On Wednesday we had news of certain goings on at the Edinburgh Festival that cannot be interpreted in any other way. Igor Toronyi-Lalic wrote about in the Spectator on Thursday.
When is a great international arts festival not a great international arts festival? When it can’t uphold even the most basic principles of free speech. Last night a play by an Israeli theatre company was forced to cancel its run at the Edinburgh Fringe as the result of the barracking of a group of anti-Israeli thugs. The show, The City, is now homeless and on the hunt for a new venue.So much for cultural freedom and culture overcoming political divisions. Somehow one never gets such demonstrations or this kind of pusillanimity when, say, a state owned Chinese orchestra, theatre or opera comes to town (any town). Nobody ever thinks that various Arab orchestras etc should be banned because of the way their countries treat women and religious minorities (though we do get protests in connection with gay rights sometimes). Yet an Israeli group, whose political affiliation, if there is one, is unknown and who may well be opponents of the war in Gaza (Israel being a democracy where cultural events are not controlled by the state) are banned in response to vicious demands. What is one to make of it? Hmmmm?
Where exactly would they like these Israelis to perform, I wondered? Outside the walls of the city possibly? Would that be more conducive to their medieval vision of the world? Owing simply to their nationality – owing simply to their race - a theatre company is being silenced. What does the artistic community have to say about this capitulation? They’re rather in favour of it actually.
Why bring up race, you say? Because, make no mistake, race is the issue here. With every other nation on earth, extraordinary pains are taken to separate the government from the people. Putin, bad; Russian people, good. Chinese communist party, bad; Chinese people, great. Iranian mullahs, bad; Iranian people, lovely. Only in this one instance do we suddenly make an exception. Do we suddenly decide to demand the collective punishment of a whole population and its creative industries for the actions of its leaders. Strange, that.To be fair to the Prommers, they showed their disgust with the protesters in no uncertain terms but I notice that the Israel Philharmonic has not been invited since. I also noted at the time that Radio 3 interrupted its broadcast of the concert together with the protests (even after the protesters were removed) and substituted a recording of a previous Prom. Not cowardly at all, our BBC, isn't.
When the state-funded Mariinsky Ballet come to town this weekend, there will be no letter asking the Royal Opera House to rescind the invitation. When the Qatar Philharmonic get a chance to show how cultured their slave-addicted state is at the Proms in September, there will be no commotion. When the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra drape themselves in the colours of a nation state that’s committed to abusing human rights whenever it can, we cheer.
And when, once in a blue moon, there’s a protest against an enemy that isn’t Israel, how do we behave? Last year there was the smallest, politest, most embarrassed-looking picket for the opening of the London Symphony Orchestra season with Putin-suck-up Valery Gergiev. Compare this to the ferocity of the protests when Jews are involved. Compare it to the humiliation of the Israel Philharmonic at the Proms a few years back.
As a matter of fact, Mr Toronyi-Lalic is wrong when it comes to Russia though there the dynamic is different, as this blog has pointed out before. Russia, it seems, is the only country in connection with which any criticism of the government, past or present, is seen as tantamount as an attack on the people. That remains true despite the temporary and, probably, short-lasting falling out between Putin and the West. Israel, however, is the one country where any criticism of the government or its policies inevitably spills over into attacks on its people and, when possible a ban on its various cultural representatives. What could be the cause of that?