A Theatrical Surrender to anti-Semitism

The decision by London’s Tricycle Theatre to ask the U.K. Jewish Film Festival to reject funding from Israel is an act of moral cowardice.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A Gaza war protest in London, July 26, 2014.
A Gaza war protest in London, July 26, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Can you imagine what a nightmare it must be to produce a Jewish film festival? What is a Jewish film, anyway? Does the producer or the director or the screenwriter have to be a kosher member of the tribe? (Obviously, anything made in Hollywood is a Jewish film – everyone knows the Jews run that place.) And once you’ve succeeded in defining what a Jewish film is, how to choose from the thousands of pictures that fit your definition?

You’ve got to get the right mix to fit all tastes: some comedies, a few highbrow dramas, hard-hitting documentaries, a smattering of art-house, tearjerking period pieces from the Shtetl (and, for the Ashkenazi-Sephardi balance, one from the Atlas Mountains as well), and the obligatory Holocaust movie. Then you need to have a nice geographical spread – not just East Coast-West Coast and New, Old and Third World, but really find something off the beaten track like gay Yiddisher cowboys on the Argentine pampas, or descendants of the lost tribe of Zevulun living on the banks of the Zambezi river.

But the biggest headache of all is Israel. Because Israel can be a minefield. Literally.

How many Israeli films to include on the program? Not too many – after all, the Diaspora is fresh, vibrant and creative. But not too few, either, as Israel is a central, if not the most central, hub of Jewish culture today, and many will be coming especially to see those Israeli films not normally screened in a nearby cinema.

But getting the correct Israel-Diaspora ratio isn’t enough. You can’t just have any Israeli film. You need one extolling the wonders of the Jewish state, then another on the vile iniquities of the occupation. Also a rom-com showing Israelis who just want to have normal lives outside the conflict, a look behind the ghetto walls of the ultra-Orthodox community, and a film produced by Palestinian-Israelis, even though they’re not Jews. Because you must.

If anyone knows how to get this mix just right, it’s the organizers of the U.K. Jewish Film Festival, who have been holding their annual three-week event for 18 years, to general acclaim. This year, though, Israel was too big a minefield even for them.

A few days ago, the directors of the Tricycle Theatre in northwest London – the festival’s main venue for the last eight years – asked to be allowed to review and vet any Israeli films that were planned for the upcoming festival. Quite sensibly, the organizers brushed off this ridiculous attempt at censorship. But then they were met with another demand: To continue screening at the Tricycle, they had to relinquish the financial support that the Israeli Embassy in London has always given to the festival. (This year's event is set to take place in November.)

If you’re reading about this for the first time, you’re probably as flabbergasted as you would still be if you’d heard about it when the story first broke on Tuesday. Whichever way you look it, this simply doesn’t make sense. One of the most progressive and cutting-edge visual arts venues in the most diverse city in the world tried to censor a Jewish film festival, and then refused to allow the Jews to use its halls because they wouldn’t cut their ties to Israel.

The decision is so immoral and undemocratic that the official reason given by the Tricycle barely matters. I’ll repeat their excuse anyway, because it only underlines the warped logic. The festival was notified that “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.”

In other words, because of the terrible bloodshed in Gaza over the last month, Jewish organizations and filmgoers in Britain must either disassociate themselves from Israel or go elsewhere.

Some commentators have been quick to condemn the Tricycle for being anti-Semitic. I can’t look into the theater directors’ hearts, but I honestly don’t think they are. And no, not because the chairman, Jonathan Levy, just happens to be Jewish himself.

For a start, the Tricycle has hosted the festival and, by all accounts, the relationship between festival and theatre was a good one until a few weeks ago. In their statement, they made it clear that “the Tricycle will be pleased to host the UKJFF provided that it occurs without the support or other endorsement from the Israeli Government.” They even offered to refund from their own budget the relatively small sum – 1,400 Pounds – the festival was to receive from the embassy.

No, the real reason for the Tricycle’s bizarre decision isn’t hatred of Jews, nor even of Israel. It’s fear. As a member of its board sent to defend the theater’s indefensible position on BBC admitted, the Tricycle is worried about anti-Israel demonstrations outside the theater.

There were already a small group of cranks with signs outside the festival last year, protesting its ties with Israel. But now, with the level of anger over Gaza, it is not unreasonable to assume that, in three months’ time, the festival will face much larger, louder and possibly violent protests.

So, instead of promising the festival that they would defend the Jews’ right to artistic freedom and to define for themselves what Jewish culture means, the Tricycle’s board gave them a choice: Either be nice harmless Jews and have nothing to do with Israel, or shut the theater door on your way out. In other words, they weren’t being anti-Semitic themselves, just surrendering to anti-Semites.

And no, not everyone who calls for a boycott of Israel is an anti-Semite. To single Israel out for a boycott is immoral, pointless and serves only to supply more rhetorical ammunition to the enemies of peace and coexistence from either side. But it isn’t necessarily an act of anti-Semitism. Just as there are true Jew-haters in the boycott movement, hiding behind their “We’re just anti-Zionist” excuses, there are many perfectly honorable, if woefully mistaken, people who have nothing whatsoever against Jews and support the boycott in the belief that it is the only way to end the occupation.

But while calling on Britain and any other country to boycott Israel is legitimate, targeting Jews and telling them they can’t have a connection with Israel is anti-Semitic.

In recent weeks, I derived some grim satisfaction from the fact that at least the anti-Israel – or pro-Palestinian, as some claim them to be – protests taking place in London were held outside the Israeli Embassy, instead of besieging synagogues as the protesters in Paris did.

And unlike in Italy or Turkey, no senior politician or prominent intellectual in Britain has called upon the local Jewish community to condemn Israel or else be tainted by its sins. I believed, and still want to, that in Britain a sense of decency remains, and Jews wouldn’t be held accountable for what is happening in another country.

I certainly wouldn’t have thought it could happen in one of the most enlightened corners of London. But enlightenment obviously isn’t enough.

The directors of the Tricycle Theatre have surrendered to those who single out and target Jews, and have shamed themselves as Britons and people of culture.

Poster for last year's UK Jewish Film Festival.Credit: ukjewishfilm.org

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