I am pleased to see that Sarah Ludford, London's Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament, has strongly condemned calls for the Globe Theatre to rescind its invitation to Israel's national theatre, Habima, to perform The Merchant of Venice as part of a London 2012 Shakespeare festival. The festival involves thirty-seven Shakespeare productions in thirty-seven languages, including also an Arabic-language production of Richard II by a Palestinian theatre company. Theatre companies from countries with such marvellous human rights records as Zimbabwe and China are taking part, but it is only Israel that faces calls for a boycott - if nothing else, that is intellectually lazy on the boycotters' part. Yes, let's be spoon-fed by the media and only boycott a country that's involved in a conflict that we hear a lot about, while ignoring those other conflicts in which many more people are actually being killed around the world.
As Simon Callow has said about the proposed Habima ban:
I am strongly opposed to any attempt to ban the work of any artist, especially artists with the distinguished record for challenging and fearlessly exploratory work of the Habima company, whose work we have not seen for far too long. If there is to be confrontation, it must be done through the agreed channels of discussion and debate. Let us see what Habima has to tell us about human life, before we try to silence them.
Sarah Ludford says:
It is rarely justified to boycott arts or academic exchanges on the grounds of the policies of the home government, and certainly not in the case of Israel which has such a lively democratic debate. One could think of far stronger candidates such as China, so hypocrisy is at work here.
I too strongly oppose settlements, but my quarrel is with the Israeli government, not with artists. As a basic liberal principle, freedom of artistic expression has to be protected. Wanting to block a bold Israeli production of Merchant with its anti-semitic portrayal of Shylock is also a rich irony.
One of Habima’s goals is to promote communication between Jews and Arabs and it employs both. Culture and art play a key part in building bridges and communication between communities and it’s absurd to undermine this when peace is the long term goal.
As Sarah correctly writes in her latest email newsletter:
In 2007, our party conference rightly voted - nem con if I recall correctly - to condemn academic boycotts of Israel following the University and College Union’s proposed boycott, and the same liberal principles apply to freedom of artistic and cultural exchange. I completely agree with the Globe's response to the boycott calls: "It remains our contention, and we think a suitable one for a Shakespearean theatre, that people meeting and talking and exchanging views is preferable to isolation and silence."
I have blogged previously about how it is perfectly reasonable for someone to decide not to go and see an Israeli play or concert if they do not wish to see it, including if that is for political reasons - just as it is perfectly reasonable for someone to decide not to go and see an Iranian, French or Chinese play or concert if they do not wish to see it, including if that is for political reasons. It is also perfectly reasonable for people to stand outside a performance of a play or concert handing out leaflets to members of the audience, be those leaflets pro-Palestinian, pro-Israeli or anything else. So long as neither the content of the leaflets, nor the the manner in which the leaflets are handed out, is so inflammatory as to break the law, then it is fine by me if demonstrators want to hand out leaflets outside a theatre. What is not fine by me, as a liberal who believes in freedom of expression, is if demonstrators want to disrupt a performance in such a way as to prevent the performance from going ahead in the first place. That is censorship, imposed by self-appointed activists who do not have the right to decide what other people can and cannot see at the theatre.