COMMENT: There’s nothing wrong with supporting Palestinian artists coming to the Edinburgh Fringe. But don’t be fooled by this talk of “free Israeli voices”.
One theme that has kept cropping up in this year’s Edinburgh Fringe is censorship. The University of Edinburgh has just held an event called “Theatre Censorship Now“, and Underbelly has programmed a series of plays Walking the Tightrope to discuss this very issue. I think we can safely assume that this is entirely in response to the protests that led to the cancellation of an Israeli play last year, because arts subsidies from the Israeli government is all sinister propaganda to make wars look good which is why all the UK artists nobly stuck by their principles and refused all money from the UK government. Possibly. I have already said what I think about the boycott, and what I think about the demonstrators demanding the boycott, and if you haven’t read those articles all you can probably guess how contemptuous my opinion is.
However, one supporter of the anti-Israel boycott I am taking seriously is playwright David Greig. When most of the supporters of this boycott were making excuses for the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, David Greig condemned it. When most of the demonstrators’ behaviour ranged from nastiness to borderline anti-Semitism, David Greig did at least attempt to say that wasn’t the tactics he liked to see. Now, a cynical interpretation is that David Greig is simply happy to allow other people to do the dirty work for him, but I prefer to take things in good faith where possible. So I am going to assume that David Greig’s own response to this event, his “Welcome to the Fringe” idea, is a genuine attempt to do some good and doesn’t have a hidden agenda.
“Welcome to the Fringe” was a Kickstarter fund started by David Greig straight after last year’s sorry business, with the aims of allowing Paelstinian acts and “free Israeli voices” (i.e. Israeli artists who “reject state funds”) to come to the Edinburgh Fringe. This plan seems to have evolved quite as bit since its inception – it was originally floated as a week-long performance for a Palestianian group at Forest Fringe, but it has ended up as three events: a day at Forest Fringe for seven Palestinian artists (who will also get mentoring); a month-long event for Northern Stage where UK artists make a show based on the Twitter feeds of 25 writers across at Middle East; and a live screening of a play from a group in Gaza.
And I will say at this point that I have no objection to any of this. Palestinian artists – in fact Palestinians in general – get a tough time for all sorts of obvious reasons, so any help they get is quite welcome. There is the question of whether they should be associating with people who sided with some pretty nasty anti-Semites last year, but let’s face it, those Palestinian artists almost certainly have no alternative, just as other artists – Israeli and otherwise – have no alternative to state funding. It must be questioned whether Palestinian artists are unrepresented in Edinburgh when there’s a Palestinan group performing at Underbelly (quite ironic, seeing as that was the venue the pro-Palestinian crowd censored), but that’s not relevant. It’s the fringe. Anyone can perform what they like, host who they like, and fund who they like. No-one has to justify who they’re funding to anyone. So I wish all these Palestinian artists the best of luck, the same as everyone else.
But, hang on a second – this is only half of what Welcome to the Fringe was supposed to do. It was supposed to be Palestinians and free Israeli voices? What happened to the free Israeli voices bit? That has been dropped quietly with no explanation. Okay, the Northern Stage production includes Israelis amongst the Middle Eastern writers whose Twitter feeds are being used for the play, but it’s someone else’s production and someone else has editorial control over what goes into the play. And that’s not really free Israeli voices, is it? At the Edinburgh Fringe, surely a free voice means being able to come along with your own production and say what you like without any middle men deciding what audiences can and can’t hear.
Sure, there were some caveats in the original Kickstarter about why funds won’t necessarily be distributed 50:50, and yes, I agree that the average Israeli artist has better opportunities than the average Palestinian artist, but when you set up the fund in the immediate aftermath of the censored Israeli group being blamed for taking funds from their government, you have some explaining to do. Honor Bayes of the stage was quite happy to say it was Incubator Theatre’s fault for not seeking alternative sources of funding such as Welcome to the Fringe (which didn’t even exist that year). To be fair, she has since backtracked a little and accepted that driving them out with a baying mob was not an acceptable response, but you can bet there are a lot of other people don’t have such reservations. Bottom line is that Welcome to the Fringe is not a viable source of funding to take an Israeli show to Edinburgh.
The only consolation is that had a fund for “free Israeli voices” actually gone ahead, that would probably have made things even worse. David Greig might be interested in supporting Israelis who don’t want to take government funding, but the vast majority of his supporters blatantly don’t. Remember, the people who hounded out Incubator were not protesting against Israeli artists expressing voices in favour of the war – they were protesting against Israelis having any kind of voice at all. They objected to “normalising” Israel – in other words, the thought that British people might see some Israelis on stage and discover they are ordinary people like the rest of us is so unacceptable that it must be stopped, by any means necessary.
And given how much they hate Isrealis being seen as “normal”, would they have stopped protesting against The City if a rich donor offered to replace the funding from the Israeli Ministry of Culture? I think not. So if they won’t accept Israeli theatre that doesn’t mention the war, that leaves Israeli theatre that does mention the war. And I think we can also safely rule out any play that supports the IDF, so what’s left from Israel that’s acceptable to the BDS crowd? Yes, by elimination, it’s likely to be only plays from Israelis that make Israel look bad. And if this all sound paranoid, remember that the most famous Isreali artists that the pro-Palestinian campaign back was Gilad Atzmon, a jazz musician who spent lots of his time peddling the nastiest anti-Semitic conspiriacy claims. (The pro-Palestinian side eventually ditched him, but very late in the day.) That, I’m afraid, is what so-called free Israeli voices is likely to mean.
But we’re not doing this. So, David Greig, if you want to quietly drop the free Israeli voices from your project, be my guest. No-one will mind. One side doesn’t believe in supporting free Israeli voices, and the other side doesn’t believe those Israeli voices are really free. Go ahead and support Palestinian artists anyway you like. Feel good about yourself. You never know, if you behave yourself I might come and see it one day.
But the fact remains that you had the chance to show there’s an alternative to Israeli state funding, and you didn’t. Israeli artists are in the same position as the vast majority of UK artists – take state funding or don’t be an artist. David Greig, Forest Fringe and Northern Stage: the next time any of you berate an Israeli artist for taking state funds, I will expose that for the sanctimonious hypocrisy it is. Consider this your only warning.