Commentary Magazine


Cultural BDS and the Tricycle Theater

The boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS) has several branches. There’s the traditional commercial boycott, in which activists refuse to buy Israeli products (usually food) that they don’t need or really want, instead of, say, lifesaving medical equipment. There is the academic boycott, which enables anti-Israel fanatics to wall themselves off from intellectual diversity even more, ensuring their towering ignorance of world affairs survives unadulterated by stray molecules of logic and reason.

There is “Zionist BDS,” which holds that BDS is OK as long as you draw an arbitrary line to geographically separate the good Jews from the bad. And there is the cultural boycott, which is similar to the academic boycott but also commits the BDSer to a life of oafish groupthink in his enjoyment of entertainment and the arts. All have their own odious, hateful qualities. But there’s something about cultural BDS that really brings out the worst in the critics of the Jewish people. And the latest piece of evidence for that was brought to light last week when London’s Tricycle Theater said it wouldn’t host this year’s UK Jewish Film Festival.

Reaction has been fairly heated, and the Guardian has a response from the Jewish Film Festival’s chairman:

The Tricycle Theatres decision to give the UKJFF an ultimatum over a £1,400 grant it receives from the Israeli embassy has stirred debate around the UK and among film-makers after the theatre’s artistic director, Indhu Rubasingham, asked organisers to forgo the money and use of the embassy logo on publicity material for the festival – due to take place in part at the Tricycle in November, as it has for seven years – so they could not be perceived as taking sides in an “emotional, passionate situation”. She later accused the film festival of politicising the dispute.

“It’s a matter of principle that we should not be told who we should take funding from. Every state gives cultural grants,” said [Stephen] Margolis, who dismissed Rubasingham’s offer to find alternative funding as a “publicity stunt”. “It was never about the money, it’s about the whole attitude towards the festival from the start,” he said. The dispute arose amid international protests over the Gaza conflict. There have been reports from Jewish organisations of rising levels of incidents of antisemitism. Demonstrators outside the Tricycle on Thursday evening, and on a Facebook protest page, have accused the Tricycle of feeding that rise.

Margolis makes the classic mistake of injecting logic into the debate:

“This has all taken on a life of its own,” said Margolis. “People have been offended and outraged by the Tricycle’s approach. Why do they feel they have the moral high ground? Everybody deplores what is going on in Gaza. They are a cinema for hire and we are often more criticised for showing leftwing films which are anti-Israeli government policy than the opposite. We’re known for a wide range of content, reflecting all sides. It was pointed out that one of our opening films was going to be a Palestinian story, and we had a Palestinian actor coming to attend the screening. The Israeli embassy itself has never made any comment about festival content and I’m sure there are some films they don’t like.”

If Rubasingham were making a rational decision, this might have real force. But the theater’s artistic director isn’t making a political argument about Israeli policy, and therefore the fact that the film festival would have a diverse array of views, including criticism of Israeli policy, has nothing to do with it.

The theater is merely stigmatizing and penalizing Britain’s Jews for the actions of the Israeli government. Unlike the Orwellian and deeply creepy “Zionist BDS,” the Tricycle Theater is not interested in dividing Jews between good and bad. If a Jew somewhere does something of which Rubasingham disapproves, Rubasingham holds all accountable or forces them to denounce and cut ties with their brethren. Communal guilt with a splash of Stalinist paranoia is, unfortunately, par for the course for BDSers.

There’s a larger point here, however. Art and popular culture happen to be particularly poisonous avenues to politicize precisely because they are so good at bridging gaps. The fact that political opponents watch the same films and read the same books, more or less, injects a dose of compassion and empathy into even the most contentious of issues.

But art is also easily politicized, and it can be far more dispiriting when art fails to bridge gaps than when politicians fail. (Sayed Kashua’s announcement that he’s leaving Israel permanently comes to mind.) Art failing is one thing, however. Art being forced to fail by theater directors looking for an excuse to ostracize the Jews of Britain is quite another. Margolis, the Jewish festival chairman, is stunned to find that the film festival’s diversity of opinion doesn’t save it from Rubasingham’s discrimination. But actually, that diversity is probably a major source of her disapproval.

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