An arts organisation for once takes an ethical stand and are unjustly pilloried for it.
Imagine an industrial disaster that manages to kill, maim or make homeless a significant percentage of the population of a densely populated city. Then imagine the effects of that disaster for years to come: the catastrophic physical and psychological effects on the city’s surviving inhabitants; the complete destruction of the region’s infrastructure; and the utterly devastating impact on its already struggling local economy. (If it helps, imagine this city is Bhopal, 1984, and the company is United Carbide.)
Now imagine that this powerful multinational company – culpable through criminal negligence and criminal aggression – sponsoring a performance art festival at Tate Modern. They’ve been sponsoring the festival for eight years without a hitch. But then something happens and you’re finally confronted with the true nature of this company. We witness the human cost of its criminal behaviour; we witness the deaths of babies and children daily on our screens. The suffering is unimaginable, but there it is before our eyes. Would you be outraged if the Tate’s board of trustees didn’t immediately cancel the sponsorship deal? Would you threaten to boycott the festival if the sponsorship went ahead? How comfortable would you feel seeing the company’s logo on all of the festival’s publicity material?
So ask yourself this: why might you not feel the same about The Tricycle Theatre’s decision concerning the UK Jewish Film Festival? The theatre still wants to host it, but its board of trustees feels strongly that it can no longer accept any association with one of its sponsors: the embassy of the state responsible for the massacre, and not for the first time, of a civilian population that has been a sitting target for its bombs. Ignoring the pleas of the UN, and contravening international law, Israel has bombed UN refugee shelters, UN hospitals and UN schools. If you want to look up the list of what constitutes a war crime, it’s pretty clear that these actions constitute a war crime. But this doesn’t mean we’ll be seeing Netanyahu in the Hague any time soon. (Israel doesn’t even recognise the International Criminal Court’s legitimacy.)
Given this recent massacre of innocents, The Tricycle’s board of trustees baulked at the idea of having the Israeli embassy’s logo on its publicity material. So they asked the festival’s organisers to let go of the embassy’s sponsorship money and promised to cover the shortfall. But the UKJFF organisers chose to turn their backs on this offer. They may have good and valid reasons for doing so, but The Tricycle also has good and valid reasons for asking. And since The Tricycle is free to act – just as any individual, private company, or publicly funded body is free to act – according to its own conscience, that’s exactly what they did. I applaud them for exercising that freedom. It’s a good freedom to exercise. They have contravened no race, faith or equality law and they’ve acted in good faith.
But let’s be clear of one thing this isn’t: this isn’t a “ban” on the UKJFF, as some have stupidly protested. This isn’t a “cultural boycott”, and anyone who says it is is failing to make an important distinction. I’ve written elsewhere about cultural boycotts and why, as uncomfortable a position it might be for me to maintain at times, I oppose them as a principle (you can read that article here). Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are abiding principles that I don’t like to see compromised. No, this is a funding decision. This is very clearly an issue of ethical funding.
But yesterday, I read a piece by the journalist Nick Cohen, who thinks there’s nothing ethical about it. He writes that it’s a decision motivated solely by anti-Semitism. So what if the theatre’s administrators have the odd “progressive Jew” on its board, he sneers (Nicholas Hytner, whose comments you can find in the statement explaining the theatre’s decision, is one), this is anti-Semitism in all its old and ugly and familiar guise.
I have to say, I find this a shocking display of intellectual dishonesty from Cohen. Does he really think this of an organisation that’s enthusiastically hosted this festival for eight years, and was at pains to continue doing so? It seems especially dishonest since Cohen himself claims to find Israel’s behaviour in Gaza “despicable”. Can he really not imagine that the board of trustees also find Israel’s behaviour “despicable”? Therefore, if we can all agree that its behaviour is “despicable”, why should they be forced to host a festival that’s partly sponsored by a state inflicting the utmost despicable atrocities on an utterly helpless civilian population? Why should they be forced to have the embassy’s logo on all their publicity material? Why should they carry an endorsement of a state committing war crimes?
Cohen is so puffed up on accusations of everyone else’s double standards (what about the UK’s “illegal” war in Iraq, he opines, in what he imagines must be a masterstroke of unique insight. Doesn’t the Tricycle receive state funding?), that’s he’s completely oblivious to his own. This would be laughable if it wasn’t so stupid. He must have a very short memory if he’s forgotten the article he wrote for The Observer under the heading, “Keep Corrupt Regimes Out of British Culture”. It’s a long and typically ranty piece by him, but in short he rails against the British Museum and other arts organisations for getting into sponsorship deals and media partnerships with corrupt countries that have appalling human rights records. In other words, he accuses arts organisations of cosying up to despicable states.
He’s right to be concerned, of course, but the hypocrisy is so grotesque it’s staggering. Maybe The Tricycle has merely taken his advice – good on them if they have. But one really shouldn’t forget that his list of corrupt nations most prominently features Muslim ones – those “Islamo-fascist” states, to use his favourite compound word. And we all know, of course, there’s nothing remotely “Israelo-fascist” – nothing remotely Apartheid – about a state that’s a sophisticated, highly developed democracy for Jews, and an open-air prison and charnel house for Palestinians. No, of course not, it just behaves “despicably” – nothing to get too worked up about.
To accuse an organisation like The Tricycle of anti-Semitism, which it so patently isn’t, is to my mind beyond disgusting and beyond cynical. I’ve even seen one journalist on Twitter shamelessly evoking the Holocaust to condemn Tricycle’s ethical action. (screengrab pictured). What sort of shameless, cynically manipulative idiocy is this?
The Tricycle Theatre did the right thing. Yes, it’s been mealy-mouthed about remaining politically “neutral”, but I guess diplomacy and tact (also known as fudging an issue) are important when it comes to running an arts organisation. And I certainly don’t entirely support how they’ve conducted themselves throughout this whole PR disaster. Asking to see the contents of the UKJFF’s film programme was really not a smart move. That they quickly realised they’d crossed a line and backed off is to their credit. I think momentary panic kicked in; I certainly don’t ascribe to it any sinister motives to do with censorship – their track record speaks for itself.
I do hope things return to normal for them very quickly. I also hope that most of us can applaud this small north London arts centre for taking a principled stand. For the sake of consistency if nothing else, Nick Cohen should be doing the same.
Do note: I’ve probably revised some of my opinions about cultural boycott since writing the above linked article in The Spectator. Cultural boycotts may possibly be ”ineffective’ but I don’t think they’re ‘wrong’.