Largely written by Comrade Matt C, edited by JD:
A number of prominent individuals from the British film and arts world have signed a letter, published in yesterday’s Guardian, calling on cinemas to boycott the London Israeli Film and Television Festival:
The festival is co-sponsored by the Israeli government via the Israeli embassy in London, creating a direct link between these cinemas, the festival screenings and Israeli policies. By benefiting from money from the Israeli state, the cinemas become silent accomplices to the violence inflicted on the Palestinian people. Such collaboration and cooperation is unacceptable. It normalises, even if unintentionally, the Israeli government’s violent, systematic and illegal oppression of the Palestinians.
The signatories – some of whom are Jewish – include Peter Kosminsky, Mike Leigh, John Pilger, Ken Loach and Miriam Margolyes.
The festival’s organisers reply:
“Our festival is a showcase for the many voices throughout Israel, including Arab Israelis and Palestinians, as well as religious and secular groups. These are highly talented film-makers and actors, working together successfully, to provide entertainment and insight for film and television lovers internationally.
“Freedom of expression in the arts is something that the British have worked so hard to defend. An attempt to block the sharing of creative pursuits and the genuine exchange of ideas and values is a disappointing reaction to a festival that sets out to open up lines of communication and understanding.”
There are, I would suggest, two problems with the boycott call. First, it is based on confusion between the Israeli government and the Israeli state. Clearly, the two are not entirely separate but a distinction can be made between the government (that is the policy making executive) and the state more generally. The state obviously includes some institutions that socialists would wholeheartedly oppose: the military (as we do that of any other state, including our own), Mossad and institutions that reflect religious particularlism.
The Israeli state prioritises the rights of Jewish Israelis over Arab Israelis (and many other states, including Britain, have racist biases), but there are many things that the Israeli state does that are not directly linked to this, such as arts funding. To a degree, arts funding reflects the character of the state which is often not good (and this includes the British state). Nonetheless, many of those on the list are happy to take funding from the British state. So looking down the list: Mike Leigh for many years made dramas for the state-funded and ultimately stated-controlled BBC, and currently has a production of The Pirates of the Penzance running of the English National Opera (state funded through the Art Council); John Brissenden works for the state (Bournemouth University) and presumably accepts its funding for his PhD; Gareth Evans works curates at the Whitechapel Gallery which receives state funding, again via the Arts Council. I am sure the similar points could be made about most of the signatories.
No doubt the boycotters would reply that they are not “silent accomplices” of the state (as those participating in the London Israeli Film and Television festival are styled in this letter), and their work is not a form of “collaboration” with it. They would argue, I guess, their work is not compromised by this funding, or at least that they fight against the states restrictions: is a reasonable defence. The arts and academic research frequently rely on a degree of support from the state, and this is in many ways preferable to the being reliant on the free market. But it would appear that the boycotters are not prepared to extend the same arguments to Israeli film makers whose work would be unlikely to be seen in this country without the sponsorship of the Israeli arts establishment (which means state support). The boycotters accept the sponsorship of their own (racist, militarist etc.) state but do not think that others (or uniquely, those in Israel) have the right to do the same.
The second question is: what are these people boycotting? The point is not whether anyone who opposes the policies of the Israeli state in Gaza and the West Bank would agree with all of the films being offered here. A socialist and consistent democrat should never be a left-wing censor allowing only views that they endorse to be aired. The only possible grounds for a supporter of free speech to oppose a cultural festival such as this is that it constitutes propaganda that is the cultural front of oppression (and even then, calling for it to be boycotted would be questionable approach). Looking at the brochure for the festival it is clearly not such a form of propaganda – even Fauda, a drama about Israeli undercover commandoes targeting a Hamas militant, runs with the current fashion of moral ambiguity rather than being a gung-ho adventure.
Other items on the programme more obviously address the human dimension of the Israeli-Palestine conflict (Dancing with Arabs, East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem) and the influence of religion on aspects of Israeli life, although many other offerings are more mainstream films and TV dramas.
It is certainly possible to criticise both the selection of material to be shown at the festival and the Israeli media industry behind it since there are no films, as far as I can see, made by Arab-Israeli film makers. But this is hardly the point. Rather, those who call for a boycott demand (it would seem, uniquely) that film makers from Israel should only be allowed to show their productions in Britain if they do so without any association with the state in which they live. Given the nature of cultural production and its reliance on state support, this is a call for a boycott of all but the most independent of film and TV producers and, in reality, amounts to a total boycott of all Israeli films and art. It is a ridiculous, reactionary stance that will do the Palestinian cause no practical good whatsoever, while alienating mainstream Jewish opinion in Britain and fuelling an insidious form of anti-Semitism that is becoming more and more “acceptable” in British liberal-left Guardianista circles. In truth, this boycott call (like the entire BDS campaign) only makes political sense if you wish for the ‘delegitimisation’ and, indeed, destruction, of the Israeli state: something that most of the signatories would, I’m pretty sure, deny they advocate.