The Incubator protests are not about justice for Palestine

Demonstration outside Underbelly

COMMENT: I’ve stopped believing the people protesting against Israeli theatre care that much about Gaza. The real motive is all about hate figures.

People who know will will be aware I have opinions on lots of things, not just theatre. I sometimes hint about my opinions in theatre reviews, and I sometimes speak out on wider issues which have relevance to arts. But, on the whole, I try to keep politics out of this blog – people should be able to enjoy theatre regardless of anyone’s political views. On this occasion, however, I’m left with no choice but to attack the politics of an unpleasant bunch I can no longer ignore: the protesters who want Israelis banned from the Edinburgh Fringe. So far, I’ve confined my views to my opposition to political censorship in theatre, but sadly, this isn’t enough. It seems that then people supporting these protests think that “justice for Palestine” is more important than freedom of speech, and therefore political censorship is okay. The reason they keep citing is that this is exactly how Apartheid was brought down in South Africa. That is bollocks for all sorts of reasons (for a start, every man and his dog claims credit for ending Apartheid), but that isn’t the point. I’m going to attack this argument at the source: I don’t believe these protests really care that much about Gaza.

Yes, I agree it’s bad that so many innocent people are getting killed, but why just Gaza? For anyone with personal connection to Gaza, it’s understandable, but what about everyone else? The horrible reality is that what we’re seeing on our TV screens from Gaza is only a small fraction of what’s happening in the world. The thousands dead in Gaza are eclipsed by the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands elsewhere. Maybe not so many images on TV to notice, but the innocent casualties are just as dead. But the majority of “pro-Palestine” people at the anti-Incubator demos don’t seem that bothered about it.

The most blatant double-standard is Chechnya. It is estimated that at least 75,000 civilians died between 1996 and 1999, a figure that eclipses the last four decades in Palestine. I don’t remember a word of disapproval from the pro-Palestine crowd back then – on the contrary, some of the biggest supporters still make excuses for Russian aggression. Perhaps it’s not about the numbers dead, but the injustice of an unequal military struggle? But the Russia versus Chechnya is just as unequal as Israel versus Gaza, if not more. Or is it about standing up for oppressed Muslims around the world? Sorry, those dead Chechens were also Muslims, and the portrayal of Muslims as Islamic fundamentalists was exploited just as ruthlessly by Russia as anyone else ever did. Or are we singling out Israel because the West are complicit? Come off it, Russia’s only a recent bad guy, the West was just as complicit over Chechnya back then – like Israel today, there was plenty of tutting and sighing but no action. I fail to see what’s so different about Gaza.

The thing is, I’ve stopped believing it’s about saving Palestinian lives. Every time Hamas commits a provocative acts such as murdering three Israeli settlers, they know perfectly well it will lead to the deaths of hundreds of civilians. That does not excuse Israel’s response, but one might want to question whether Hamas are the friends of Gazans they claim to be – the people waving these “Victory to the Intifada” signs clearly aren’t asking questions. No, this isn’t about Palestine, it’s about Israel. Israel as this mob’s chosen hate figure. It is not clear whether Israel is a hate figure in its own right, or whether this is a by-product of the other hate figure, US foreign policy, but the result is the same either way.

Sanctioned hate figures are one of the ugliest aspects of political movements. It was around long before this excellent video was made, and it’s still around now. The list of hate figures changes through the years, and varies according to ideology, with the only hate figure common to all lists being moderates. The reason why sanctioned hate figures are necessary is to legitimise your behaviour. If you go it alone and act abusively to, say, Sri Lankan nationals for Tamils, you will look and feel like an arsehole. But it’s easier if it’s Israelis (or the unemployed, or bankers, or MPs), because there are plenty of people doing the same, egging each other on. And with the rise of social media, it’s easier than ever to seek out people to tell you it’s all okay.

Problem is, hate campaigns rarely stop at the people responsible for your grievance. Low-grade bank clerks get clumped in with merchant bankers, people making an effort to get a new job get lumped in with benefits freeloaders, honest MPs get lumped in with the ones who fiddles their expenses. And in the case of Israel, it’s not enough to demonise the government (who are fair game) – it’s now open season to vilify the entire country and everyone in it. That’s why there’s a big push to quote the nutjobs in Israel who want the total destruction of Palestine as if this is a typical Israeli mindset. That’s why the anti-war demonstrations in Israel are downplayed – it doesn’t fit in with the preferred portrayal of a nation of bloodthirsty warmongers. That’s why anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise in France, George Galloway incites harassment of tourists for their nationality, and threats of violence are used to censor a small theatre group in Edinburgh, all with tacit acceptance of so-called “anti-war” activists. I have never seen a campaign where so much vitriol is tolerated by so many people.

And this mentality explains so many double standards. Why no call to boycott Chinese or Russian or American acts? Not sanctioned hate figures. Why no campaign for the pro-boycott artists to refuse public funding from the UK they claim is complicit in Israel’s wars? Not sanctioned hate figures. Why does Liz Lochhead say that the allegations of Robert Burns being a sexist racist drunk have no bearing on his poetry? Not a sanctioned hate figure. Sorry, I don’t believe you any more. It’s all about Israelis, and Palestine is just the excuse. (Oh, but they say, it’s not Israelis we hate, just Israelis who take money from their government. Bullshit. They know as well as I do that most small-scale artists have no choice if they want a livelihood. Setting unreasonable standards for other people is a common tactic to justify your own behaviour, and frankly, this argument isn’t too far from the one about the girl in the short skirt asking for it.)

Why so much vitriol? Well, part of the reason, I suspect, is that this campaign has a pretext that other hate campaigns can only dream of: a war. Innocent people are getting killed, so that’s a catch-all excuse for anything. Questioning whether it’s right to punish Israeli civilians for something that’s not their fault? Well Israel punishes Palestinian civilians and it’s not their fault, so that makes it okay. Concerned you are undermining the dearly-held right to freedom of speech in this country? Well, Israel denies Palestinians’ freedom of speech by not allowing them to the Gaza strip, so that makes censorship fine. Troubled over the acts of violence committed against Jews in the name of Palestinian solidarity? Well, Israel’s not troubled over acts of violence against Palestinians, so don’t let that concern you. Instead of rising above the behaviour of the Israeli government and setting an example of how a democracy should behave, these activists using Israel’s behaviour as justification to sink to the lowest level possible.

I am stopping short of accusing the anti-Incubator demonstrators of anti-Semitism. I have a rule that I never accuse someone of racism, sexism, homophobia or any other kind of prejudice if there is another explanation of their behaviour. But the only alternative I can think of to anti-Jewish prejudice is anti-Israeli prejudice, and that’s really no better. We consider “No Irish No Dogs” signs to be racist (the IRA’s bombing was never an excuse), and this is no different. Discrimination on nationality is just as bad as discrimination on race or religion, and the law agrees with me.

And, in any case, where there’s Israelphobia, full-blown anti-Semitism is never far behind. Israelis, Israeli foreign policy, Zionist and Jews are routinely confused, but there’s no doubt who the targets were when shop and synagogue windows were smashed in Paris. And yet there seems to be an idea that anti-Semitism was only committed by Nazis and ended in 1945. People are all to eager to complain that the pro-Israel side use anti-Semitism claims to silence criticism of Palestine (which admittedly some pro-Israelis do), but the same people are slow to acknowledge the real anti-Semitic attacks going on. Remember, what happened in Paris has happened before. And back then, it wasn’t just down to a few thugs  – the blame also lay with those people who stood by, didn’t speak out, and let it happen.

Now, I must make it clear that I’m not saying all pro-Palestinians think like this. I’m sure there are many of them don’t believing in punish ordinary people for the actions of their government, want nothing to do with these hate campaigns, and are horrified by the acts of harassment and violence being carried out in their name. What I have to say to these people is: it’s up to you to reclaim the anti-war message from the likes of the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.

There is an excellent article on how to criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic (and for the other side, how to support Israel without being racist), but my quick list of things you can do is 1) make it clear your grievance is with the government of Israel and not the people, 2) treat Israeli opponents of the war as allies, 3) appreciate that Israeli Jews are going to be a bit jumpy when the organisation they’re fighting has a clear stated aim to kill all of them, and 4) argue that – in spite of this aim – it is in their interests to show restraint when Hamas do rocket attacks, rather than excuse it by saying they brought it on themselves. No conflicts are resolved peacefully by condemning and demonising one side whilst goading the other side into indiscriminate retaliation. If you’re more interested in ending the war in Palestine than scoring points against Israel, that’s what you need to do, and I’m grateful to anyone trying for this.

But this cannot be said of most of the artists spearheading the censorship campaign against Incubator Theatre. It was not peaceful demonstration that enabled them to get their way in Edinburgh, but threats to public order – and I’ve seen no attempt from these artists to distance themselves from that. Not good enough – don’t think it’s okay if other people do your dirty work. Nor have I seen any attempt to question the idolisation of Hamas as the saviours of Palestine, the inclusion of holocaust deniers in anti-Israel marches, or the indifference to the current wave of anti-Semitic violence. At best, these artists are woefully naive about who they are siding themselves with, and at worst conceal a very unpleasant agenda.

Make no mistake, protests like the one against Incubator Theatre are not a means to an end. The vilification of Israelis (or Jews, or both) is an objective in its own right. Criticise Israel, campaign all you like, do you what you can to stop the bloodshed – but have nothing to do with these people. Their so-called peace activism is nothing more than a hate campaign, and the war is the excuse they needed. The anti-Incubator protests are not about Gaza. Those people are no friends of Palestine.

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