

But what if the home of the kind family with whom I stay once belonged to the grandparents of Palestinian friends? Or the theatre in which I perform was built on the ruins of their lives? Will my play, or the absence of it, make a difference to their families still suffering here or there? Why can I chat with audiences in Tel Aviv or sit in Brooklyn and answer these questions while those in Gaza remain under siege?

I believe that theatre’s greatest potential is its ability to make us feel things, in one another’s presence—heightened, live, breathing. I hope that all those reading will take a moment to do what the best theatre asks us to—step into another piece of the world, feel its questions and return to our own ready to act on our answers.

DAOUD HEIDAMI, actor of Palestinian descent who has performed in The Tempest at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. and (I Am) Nobody’s Lunch at P.S. 122 in New York. This piece was co-authored with Tasha Gordon-Solmon.

A cultural boycott of Israel would be harmful. Art is not simply a material commodity, and to raise the question of such a boycott diminishes the actual political power that the performance of theatre can have. When we watch a play we are compelled to ask questions about ourselves and the world around us, we are connected to our humanity, our social responsibility, our intellect. Art can be a very powerful political force, in its ability to change perspectives, to bring audiences together, to engender dialogue.

If the goal is peaceful coexistence, to find ways of working and living together, depriving people of theatre will not bring us any closer. As artists, we should be supporting theatre efforts that cross boundaries in the Middle East, not efforts which take it away from the region. We should be trying to nurture communication and understanding. We should not be asking if theatre should be taken away from Israelis, but perhaps how it can be brought to Palestinians. We could be focusing energy on creating opportunities for international artists and companies to perform in the Palestinian territories as well.

I recently finished shooting the film You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, starring Adam Sandler. The film features Palestinian and Israeli actors. We worked together as colleagues and artists, relationships which were not defined by our ethnic backgrounds. At the same time, we were able to listen to each other’s perspective and engage in discussion on our down time between takes. This fall, I appeared in the New York production of Masked, by Israeli playwright Ilan Hatsor, about a Palestinian family. The play has been produced all over the world and performed for both Israeli and Palestinian audiences. These two projects exemplify what art can do: create opportunities for dialogue.

As artists, it is our responsibility to lobby for the practice of art, not the deprivation of it. Of course we should be asking how we can use our talents to affect positive change in our world. But we should be finding ways to create theatre, not trying to decide who should and shouldn’t have it.

REMI KANAZI, Palestinian-American writer, poet and actor based in New York City. He is the editor of the forthcoming anthology of poetry, Poets for Palestine.

At what point does rhetoric stop and effective action begin? For Palestinians, decades of dialogue and supposed peace overtures have proved fruitless, only serving to protect the status quo: 60 years of continual dispossession, 40 of occupation, and a systematic repudiation of international and humanitarian law. The situation for Palestinians will not improve without constructive movement forward—which rejects collusion with the Israeli government by exercising boycott, divestment and sanctions (known as BDS).

During the 1980’s, BDS of South Africa included a cultural boycott whereby musicians and artists from around the world were prohibited from performing in the apartheid state. In addition to internationally supporting the subjugated black population, this policy was instituted to express that no real dialogue—economic, academic or cultural—could take place in concertwith the atrocities of apartheid. With regard to Israel, the implementation ofinternational BDS is but one necessary measure to shift the balance away from the oppressor and help place it in the hands of the oppressed.

It is imperative to note that a cultural boycott is not aimed at individuals, but rather at institutions and a state. Frequently, Israelis travel the world and speak out against their nation’s policies, and many support a full cultural and academic boycott. A cultural boycott does not hinder the prospects for peace; rather it serves to empower conscientious Israelis and Palestinians, and provides the international community with a viable non-violent solution to the current impasse.

After traveling to the occupied Palestinian territories, a host of individuals have asserted that Israeli occupation is in fact worse than South African apartheid. Among these people are highly esteemed anti-apartheid advocate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Jewish South African Minister for Intelligence Services Ronnie Kasrils. In an effort to pressure Israel to abort its destructive policies, both argue that the international community should impose a boycott on Israel, analogous to the one imposed on South Africa.

Those in a position to boycott must recognize the effects of Israel’s policies against the 1.3 million Palestinian citizens of Israel who have become relegated to third-class status and have seen their own art and film community attacked by Israel’s discriminatorylegal system. To date, more than 60 Palestinian academic, cultural and civil society organizations have endorsed the boycott.

Throughout the Oslo years, the purported time of peace, endless cultural dialogue took place. But as Omar Barghouti—dance choreographer, activist, and ardent sponsor of a cultural boycott—contends, “A decade of joint Palestinian-Israeli projects mostly resulted in providing a figleaf, covering up Israel’s relentless colonization of Palestinian land and its crimes against the Palestinian people.”

It is clear that even cultural dialogue with the Israeli establishment has only proven to normalize the occupation. Tutu once declared, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Now is not the time to be neutral, nor the time to be reticent; it is the time to act.

GAD KAYNAR, professor of theatre arts at Tel Aviv University, Ramat Aviv, in Israel.

The situation is paradoxically too complex for simplistic answers. The fact is that there are no theatre relationships whatsoever between Israeli theatre people—either mainstream or fringe—and their Palestinian colleagues in the West Bank or in the Gaza strip, which is ruled by Hammas. In this respect there is already a unilateral cultural boycott by the Palestinian artists on any collaboration whatsoever with Israeli theatre which has nothing to do with recent violent acts. The last remnants of some cooperation form could be traced back in the mid-1990s in projects such as the politically conceived Romeo and Juliet of the Khan Theatre in West Jerusalem with the Palestinian Theatre of East- Jerusalem, which in itself was not an easy undertaking.

For years now, since the beginning of the Second Intifada, Palestinians have banned Israeli theatre practitioners, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the latter are against the occupation and could be described as anti-expansionist and moderate left-wingers. Israeli theatre artists would be happy to collaborate with our Palestinian partners; however—disregarding the recent political developments, and even during times when peace negotiations seemed to make some progress—there was no corresponding gesture on the Palestinians theatre’s part, even when, for instance, I tried on behalf of the Israeli Centre of the International Theatre Institute (ITI) to support the My Unknown Enemy project of Alexander Stillmark of the German ITI, which was about bringing the conflict into the open in a workshop pattern and which involved recruiting Palestinian actors for the task.

The situation is totally different in the Israeli theatre itself, in which Jewish and Israeli-Arab actors work together both in “regular” shows and in political plays that highlight the complexity of the situation, the atrocious acts performed on both sides, and the grave moral repercussions of the conflict, of the unending belligerency, on the socio-psychological situation and mental disposition of both Israeli and Palestinian populations, especially the younger generation. I’m referring to such plays as Yael Ronen’s The Guide to the Good Life at the Beer Sheva Theatre and her Plonter at the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv; to Nola Chilton’s docu-dramatic Winter in Calandia at the Arab-Israel Theatre; and to Tamir Greenberg’s Hebron (a co-production of the National Theatre “Habima” and the Cameri Theatre). Most of the Israel theatre is escapist, subscribing to a “privatized” orientation that attempts to ignore the problem altogether.

My own personal opinion on the issue of a cultural boycott is that, first, it would be one-sided and “unfair.” As I said, most Israeli artists and intellectuals are against the occupation and its effects, and most support the peace efforts, and so do the greater part of theatre audiences. The situation is not clear-cut: The results of the short-lived Israeli blockade on Gaza and the military actions there are horrendous, yet they are a reaction to seven years of daily missile attacks on Israel’s southern towns and settlements, continuing after Israel has withdrawn from the Gaza Strip, and despite the fact that, until the recent atrocities, the Palestinian population had been dependent on our constant humanitarian supplies. Israel is also conducting peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority aimed at withdrawing from the West Bank and establishing a Palestinian state. As a result, against whom would you impose a cultural boycott? On both parties, perhaps (but even in this respect there are far more than two parties concerned, since the Palestinians are split among themselves)?

Secondly, a cultural boycott would be ineffective. It would be never be as dense as in South Africa, because the situation here is not clear-cut as it had been in apartheid, and since, for other reasons—take Germany, for instance—many countries in the world would not take part in such an act. It would only strengthen the militant, right-wing nationalists in Israel and their paranoiac anti-Semitic, Holocaust-motivated and “the whole world is against us” syndrome. It would do no good in terms of drafting the Israeli artists to fight for the just cause. They are trying to do it anyway.

ISMAIL KHALIDI, playwright, performer and author of Truth Serum Blues, which debuted at the Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis.

…And when it’s all over, my dear, dear reader, on which benches will we have to sit, those of us who shouted “Death to the Arabs!” and those who claimed they “didn’t know”? —Aharon Shabtai, from Nostalgia

“They cannot be allowed to live normal lives.” These were the words of Israeli Prime-Minister Ehud Olmert as he authorized the latest assault on Gaza’s 1.5 million people. As if the four decade-long military occupation, with the malnutrition, unemployment, open sewage lines, and lack of electricity that it has brought—not to mention the F-15s and Apaches overhead—aren’t reminders enough to Gazans that their lives are far from normal?

But Olmert’s words should conjure up for us the double standards that are applied to the “normal” people of Israel on the one hand, and the non-entities of occupied Palestine on the other.

The fact is that many of us in the West, even progressives and so-called champions of human rights, squirm and balk, and even express outright indignation, at the very mention of any boycott of Israel. At the very same time, however, we fail miserably to speak with a unified voice (if we manage to speak out at all) against the ongoing collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

In other words, the idea of putting pressure, non-violent and mostly symbolic though it is, on the lives of “normal” Israelis to express our disapproval of their government’s actions is perceived as unfair at best and, at worst, anti-Semitic. Funding with our tax dollars the misery of the world’s largest open-air prison, on the other hand, is never questioned.

I, too, am torn about whether, and exactly how, to support a boycott. But I do know that we helped to confront apartheid in South Africa 20 ago through widespread boycotts, while today we sit paralyzed in the face of apartheid in Palestine. Never mind that Israelis and Palestinians look more alike than black South Africans and the whites who ruled over them; apartheid is apartheid is apartheid. Mustn’t we start addressing it as such?

Articulating this, however, is of course not always as simple as the facts on the ground. Americans, for instance, are so detached from the actual history of the conflict and the region that it is hard to contextualize the call for a boycott, let alone any criticism of Israeli policies. Similarly problematic is the American attachment to Zionist-friendly readings of the Bible, combined with the way Arabs are now labeled monolithically as anti-Semites (despite their being Semites) and, in effect, blamed for what is and always has been primarily a European problem. These and other obstacles (such as a generally tepid, corrupt and stunted Palestinian leadership) contribute to the difficulty of recreating the kind of measures taken against South African apartheid.

Another concern is that to boycott the Israeli academy and its scholars and artists would presumably isolate the very sector of Israeli society that is most outspoken in opposing the occupation. This is a valid reservation. But is it not equally valid to insist that, liberal as they may be, even these people should feel the consequences of their government’s actions, if only to make them louder and fiercer critics of what is being done in their names?

Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai writes:

Only when fire flares up in the wheat are the fattened serpents burned.

As for the wheat itself, the fine, innocent wheat—what a shame!

Boycott or not, we need action. Many point to the need for a Palestinian Mandela. Indeed. Palestine is in dire need of such a man or woman—one who would preferably not be silenced prematurely through incarceration or assassination, as has been the pattern for decades. But we also need an Israeli Athol Fugard. We need 10! And whatever measures bring such brave souls out of the woodwork and to the world’s attention quicker then let us take them.

The fact is that a boycott is only one of many tools, and it may not be the best right now. If we cannot agree on its validity, then there are many steps that can be taken before a boycott. For instance: Let us demand an immediate end to the ongoing siege (i.e., the de-facto boycott) of Palestinian higher education in the occupied territories. This intentionally punitive retardation of Palestinian universities and, thus, Palestinian culture and life, has gone on for too long and has been met with a resounding silence.

Let us, as artists in the West, put forth a mass invitation—a challenge, or an ultimatum even—to all Israeli artists of conscience to publicly and powerfully take on the occupation and to take a definitive, unified and coordinated stand against their government’s illegal actions. To demand of their leaders: “Not in our names!” We will support this campaign, and Palestinians will reach out to them as well

Let us support Palestinian artists and bring attention to the peaceful resistance that goes on every day in Palestine, from the weekly non-violent marches against the wall, to the brave artists who pursue their crafts under occupation.

Let us support Al-Rowwad Theater in the refugee camps of Bethlehem, and the Freedom Theater in the camps of Jenin.

Let us find out what schools and artists have been silenced under the siege of Gaza and make their voices heard.

Let us read Fugard again, and in our own writing, reference Amira Hass and cite Segev and Avi Shlaim.

Let us recite aloud the poetry of Aharon Shabtai and the words of his late wife Tanya Reinhardt.

Let us perform the plays of Naomi Wallace and remember June Jordan, who whispered to us of Palestine and South Africa in the same breath.

Let us read Kanafani and watch the films of Mohammad Bakri.

Let us create art and in so doing, create context, solidarity and momentum, wherever we are. Let us talk to Israelis and Palestinians about a boycott, about peaceful resistance, and let us elicit their advice and support in our own course of action.

But above all, let us have a course of action. Let us not be silent.

MOUSA KRAISH, Brooklyn-based Palestinian-American actor and director, most recently seen in Steven Spielberg’s Munich, Greg Mottola’s Super Bad and Grenade at the 2004 Arab-American Comedy Festival.

A few weeks ago, I saw a poster for a film called The Band Visit all over Los Angeles. It was an Israeli film, but clearly had Egyptian and Palestinian actors in it. I was curious from the start. When I walked into the theatre, I didn’t know what to expect, but when I left the theatre, I was happy and proud of what I saw—even moved to tears by a few poignant moments between the characters. I saw a film that brought people from both sides of the Middle Eastern film world to accomplish what I didn’t think I’d see in a very long time: a beautiful, thoughtful film about two cultures who clearly are at war, yet in the world of film, brought a chance of peace to one another without ever raising a political line of who is right or who is wrong.

As artists, whether we are writers from either side, or actors from either side, or directors from either side, no matter which side it is, this shouldn’t lead anyone to boycott a voice. It is obvious that violence begets violence between our two countries, so why take away an opportunity in any artistic medium that might have an effect on opening someone’s mind and heart? That might give way to a chance to discuss something rather than fight over it? That might actually affect a process that is long overdue? Now, I can understand those who support boycotts, to make a stand, to express a point of view. But how does that help the artist who wants to say something? How does this help the audience who might want to hear what the other has to say?

What if we banned Shakespeare? At the time he was writing his plays, he spoke out with plays like King Lear and Macbeth that examined the essence of political leadership, or lack thereof. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible and All My Sons, plays that examine and ask piercing political questions that are inseparable from existential issues and the behavior of human beings as social and political animals. Isn’t it invaluable for us to open such communication, if it exists? That a Palestinian playwright can say what is truly happening to his life and family in Gaza with characters and voices the other side can see or relate to? Or that an Israeli playwright who shows us the point of view from his or her society and culture by highlighting the lives of soldiers, settlers and politicians, through a story, through words that an actor can say, can voice for them?

We have to make choices now that will affect the future of who and what we become as a people. It is almost a responsibility for us—and when I say us I mean both Palestinians and Israeli artists—to listen, learn and hear each other’s voices. Think about it: Are we really that far off from each other on what we are trying to say?

MOTTI LERNER, Israeli playwright and screenwriter, based in Ramat Hasharon in Israel; former director and dramaturg at the Khan Theatre in Jerusalem.

In spite of the fact that I have strongly opposed the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories since 1967, and in spite of the fact that I have strongly opposed the Israeli policy in the occupied territories ever after, I strongly oppose the cultural boycott of the state of Israel.

Yes—a cultural boycott is a statement. It’s rather a strong one, but it’s still only a statement and, therefore, its power to create change is limited. It would be very easy for the Israeli society to ignore it by responding: This is old-fashioned anti-Semitism now dressed as anti-Zionism and criticism of Israeli policy. Even if certain circles in Israeli society will feel insulted by the boycott, this insult will only harden their positions. At that moment, the effect of the boycott will end. On the other hand, an ongoing cultural dialogue is a much more powerful and effective instrument.

What kind of dialogue do I expect? I believe that every piece of good art which deeply explores human nature will inevitably strengthen the struggle of human beings for freedom, for equality, for human rights, for justice. During the last 60 years Israeli society has forgotten many of these values, and voices within Israel calling for justice are sometime silenced—not by official censorship but by the hypocrisy of the media, by the vulgarity and superficiality of public discourse, and also by indifference, fear and despair. This must be changed. If the world wants to support this change and to allow Israeli society to open itself for better and deeper awareness, for self-criticism, for progress—then the world must use all the cultural forces it has to enable this change to take place. Instead of boycotting the state of Israel, the artists of the world should gather all their strength and present their art in Israel as often as they can. Hopefully this cultural force will succeed in balancing fundamentalism, racism and patriotism, which infected the Israeli society, and support the Israeli artists who are engaged in the same struggle for change.

SINAI PETER, Israeli actor, teacher and director and former artistic director of Neve-Tzedek Theatre in Tel Aviv and of Haifa Municipal Theater.

On the one hand, I feel disappointed and frustrated when I hear the question of a cultural boycott of Israel being raised by people in New York—from the heart of the biggest empire on earth, which commits all kinds of atrocities from time to time. Can you imagine a group of Iraqi artists coming out with a call to boycott every artist of the U.S.? I wonder if there are many American artists (or European ones) who will support it.

I don’t want to say that raising the question is unfair. I just want to emphasize the absurdity of raising the question from within the American artists’ community. On the other hand, I’m very heartened by this question, because behind it there is a real desire, which I appreciate very much, to speak out against the methods of the Israeli occupation. I hope the fact that there are American artists who are dealing with this question will make the community aware and become more engaged. Although I definitely resist the idea of a boycott, I accept very warmly the desire to join in the struggle for peace and justice in the Middle East.

Among other fellows from the theatre community, we are involved in the struggle in different ways inside Israel. What about you in the U.S.? Sometimes I feel (and it’s not only my feeling) that many American Jews and non-Jews (for several reasons) have kept silent concerning their points of view about the conflict. Yes, it is time to speak out very clearly and condemn all kinds of methods of brutality that are committed by the Israeli occupation from time to time. But it is not the time to boycott. A cultural boycott is not the way. I want to give three examples.

This past weekend, I went to a theatre festival in Tel Aviv, where there was a reading in Hebrew of several current British political plays. It had been organized by the National Theatre of London and Habima, the national theatre of Israel. There were many young people listening to David Hare’s play Stuff Happens, which deals with behind-the-curtains of the war in Iraq. Now, at the entrance of the hall of the theatre, there was a TV monitor broadcasting first images of violence, the bloody results of the terrorist attack of the Hamas against Yeshivat Harav students in Jerusalem. It was a Thursday night, we were all under the spell of the evening news, and yet we all sat in the hall and listened to a very tough political play that condemns Ariel Sharon’s policies. The play had been translated into Hebrew, and for many young people it was a rare occasion to be exposed to this kind of political theatre—some things that were said on the stage were, for many, very tough to hear. So if the National Theatre boycotted us and never brought in these plays to be read, many people wouldn’t be exposed to them—I don’t mean my generation, I’m speaking about the younger generation. These young spectators would have remained with the bloody news from Jerusalem and have missed the perspective that a good political play might add to the daily news.

Another example is that these days I am directing, at Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv, a play based on a novel by the famous Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani. Kanafani was the spokesman of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He wrote The Return to Haifa in 1969, dealing with a meeting in 1967 between a couple of Palestinian refugees coming back to look for their deserted son, who had been abandoned in their old house during the 1948 war. This is a well-known novel, part of Palestine’s cultural heritage. Do you know what Kanafani’s destiny was? He was killed in 1972 in Beirut, supposedly by the Mossad.

The Cameri approached the family of Kanafani for permission to adapt it (by Boaz Gaon) into a piece of theatre that would be performed in the Hebrew language. If the boycott happened, my Arab and Jewish actors and I could never perform it. And many, many Israeli spectators would never be exposed to this amazing story, which describes an emotional tragedy from the point of view of a Palestinian writer.

I give you these two examples to show how theatre can work and be effective. It cannot change reality, but it might inspire newcomers to the scene of theatre and politics. Theatre can help them adopt a constructive point of view, give them means to criticize the reality of Israel and allow them to create their own politics and moral values—this is what political theatre is all about.

If you boycott everything Israeli, all you achieve is to create a tool to de-legitimize Israeli art, Israeli culture and, by extension, the Israeli’s right to survive. We should draw lines between us and evil and conduct a very severe struggle against the occupation, against the settlements, against the non-proportional retaliation of the Israeli army in Gaza—against all kinds of aggressive methods that are used by Israel (and by its fundamentalist rivals) from time to time. One should speak out against them very clearly through art and literature, but you should do it together with us. You should not avoid us. You should not boycott us. If you do so, you will push Israeli society to become much more monolithic—and much more narrow-minded and right-wing.

A final example: Several months ago, I directed at Theater J in Washington, D.C., Pangs of the Messiah, Motti Lerner’s play, which deals with the issue of settlements and the danger of Jewish fundamentalism. If you boycott our writing, thousands of spectators in Washington would never be exposed to this other Israel. Sometimes I suspect that some of those in favor of boycotting Israel don’t want you to realize that there is also another Israel.

ARI ROTH, artistic director of Theater J in Washington, D.C.

I think this is both a poorly worded proposition as well as, to my mind, an offensively naïve question to theatre artists who are part of American Theatre magazine’s community. What’s good about a “cultural boycott?” Suppressing the free travel and expression of conscientious artists is reprehensible; especially when many of the Israeli artists involved are holding up a mirror to their own society, functioning as social and political change agents and critics in their own divided state.

Prohibiting the lively exchange of ideas between differently minded or like-minded neighbors separated by borders or oceans is contrary to the basic humanist traditions and impulses undergirding our work as artists. Should we prohibit the travel of Palestinian artists, because Hamas is wrongly committed to a policy of advocating the destruction of the Zionist state? Of course not. We need to hear those various dissident and mainstream Palestinian voices and see their work, meeting them on their own artistic terms even as we agitate to reform or change their elected government’s position. 

Theater J is committed to engaging Israeli artists and theatre companies, bringing them to Washington, D.C., to stage English-language world premieres together with touring productions of works in Hebrew and Arabic. We’re committed to working with Arab, Muslim and Christian artists as well to giving voice to authentic expressions of the situation in the Middle East as it impacts them and their families. To contemplate the notion of a boycotting of any Semitic artist is deeply abhorrent—especially since we’ve seen such progress made over the past generation with respect to creating humane connections between Palestinian, Arab, Israeli and Jewish average citizens (witness the success of programs like D.C.’s Peace Café, the internationally regarded Seeds of Peace, or within Israel proper, Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam) who have been brought into deeper understanding of each other’s histories and current plights through artistic and social interchange.

I think the proposition raised in this politely presented inquiry stinks, and American Theatre might have expressed a different kind of moral indignation to mark a distinction between a bad political reality (the occupation) and an unctuous cultural policy (boycotting critics of that occupation).

NAJLA SAID, actor, comedian, writer and founding member of Nibras, an Arab-American theatre collective based in New York City.

The role of political and socially conscious theatre is to ask questions, to evoke responses—quite simply, to make people think. It is never wholly satisfying to perform for an audience that is already converted to your beliefs, and thus theatre can be a brilliant way of approaching complex issues through the nuances of art. If you can fill the seats, you have already done something; you have invited people in to listen and, one hopes, learn. I believe this wholeheartedly.

However, though I would never doubt that individual members of an audience in Israel are willing to listen to different perspectives and open themselves up to the experience of such art, I do support a cultural boycott of Israel.

I must be clear: In the case of individual institutions that are motivated by the ideals of humanity and equality, I do not believe that such a boycott is necessary, and, in fact, I believe it to be detrimental to any future peace. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which was started by my late father, Edward Said, and Daniel Barenboim, the Israeli conductor, is a perfect example of one such individual organization that is worth supporting. The orchestra brings together musicians from all of the Arab countries and Israel. They meet every summer for six weeks in Spain and then travel around the world performing as a group. This endeavor is one of many such wonderful projects taking place, and I would certainly support a similar project involving theatre artists.

The issue is not these noble projects, however. The issue is those organizations and institutions that are part of the government of Israel, or any group that is not against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. If I were invited by a nationally sponsored theatre to perform in Israel, I would decline. If I were invited by an individual group that was run by people interested in exploring ways that Israelis and Palestinians might live and work together, I would accept. The reason is simple: For 60 years, the government of Israel and its institutions have occupied Palestinian lands, repeatedly violated international laws and denied the rights of Palestinian refugees. The state itself functions as a racist entity, refusing to acknowledge and uphold the basic rights of its Palestinian citizens.

There are very few ways to take a stand against such egregious behavior. A cultural boycott of nationally sponsored projects within the state of Israel is necessary. It is essential that we draw attention to the injustices perpetrated by any government violating the human rights of a portion of its population. It is also important for any artist invited to Israel, even by a seemingly well-meaning group interested in promoting “peace,” to examine the sponsorship, funding and background of all the organizations and individuals involved in any such project.

We should by no means boycott individual Israeli artists and thinkers. That would be censorship. But, as was done in South Africa, we must apply pressure to the international community to call for an end to Israel’s violations of human rights. It is one very simple way of exercising nonviolent resistance to what is essentially an apartheid government.

MAYSOON ZAYID, Palestinian-American Muslim actor, comedian and co-founder of the first Arab-American Comedy Festival in 2003

To perform or not to perform, that is the question. Unfortunately the answer is not black and white. Let me make this perfectly clear, my objection to artists performing in Israel has nothing to do with me feeling that Israelis do not have the right to enjoy entertainment. In fact, I have no problem with Shakira or Will Smith, or even myself, performing there, as long as we also agree to perform in Palestine.

Theatre is a powerful medium. It breaks down barriers between cultures and peoples. It offers individuals rare glimpses into the lives of others and allows them the opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes. If Richard Pryor had only performed for black audiences, would he have been as groundbreaking a comedian? The answer is obviously no. Pryor performing for a white audience is similar to me performing for an Israeli one. Except he was much funnier.

Therefore, it is difficult for me to argue that limits should be placed on theatre. But what do you do when physical barriers prevent some people from partaking, simply because they are not the “right” religion? This is the situation in Palestine and Israel today. Muslim, Christian and nonreligious Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are denied their most basic human rights, including the right to enjoy a night of musical theatre. Concrete barriers keep them locked in physical prisons, where the average Palestinian cannot imagine a life lived in freedom and opportunity.

Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians are, with rare exceptions, prevented from traveling outside Gaza’s borders. They live in what many have called the world’s largest open-air prison. In the West Bank, more than 500 checkpoints and other physical roadblocks impede the movement of Palestinians, often preventing them from leaving their towns or villages to travel to another town to attend school, go to work or visit their families. A trip to the city for a night at the theatre is unimaginable to most Palestinians, but considering the conditions they are living in, it is most needed.

So these barriers must ultimately be broken down. If I can get an Israeli to refuse to serve in the occupied territories with my art, humor and big red lips, then I might be able to inspire others to stand up against this system of apartheid as well. For that reason, I don’t object to artists performing in Israel, as long as they also perform in the occupied Palestinian territories. Fair is fair. I cannot participate in the oppression of Palestinians by participating in theatre that is inaccessible to them, or to the disabled, for that matter.