BDS Batsheva Breakthrough

Boycott campaigners turned the empty Zionist slogan “Culture unites, Boycotts Divide” totally on its head in Edinburgh last weekend, drawing some of Scotland’s best known cultural figures, many theatre–goers and Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Israel’s world-renowned Batsheva dance company, into public dialogue about its role as a state-funded “cultural ambassador.”

In an unprecedented encounter on Saturday Sept 1 with around 200 supporters of the Don’t Dance with Israeli Apartheid campaign protesting against Batsheva’s presence at the Edinburgh International Festival, Naharin insisted that the company was not part of the Brand Israel project, which misuses culture to deflect attention away from the Occupation and other injustices against the Palestinian people.

Naharin, who had initiated contact with BDS campaigners at a festival debate earlier in the day, told Scottish PSC chair Mick Napier that he was ready publicly to dissociate Batsheva from Brand Israel and to declare his opposition to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

As Napier handed Naharin a loud hailer for him to make his statement, Batsheva general manager Dina Aldor stepped in to prevent it. The campaign’s demands are now on the table for the company’s board in Tel Aviv to ponder as they prepare for an eight-city UK tour in two months time.

Alistair Burt, Minister for the Middle East at the UK Foreign Office, waded in with the dishonest allegation that protestors were “singling out [of] institutions and individuals for no other reason than they are from Israel”. The real reason for the protests – Batsheva’s political links to the Israeli State – were highlighted by the presence of Culture Minister Limor Livnat who told the Jewish Telegraph  she was “in Edinburgh because the Batsheva Dance Company is performing here” and “Batsheva Dance Company is one of our flagship cultural institutions”.  The political nature of the evening was again underlined when Minister and Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub “went backstage to meet members of the Batsheva Dance Company after the show”.

Batsheva’s run of shows during the world’s biggest arts festival came to an inglorious end on Saturday with the theatre less than half full, tickets having been given away to dance groups in an attempt to fill seats.

The few departing theatre goers at the end of the evening were greeted by the rhythmic chant ‘Your tickets, were covered, in Palestinian blood’.

“Our campaign has revealed the power of grass roots protest and non-violent direct action,” Napier said.

“We have sent a clear message, not only to Batsheva, but to all cultural institutions which allow themselves to act as cultural ambassadors for the Israeli state,” said Boycott Israel Network (BIN) co-convenor Hilary Smith, who had travelled from Yorkshire to join the protests at the Playhouse Theatre. “The tough choice for artists who are sincere in their commitment to justice and self determination for the Palestinians is to refuse to tour, to join Boycott from Within  and to work for real change.”

Before Batsheva’s arrival in Scotland there had been a vigorous high-profile media campaign demanding the withdrawal of the festival’s invitation to the Israeli company.

As a result, not only the protest, but crucially the reasons for it, dominated coverage of the company’s appearance at the world’s largest cultural festival.

A bevy of Scots artists including novelist Iain Banks and Scotland’s national poet (Makar) Liz Lochhead wrote to the Herald newspaper challenging festival director Jonathan Mills for persisting in inviting Batsheva.

“We do not accept his assertion that art can be divorced from politics,” the letter said. “The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs states on its website that Batsheva is ‘the best known global ambassador of Israeli culture’.”

Newsnight Scotland on Aug 30 broadcast a thorough review of the issues and a four-page spread in the Sunday Herald was devoted to the protests and a debate for and against cultural boycott.

It included a lengthy piece by Lochhead explaining why, following a visit to Palestine earlier this year, she had chosen to come out in support of the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

The main website for reviews of Edinburgh events said of Batsheva’s opening night, “The performance . . . was completely overshadowed by the human rights protesters who, rightly or wrongly, took centre stage this evening.”

There was extensive coverage in Israeli media and Scottish Jews for a Just Peace took the message directly to the local Jewish community.

BIN’s London-based cultural working group coordinator, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, who was also present in Edinburgh, said public debate about Batsheva’s appearance during the festival represented a new step forward following previous campaigns targeting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at last year’s London Proms and Habima theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe in May.

“This campaign has ensured that the term Brand Israel is now in the public domain, and its insidious nature, its corrupting impact on culture, is beginning to be understood,” she said.

The shock waves will have been felt across Israel’s artistic and cultural communities, and theatre and festival directors around the world will be contemplating events at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Batsheva is currently planning a UK-wide tour, starting with a return visit to Edinburgh at the end of October and travelling to seven English towns and cities.

The Don’t Dance With Israeli Apartheid campaign is demanding that theatre directors in each of these locations resist participating in the Brand Israel PR exercise and cancel Batsheva’s performances, answering the Palestinian boycott call.

“This campaign has energised activists, creating the strong possibility of yet larger mobilisations in October/November, and Batsheva knows this,” said Scottish PSC’s Napier.

Tour dates are as follows: Edinburgh Oct 30/31, Salford Nov 2/3, Bradford Nov 6/7, Brighton Nov 9/10,Birmingham Nov 13/14, Leicester Nov 16, LondonNov 19/20/21, Plymouth Nov 23/24.

Don’t Dance with Israeli Apartheid is a coalition formed by Scottish PSC, Friends of Al-Aqsa, Scottish Jews for a Just Peace and the student group We Are All Hanan Shalabi which provided much of the dynamism behind the protests.

Three nights of protest

On the opening night, Thursday August 30,  over 200 hundred people were outside the theatre, following leafleting of festival crowds during the proceeding two weeks all round the centre of Edinburgh. On the first night the one-hour production was halted three times. The second performance was again disrupted three times, with up to a hundred people protesting outside.

During each disruption, which took the form of protestors in pairs or threes holding up small placards or Palestinian flags while calling out “Free Palestine” or “Boycott Israeli Apartheid”,  the dancers stopped, the stage lights were dimmed and the house lights went on while theatre security staff escorted protestors out.

On the third and final evening the decision was made to maximise the impact by each individual making a solo protest.

So many tickets were unsold, or had been returned, that the circle and balcony were closed off and even the stalls were less than half full. This was in spite of attempts by the festival during the day to give out free tickets to local dance groups.

We have no way of knowing precisely why so few wanted to come to the theatre, but some theatre goers did return their tickets after receiving a leaflet and speaking to protestors, and others were undoubtedly dissuaded by the protests outside the theatre each night.

The poor attempt at a counter-demonstration called for on the first night of the show by the UK Zionist Federation amounted to half a dozen people walking around draped in Israeli flags distributing leaflets.  They did not return for the second or third nights.

On the final evening the production was disrupted no less than eight times during the hour, with interruptions taking place about every six minutes.

Following each of the first four disruptions some members of the audience left, while others shouted at the disrupters and clapped in appreciation of their removal. The last protestor, approximately fifty minutes into the performance, shouted out ‘Israeli culture has Palestinian blood on its hands’ repeatedly before being removed.

There were no arrests.


The Jewish Chronicle: Batsheva cheered at Edinburgh Festival
No Business as Usual for Apartheid – Edinburgh International Festival 2012
Herald Scotland: Why I think a boycott would be right
Herald Scotland: The journey that changed my view of art and politics
Herald Scotland: CULTURE vs conscience
Herald Scotland: Minister criticises treatment of Israeli artists
Herald Scotland: Dance group hits back at boycott call
Edinburgh Guide: Hora, EIF 2012, Review
‎BBC: Protests disrupt Israeli dance performance in Edinburgh
BBC: Minister backs Israeli dance show after Edinburgh protest
Telegraph: Edinburgh Festival 2012: protests disrupt Israeli dance performances
‎Guardian: Batsheva dance group: my deep shame at this bigoted festival protest
Haaretz: Protesters disrupt Israel’s Batsheva dance troupe at Edinburgh festival, but the show goes on

The Scotsman – Boycott targets Israel not Art

Batsheva UK tour in October/November:

Protest Brand Israel’s Batsheva in Edinburgh and across the UK

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