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It’s a hot summer’s day, you work for a small arts organisation in London, a theatre perhaps, and all the artistic directors are on holiday. The phone rings. It’s one of your funders. They’re angry; really angry. They accuse you of antisemitism.
This is exactly the situation that the Tricycle Theatre in London faced two months ago when the UK Jewish Film Festival decided to cancel all of its screenings in response to the Tricycle’s request that the Festival refuse £1,400 worth of funding from the Israeli Embassy. The editor of The Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, wrote vociferously on Twitter, ‘Be clear on this. @Tricycle Theatre is now officially anti-Semitic. It is singling out the Jewish state for boycott’. Then there were the letters of support, the articles in The Guardian, the street protests, the Facebook groups – both supporting Tricycle’s stance and denouncing it– and a lot of anxious wringing of hands.
Last night I sat in Amnesty’s headquarters in London listening to a panel discussion: ‘After the Tricycle: Can arts organisations say ‘no’ to embassy funding?’.
Kamila Shamsie, novelist and Chair for the evening, introduced us to playwrights April De Angelis and Tanika Gupta; commentator Antony Lerman, who writes on antisemitic discourse; and Ofer Neiman of the Israeli group, Boycott from Within.
Tanika stressed that the intersection of art and politics is to be encouraged: “You have to have an opinion, you have to have politics, or what the hell are you going to write about”. April wanted to place the Tricycle events in the larger context of “culture washing“. Then there was Ofer, an Israeli who tries to combat Zionism from within, who gave us an insight into the struggles Israeli’s face at home when trying to criticise the state. He remarked that the “Israeli establishment fears the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign”.
Given that weeks after the initial accusations of antisemitism the Tricycle Theatre quickly reversed its position, and the UK Jewish Film Festival, still part-funded by the Israeli state, is arranged for November, discussion turned to what should be done.
Much was made of the comparison with South Africa where a cultural boycott was seen to be effective, and it was also suggested that arts organisations should consider having an ethical funding policy to reveal their donors.
What struck me was how often The Guardian was mentioned, by the panelists and the audience, as a tool for change. What does it say about the UK that writing letters to a national newspaper is still seen as the most effective way to make a difference?
Steve Willey, Commonwealth Writers
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