Scottish Artists Call to Boycott Israeli Dance Group Performance at Edinburgh

After the Edinburgh Festival refused to call off the show, pro-Palestinian activists plan to disrupt the opening performance of the Israeli dance group Batsheva, attended by the Israeli culture minister and by Israel's envoy to London.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

LONDON – Scotland's national poet has called to boycott the Israeli dancing group Batsheva, set to perform at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Pro-Palestinian activists have announced they would attempt to disrupt the opening performance on Thursday night, which was attended by Israel's Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat.

The performance was disrupted four times as protestors within the auditorium shouted "Free Palestine" and had to be removed by security, after which the dancers resumed the performance.

The current atmosphere makes it increasingly difficult for Israeli groups to perform in Britain. Inviting Batsheva to take part in the festival drew harsh criticism from prominent culture figures in Scotland, including an online campaign entitled "Don't dance with Israeli Apartheid."

Since it was made public that Batsheva was invited to hold three shows in Edinburgh, the local media began pressuring the festival's director Jonathan Mills to cancel the their appearance.

The supporters of the boycott have justified their call by the claiming that Batsheva often receives the support of Israel’s Foreign Ministry when performing abroad, though according to an Israeli diplomat, the dance group did not receive any official Israeli financing for appearing in the Edinburgh.

Responding to the pressure, the festival's management has maintained it defends the right of all artists to have their voices heard, regardless of nationality, creed or culture.

However, a number of prominent Scottish artists disagree. In a letter published this week in the Scottish Herald, the artists urged the festival's management to cancel Batsheva's appearance, saying they do not accept their assertion "that art can be divorced from politics."

"The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs states on its website that Batsheva is ‘the best known global ambassador of Israeli culture,’” the group of artists wrote, adding also that the "artists themselves are targets of violence, arbitrary arrests and deportations. Israel's three-tiered system of occupation, colonisation and apartheid ruthlessly suffocates the livelihoods of Palestinian communities, including the right to artistic and cultural expression."

Among others, the public letter was signed by the poet Liz Lochhead, novelist Iian Banks and novelist and short-story writer Alison Louise Kennedy. Last year Lochhead was appointed by the Scottish parliament as the Makar, or Scotland's national poet.

In a statement to the media, Lochhead said that she had hesitated whether to sign the letter, but a recent visit in the West Bank has helped her decide. “Obviously in principle I am against the censorship of ideas," Lochhead said, "but having visited Palestine in June this year, and having seen how Palestinians are treated like non-humans, I believe we must use sanctions in the way they were used to bring apartheid to an end in South Africa."

During the festival, Batsheva will perform the hour-long production "Hora," directed by its founder, choreograph and artistic director Ohad Naharin. Batsheva will be performing the show for three consecutive nights at the Playhouse theatre.

Local activists of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC) are planning to demonstrate outside the theatre on each of these nights, starting with the opening show on Thursday night. The activists are also planning to try and disrupt the performance itself. Some of the activists have already bought tickets to the show and are planning to shout remarks against Israeli policies at specific moments throughout the show. At the opening performance Thursday, Minister Livnat will be accompanied by the Israeli ambassador to Britain Daniel Taub.

“Our people will be confronting the minster," SPSC Chairman Mick Napier said. "By coming here, we consider that she is sucking politics in to the auditorium. There will also be a very vigorous protest outside.”

Members of Britain’s Zionist Federation are planning a counter-demonstration outside the Playhouse, in attempt to defend the right of Israeli artists to perform. Police presence is expected outside the theatre.

A similar attempt failed some three months ago, when activists tried to disrupt the performance of Israel's national theatre Habima at the Globe Theatre in London, during a production of The Merchant of Venice.

In September 2011 the BBC took off the air a live broadcast of a concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in London due to pro-Palestinian protests. 

Batsheva Dance CompanyCredit: Moti Kimche