Batsheva Dance Company Greeted With Dabke Protest in New York

Israel’s premier dance troupe, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary with a five-week U.S. tour, still faces opposition for receiving government funding.

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A poster brandished by protesters outside the Batsheva performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
A poster brandished by protesters outside the Batsheva performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.Credit: Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer

NEW YORK – Audience members arriving at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday night to see Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company were treated to an exuberant preshow performance in which dance protested dance. Approximately 60 protesters crowded inside an enclosure of police barricades on the sidewalk: some waved Palestinian flags, some brandished signs proclaiming “Don’t dance around apartheid,” while others danced the dabke, a traditional Arabic communal dance.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators protest before a performance by Batsheva in London in Nov. 2012.Credit: Reuters

The protest is the latest in what has become almost expected opposition to Batsheva, one of Israel’s most well-known cultural exports. The event was organized by Adalah-NY, part of the global BDS movement to isolate Israel economically, academically and culturally.

The group has also been active in protesting the Israeli beverage company SodaStream and is planning a protest next Tuesday at New York’s World Music Institute against popular Israeli singer Idan Raichel.

In literature distributed to theatergoers, the movement explained their objection to what they say is Batsheva’s participation in the “Brand Israel” campaign, “designed to distract from the facts of Israel’s ongoing occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.” In other words, they’re accusing it of the cultural equivalent of “pinkwashing,” the term opponents of Israel have coined to describe what they say is the government’s attempt to deflect criticism of its treatment of Palestinians by pointing to its progressive record on gay rights.

“They [Batsheva, Raichel] are funded by the Culture Ministry in Israel in order to whitewash Israel’s crimes against Palestinians,” said Hani, a protester who would not give his last name. “We’re here to spread awareness of that.”

But a representative from the Israeli Consulate in New York rejected the idea of an official “Brand Israel” campaign, and that the phrase is a distortion of the government’s efforts to support Israeli artists. The spokesperson also denied that the artists are being used as decoys to detract from political issues. “It’s about public diplomacy,” he said. “Like every country in the world does.”

Celebratory scenes

Unlike the tense scenes at the Metropolitan Opera’s opening night of “The Death of Klinghoffer” last month, which drew hundreds of angry protesters, featured passionate speakers and garnered national headlines, the scene outside BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House was decidedly more civil – and even celebratory. Drummers provided a steady beat inside the protest zone, before the makeshift sound system took over, blasting Arabic music as a line of young men in black and white kaffiyehs performed the dabke.

“There are so many dabke groups that wish to travel around the world the way Batsheva does, but the Israeli occupation does not allow them to travel freely,” said Hani of the symbolism.

Protests often greet Batsheva on its frequent worldwide tours, including its last big visit to the United States, in 2012. Later that year, the company attracted global attention when its performances at the Edinburgh International Festival were repeatedly interrupted by protesters inside the theater, sparking debate in British cultural circles. No mid-performance interruptions took place on Wednesday night.

Audience members largely rushed past protesters on their way to the theater, though several paused to watch the dabke performances. Irene Mantel stopped to engage with the protesters, explaining her decision to attend the performance. “They’re not making a political statement,” she said of Batsheva. “I’m not a big fan of the current Israeli government, but they [Batsheva] may not be, either. I’m not going to be against everything that’s Israeli.”

Batsheva performers Shamel Pitts and Iyar Elezra (Photo by Stephanie Berger)

Inside, the crowd was abuzz with commentary and questions about the protests. “There are plenty of places you can go to demonstrate. And if you have feelings about it, fine, but this doesn’t make sense to me,” said Carole Debeer, who attended the performance with family members. “If they want to say something, I’ll listen to it, but this is not the venue for it.”

Batsheva artistic director Ohad Naharin, an internationally renowned choreographer, has often made statements against Israeli state policy. The company rejects the claim that receiving government funding correlates to an endorsement of policies, or makes them political representatives of the state. But protesters still demanded that the company speaks out.

“His [Naharin’s] personal opinion doesn’t matter,” said Hannah, another protester. “We don’t protest individuals, we protest institutions.”

She pointed out that the BDS movement does not object to the company receiving government support within Israel, only “when they travel around the world as global ambassadors for Israel.”

The Brooklyn Academy of Music declined to comment on the protests.

After its performances in New York conclude on Saturday, Batsheva continues its U.S. tour with performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (November 18-19), and in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (November 21).

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