Monday, 14 June 2010

Art, politics and boycotts

The news regarding the israeli attack on the flotilla that aimed to bring humanitarian aid to the Gaza strip, on the 31st of May, were followed by news of successive cancellations of various concerts of international artists that were going to take place in Israel (read article in the New York Times here). The american group The Pixies, whose first concert in Israel had been long awaited, apologized to the fans but “events beyond all our control have conspired against us”. On the other hand, Elvis Costello, who initially seemed that he would go ahead with his decision to perform in Israel, justified, through a press release on his website, his change of mind and the cancellation of his concert as “a matter of instinct and conscience”.

At the same time, french newspapers informed the public that the network of cinemas Utopia had decided to cancel a film by an israeli director, a romantic comedy, a decision that resulted in a public statement by the french Minister of Culture and that was later reversed (read article in Le Monde here).

Through these readings, I discovered the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel
, launched in 2004 by a group of palestinian intellectuals and academics who call for a boycott considering that the big majority of israeli intellectuals and academics have directly contributed to the occupation or at least have been accomplices through their silence. On the other hand, I read the editorial of the 9th of June in Le Monde, entitled Ne boycottons pas les artistes isra√©liens (Let´s not boycott israeli artists), that considered this kind of boycott a dangerous and unacceptable response, that will contribute in weakening israeli voices and views, that are among the most uncompromising in what concerns their country´s government.

In situations like this, we usually hear that we shouldn´t mix art and politics. I would say that what we shouldn´t do is to put art at the service of politics, we shouldn´t instrumentalize it. But art isn´t created in a vacuum. This is why I nurture enormous respect for artists who are not unaware of what happens around them, who take a stand. While reading the statements of The Pixies and Elvis Costello, I felt there was something missing in their arguments, that they were rather more 'instinct' and less 'conscience'. Nevertheless, the cancellation of their concerts, among various others, has undoubtedly raised awareness regarding a tragic, unfair and revolting situation. I suppose the israeli public has mixed feelings about them. Actually, the New York Times article talks about people who see in them a clear sign of their country´s increasing isolation, while others feel misunderstood by the rest of the world. Anyway, these famous artists, even somehow unconsciously, have caused a debate among their audiences, and not only their audiences. In that same article, the music agent that had promoted The Pixies concert in Israel classified the cancellation in the New York Times as “cultural terrorism”. Well, many Israelis have a very particular way of defining ‘terrorism’ (but they are not the only ones).

In the meantime, a foreign artist´s decision not to perform in Israel is not the same as the boycott of israeli artists and intellectuals. Greek journalist Katerina Voussoura spent the last week of May in Israel and got to know the country´s contemporary cultural scene, presenting a number of artists in an article in the newspaper Kathimerini, entitled Israeli artists challenge identity issues
. In this article we get to know the work of those who live and work in Israel, little promoted by the media, and thus little known and little heard, who constantly question israeli identity, developing their own peace processes, in an infinately smaller scale, but not less significant.

Thus, we get to know Acco Theater Center
, situated in the city of Acre in Northern Israel. Considering that theatre has a fundamental role in stimulating an individual and collective catharsis, this group has promoted for more than twenty years encounters between jewish and arab artists, creates performances based on the stories of the locals, challenges apathy, fear and isolation and invites the local community to open their hearts and minds and to consider alternatives. Smadar Yaaron, co-founder and artistic director of the group, has recently presented her latest work, Wishuponastar, where, through her marriage to the Star of David, evokes and then breaks down a number of stereotypes of the contemporarry israeli-jewish identity.



Other cases presented in the greek newspaper´s article are the Arab-Hebrew Theater of Jaffa
, made by two groups that produce plays together or apart, with jewish and arab artists, in both languages; and also the Ruth Kanner Theater Group, in Tel Aviv, which, through hebraic texts – literary works, texts resulting from the research on local traditions and documentary materials – aims to reexamine the official israeli narratives and question the relativity of truth and its dependence on the views of the observer.

Idan Raichel is another artist mentioned in the article. His musical project, the Idan Raichel Project,
was presented in 2002 and promotes artists from various areas, producing songs in various languages. This project brought for the first time the music of the minorities to israeli mainstream radio stations. “It is also important for people to know about the cultures of Syria and Lebanon, to know there is a neighbor across the border, not an enemy”, said Idan Raichel.

These artists, and others even more famous (for instance, the project East-Western Divan Orchestra), have no illusions regarding the impact of their work. Neither theatre, nor music, nor litterature, nor cinema will bring peace to the Middle East. They don´t work with this objective, anyway. But they work, they exist, they think, they question, they challenge, they take a stand. In a constant fight against ignorance. To boycott them, because of their nationality, would be to discriminate them, them who work against discrimination. It would be to censor them, them who work for the freedom of speech. It would be to weaken them, as mentioned in the Le Monde editorial, them who are so many times seen as ‘traitors’.

Two reading suggestions:

- Our sacred land: voices of the palestine-israeli conflict, by Kenize Mourad. A journalistic work that presents the stories of people who live on both sides of the conflict.

- The attack, by Yasmina Khadra. A novel about an arab-israeli doctor who discovers that his wife, who had died in a suicide attack, was herself the suicide bomber.

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