Calls mount to boycott Israeli play at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

'The City' - a hip-hop opera is coming under fire by British artists. (Photo courtesy: The Incubator Theatre)

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is the largest arts celebrations in the world, is often a hotbed of politics and debate. But this year’s offering of culture mixed with political dissent has begun a little ahead of schedule for the month long festival. In the past week, a group of some 50 Scottish cultural figures have come together, united in their calls for the Fringe Festival to boycott the Israeli production “The City,” as it is partially funded by Israel’s Ministry of Culture.

The Incubator Theatre, established in 2005, has produced and held over a hundred plays and performances, which are original Jerusalem-based productions, providing support for emerging artists. The performance centre is based in a 19th Century building called Beit Mazia located in downtown Jerusalem.

It’s not the first time the festival has come under pressure to culturally boycott Israel. In 2012, best-selling author Iain Banks joined Scotland’s national poet, Liz Lochhead, in calling for the Batsheva Dance Company from Israel to be barred from taking part in the international festival.

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This year, Liz Lochhead joins a group of other artists, media workers, academics and campaigners who have written to protest against the programming of the show by the Israeli company Incubator Theatre. Some of the artists who have signed the open letter to urge the theatre company’s Underbelly venue to reconsider staging the group include the playwright David Greig, author Alasdair Gray, and theater directors Ben Harrison, Graham McLaren and Cora Bissett.

In a separate statement, Lochhead explains her reasoning for supporting the boycott: ‘This is part of a necessary process – this boycotting – if a painful one for all liberals – because we, the international community, must protest by any means possible Israel’s current actions in Gaza, and indeed its ongoing illegal treatment of all Palestinians.”

The Scottish Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop was reported to oppose the boycott in a statement recorded in this week’s The Herald:

“In terms of cultural boycotts, I strongly believe in the freedom of expression, and I don’t believe cultural boycotts are consistent with the rights of artists to the freedom of expression,” wrote Hyslop in a statement.

“This company can speak for itself, in terms of its relationship with the Israeli government and the venue can take responsibility for the production, but I believe we have to be careful about restricting any artist, from any place.”

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Despite the protest, the Fringe Festival organisers will be still be showcasing the play, referencing the importance of what the event represents: to promote the freedom of expression for all artists, from whatever creed or nation. Other critical voices of the cultural boycott have also made the issue into a matter of censorship and a challenge to freedom of expression. Writing in Spiked-Online Magazine earlier this week, Tiffany Jenkins, a cultural sociologist, rallies supporters of artistic freedom to not “miss ‘The City’ at this year’s Fringe” as she explains:

“The demands for censorship speak to the illiberal tendencies of much of the art world... they are the kind of artists who call for artistic freedom for themselves, and for those whose opinions they approve of, but deny it to those who they disapprove of, or, in this case, those whose countries they disapprove of.”

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In recent years, the cultural boycott of Israeli cultural institutions has formed part of a global movement for Palestinian rights. The focus on Israeli state funded institutions and their representatives are viewed as legitimate targets because they are seen as cultural ambassadors of the state when they travel abroad; their cultural productions are viewed as downplaying or “whitewash[ing] Israel’s illegal actions,” according to the British Artists for Palestine. Whilst some detractors of the boycott movement accuse it of silencing debate, supporters believe it achieves the opposite citing it as a more effective tactic than what is viewed as over 60 years of failed diplomacy. The boycott of art in this instance is seen as a challenge to the status quo rather than a matter of censorship.

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Calls for the cultural boycott at the Fringe arrives during a backdrop of some of the most intense Israeli military bombardment on homes, medical centres and more recently on a U.N. shelter, which in the past month has resulted in more than 700 Palestinian deaths. Meanwhile, Hamas has been launching rockets into Israeli territories, killing two civilians, and more than 30 Israeli soldiers have died in the ground invasion on Gaza.

Some Israeli groups which also support the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement include The Coalition of Women for Peace, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is set to span 25 days. This year it will be running from July 31- August 24.
 

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