Legitimizing an Obstacle to Peace

I have often spoken out in opposition to cultural boycotts... but in the political arena, artists make a statement by their presence or their absence.

Theodore Bikel
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Theodore Bikel

I feel compelled to speak out on the controversy surrounding the Israeli artists who have announced their refusal to perform in the territories. For the record, my career as a performer has spanned 68 years. In my 20s, I was a cofounder of the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv (of that group, I am the last one alive). I have resided in America since 1954, and as a concert artist I frequently work in the field of Jewish culture, performing in the languages of our people Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino and even in English, the language spoken by the largest Jewish community in the world.

As president of the Associated Actors & Artistes of America (the umbrella union covering performers in the United States), I have often spoken out in opposition to cultural boycotts. I have argued that art opens minds and builds bridges, even when carried into the very heart of enemy territory perhaps especially then. But life, as we know it, often defies simple formulas. In the political arena, artists make a statement by their presence or their absence.

Pablo Casals, the world-famous cellist, who chose life-long exile from his native Spain because of the fascist dictator who ruled the beloved country of his birth, said this: My cello is my weapon; I choose where I play, when I play, and before whom I play.

My own choices have often been dictated by similar sentiments. For many years, when apartheid was the law of the land there, I refused official invitations and lucrative offers to perform in South Africa. Indeed, I have always refused to appear in halls that were racially segregated, whether in America or elsewhere in the world. More than two years ago, I refused an invitation by the mayor of Ariel to appear at the opening of the very same cultural facility then under construction and now at the center of the controversy.

There are weighty reasons why I find myself in full support of the artists refusal to perform in the territories. And it should be noted that I am not alone in supporting the courageous stand of our Israeli colleagues. There is a growing list of over 150 prominent artists and arts leaders from the U.S. who have expressed similar concerns to mine.

The cause celebre regarding the new performance facility in Ariel has given rise to statements from the leaders of that community as well as from Prime Minister Netanyahu and the culture minister, Limor Livnat. While the latter asserts that political disputes should be left outside cultural life and art, both the prime minister and the settlers council make it clear that the matter is not about art at all, but about what they call an attack on Israel from within.

The declaration of conscience signed by prominent Israeli artists among them recipients of the Israel Prize, the highest cultural accolade given by the state is characterized as emanating from anti-Zionist leftists and is described by the prime minister as being part of an international movement of delegitimization.

Clearly, anything that is connected to the settlers or to the settlements presence beyond the Green Line is political. And, if the refusal of the artists to perform in the territories is tantamount to delegitimization, it follows that any agreement to perform there would amount to legitimizing what many of us (in and outside of Israel) believe to be the single most glaring obstacle to peace.

Theodore Bikel is a Tony- and Oscar-nominated actor and musician.

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