on the world: a view on human rights
The targeting of Gaza’s infrastructure, including its only power plant, and UN safe havens where unarmed civilians sought shelter has inspired some Latin American states to recall their ambassadors to Israel, effectively cutting diplomatic ties in protest. Elsewhere, the international community has largely maintained a deafening silence on the latest war and destruction of the Gaza Strip. Some states have signalled their tacit approval of possible war crimes. On the other hand, the solidarity of ordinary people has been well demonstrated in this conflict as millions of people worldwide have taken to the streets of their cities in solidarity with the beleaguered people of Gaza.
In Britain, the response has been varied and has involved solidarity actions as diverse as pop star Zayn Malik tweeting “#FreePalestine”, for which he received death threats, to England cricketer Moeen Ali wearing “Free Palestine” and “Free Gaza” wristbands, which were later banned by the International Cricket Council on the basis that they were political and in breach of the rules. With the England Cricket Board (ECB) and others agreeing that the bands were humanitarian and not political, the action received widespread support.
Many ordinary people have chosen to take peaceful direct action through boycotts of companies and products that support Israel. As elsewhere in Europe, the BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) movement has been gaining traction. As part of a national day of protest against the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s on 2 August, activists in Brixton, south London, closed down two shops. Other similar protests have been held outside other retailers.
The UK’s continuing military support and arming of Israel has been targeted. Protests have been held outside and in Barclays Bank due to its investment in arms sales to Israel, leading in some cases to temporary branch closures. Amnesty International has set up a petition calling on the UK government to end all arms sales to Israel: “We must not facilitate war crimes”. On 5 August, nine activists from the London Palestine Action group successfully closed down a drone component factory owned by Israeli defence contractor Elbit Systems in Staffordshire for two days. The 9 were forcedly removed and charged with aggravated trespass, and are due to appear in court on 20 August. The Campaign against The Arms Trade (CAAT) has announced it is bringing legal action against the British government “unless it stops sending arms to Israel and conducts a review of its current arms export licences”.
…at the Tricycle
Against this backdrop, an arts protest might seem almost twee or hipster. Applying the “think global, act local” philosophy, this month a small theatre in north London has found itself at the centre of a storm pitting it against the full force of the powerful pro-Israel lobby and the duplicity of the mainstream media.
The Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, north London, has hosted the UK Jewish Film Festival (UKJFF) for the past 8 years of the festival’s 17-year history. This year, however, in a statement dated 5 August, now permanently removed from its website, the theatre announced, “Given the situation in Israel and Gaza, we do not believe that the festival should accept funding from any party to the current conflict… [Thus], we asked the UK Jewish Film Festival to reconsider its sponsorship by the Israeli Embassy”; “at this moment, the Tricycle would not accept sponsorship from any government agency involved in the conflict”. The funding by the embassy is worth around £1400 and the festival would have involved 26 film showings and 6 gala events at the venue.
The theatre, which “has always welcomed the Festival and wants it to go ahead” instead “offered to replace that funding with money from our own resources”. Ultimately, however, this offer was turned down: “We regret that, following discussions, the chair of the UKJFF told us that he wished to withdraw the festival from the Tricycle”. It was perhaps naïve of the theatre to assume the UKJFF would turn down funding from a sponsor that has supported it throughout its history.
The crux of the matter is that the Tricycle Theatre refused sponsorship for an event it was hosting from a state currently accused of war crimes by the UN. It offered the organisers an alternative which they rejected. The organisers have since found alternative locations for this year’s festival. That should have been the end of the matter, with perhaps the Tricycle and the UKJFF being able to reach an agreement on next year’s festival. This, however, is no ordinary sponsor. Israel is not a state that can be defied at any time by anyone. This was not a rejection of sponsorship; this was a call to arms.
The 5 August statement was put out as the theatre had been “been contacted by several patrons who have been given misleading information about the Tricycle and the UK Jewish Film Festival”. On the same day, the UKJFF issued a press release that stated “The Tricycle Theatre has refused to host the UK Jewish Film Festival for the first time in eight years, for so long as it is supported by the cultural department of the Israeli Embassy in London”. The organisers said they had been told in a letter by the Tricycle’s chair, Jonathan Levy, “Given the present situation in Israel/Palestine, and the unforeseen and unhappy escalation that has occurred over the past three weeks, including a terrible loss of life, The Tricycle cannot be associated with any activity directly funded or supported by any party to the conflict…the Tricycle will be pleased to host the UKJFF provided that it occurs without the support or other endorsement from the Israeli Government”.
David v Goliath
The mainstream media, which took days to acknowledge the bombardment and carnage in Gaza, pounced on the story immediately. Not the story above, but a narrative of its own making. Applying a selective and restricted reading of the UKJFF press release, the theatre “has refused to host” the festival, has cancelled “plans to host UK Jewish Film Festival”, and elsewhere was reported to have “banned” and “boycotted” the festival. This was clearly not the case. The Tricycle itself did not refer to its action – of refusing sponsorship – as a boycott. The media has little interest in reporting the truth and the news story quickly degenerated into comment pieces and op-eds on the nature and relevance of cultural boycotts and the anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish nature of the Tricycle’s action. Anti-Semitism is a charge sometimes applied uncritically and broadly to mute any opposition to Israel, conflating Jewish people and the state of Israel, with the latter using the former as a shield to hide behind. This line of attack was pursued with full force.
Many of the articles were also written by commentators who have clearly never visited the theatre or the area. In spite of the usual middle-class connotations of the arts and theatre, the Tricycle is truly a part of the working-class community that surrounds it in Kilburn and shows a wide range of films and theatre. In recent years, its theatrical repertoire has included cutting-edge and challenging material on the 2011 riots, the inquiry into the murder of black south London teenager Stephen Lawrence, the Baha Moussa Inquiry and Afghanistan. The Tricycle does not only show works of Jewish interest during the UKJFF and has often hosted works by the talented Muslim-Jewish theatre company MUJU. Its repertoire fosters social dialogue which until this year, the UKJFF was a part of.
The theatre also does a lot of outreach work with local schools in an area where children would not otherwise necessarily have such access to the arts and provides training schemes for black actors; theatre, as an establishment, is hardly known for its opportunities for ethnic minorities.
The local area, Kilburn, is highly diverse and no one ethnic or religious group could claim to dominate, as reflected in the diversity of the shops and entertainment available. The wider area, Brent, is the second most diverse part of the UK after Newham in east London, and enjoys relative harmony in its community affairs. It is also home to the largest Hindu temple outside of India, the popular Jewish Free School and has many houses of worship of all faiths and denominations. Recent visits by racist right-wing agitators have failed to divide the local community. This is not to imply that racism and other forms of discrimination do not exist in Brent.
The attack on the Tricycle has not been limited to the newspapers. At the same time, a more sinister parallel campaign was underway – if the Tricycle’s actions could be construed as a “boycott”, then the Tricycle too was a legitimate target to boycott. The arts after all are dependent on their patrons. If the Tricycle was about to start a trend in the arts, it would have to be nipped in the bud. If the Tricycle was to naively set an example by defying Israel, then the Tricycle would have an example made of it by facing the full force of the pro-Israel lobby.
Calls were made for Brent council, which provides almost £200,000 of funding each year, to discontinue its support. Conservative councillor, John Warren, launched an investigation into the council’s funding of the theatre. Clearly a populist move, he told the local newspaper “We disagree with artistic discrimination, and as such disagree with the Tricycle decision to cancel the Israeli Film Festival”, yet he seems uninformed that the theatre made no such decision.
On 7 August, the Jewish Chronicle printed the names of several patrons of the theatre who refused at the time to comment on the situation, yet one week later, one of those people, Sir Trevor Chinn, had decided to withdraw his financial support for the theatre. In the week following the announcement of the news, other donors, who may well have been pressurised into doing so, also publicly withdrew their funding. On the same day, a noisy protest was held outside the theatre by around 100 people. It was organised by a group called the Campaign Against Antisemitism, formed to deal with this issue. Placards held up by protesters read, among others, “Don’t Punish London’s Jews”, “UK Jewish Community Stands with Israel” and “No! To Jewish Film Festival Ban”. The issue was further politicised when Culture Secretary, Conservative MP Sajid Javid, called the Tricycle’s actions “misguided”.
The Tricycle Theatre’s position garnered its own admiration and support. With other local residents, I signed a letter to the media in support of the theatre and against the misleading claims made in the national press. One hundred and six local residents also signed a letter of support that was published in three local newspapers in Camden and Brent. In addition, over 500 artists and theatre professionals added their names to a letter of support published in The Guardian on 15 August. On Saturday 9 August, one theatregoer reported two members of the audience stood up at the beginning of the performance and told everyone else “with the recent actions of the Tricycle Theatre we are boycotting this performance”, to which the rest of the audience responded that they could go.
Another protest against the Tricycle was planned for 20 August. It is unlikely to go ahead as on 15 August, the beleaguered theatre crumbled under the pressure. In a new joint statement with the UKJFF, the Tricycle Theatre stated, “Following lengthy discussions between the Tricycle and UKJFF, the Tricycle has now withdrawn its objection and invited back the UK Jewish Film Festival on the same terms as in previous years with no restrictions on funding from the Embassy of Israel in London”. The final paragraph, in light of the events of the previous two weeks, is almost entirely one-sided: “We both profoundly hope that those who take differing views on the events of the last few weeks will follow our lead and come together to acknowledge that dialogue, reconciliation and engagement will resolve points of difference and ensure that cultural diversity thrives in all communities”. The return of the festival to a venue it should never have left is welcome, but unless one considers bullying and intimidation a reasonable course of action, this can hardly be considered a victory for anyone.
Microcosms and macrocosms of conflict
Wars are not as spontaneous as the media would like us to believe; weapons arsenals do not grow on trees. Consequently, before the first shot is even fired, the truth is already a casualty. In many ways, this episode, no way near as significant or important as the actual war and destruction in Gaza, is a microcosmic demonstration of what happens on the larger world stage: here too the narrative of the media, which has found this story far more engaging and newsworthy than war in Gaza or elsewhere, differs sharply to the actual facts of the matter.
It is not the only the Israeli state and its agents that face censure for their actions abroad: last year, Brent was also the location of protests calling for a potential visit to the UK by the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, not to go ahead; he had previously been subject to a decade-long ban due to his implication in war crimes following a 2002 massacre of Muslims in west India. Other high-ranking Indian state officials have also had their travels overseas accompanied by protests, particularly by the Indian Sikh community, which was subject to a massacre in 1984 that has never been properly investigated by the Indian authorities. US NGO Sikhs for Justice is currently seeking a ban and will protest if Modi visits the US next month.
Not only do so-called democratic states act as though they are above the law and beyond prosecution, they use increasingly sophisticated methods to quell any dissent and questioning of their actions, so much so that expressions of human solidarity and kindness are more likely to be penalised than criminal acts. Israel must not be penalised for its actions in Gaza but the Tricycle must be penalised with the threat of closure and disrepute. On the macro level, this is demonstrated through the imprisonment of Chelsea Manning for 35 years for disclosing US war crimes while the war criminals whose actions were disclosed plot their latest bloody moves in Iraq. On the micro level, this translates into the victimisation of victims of violent crimes such as rape and paedophilia: the aggressor wins every time.
Although the Tricycle’s decision to back down from its commendable position is regrettable, it did so under immense pressure. In all possible outcomes, it loses. Supporting the people of Gaza besieged under war in the world’s largest open prison is not wrong or an immoral act. Taking peaceful action to oppose the actions of a belligerent state is not wrong either. It is simply a human expression of support for the human rights and indeed the very right to life of fellow human beings.