Vanessa Redgrave won’t stand for the anti-Israel boycott

It’s been a while, and it’s my third post of the day (work avoidance) but it’s worth restating the above.

Of course Egypt’s culture minister Hosny Farouk, who offered to burn Israeli books in Egyptian libraries, was not a fit candidate for UNESCO’s Head of Culture. Of course he wasn’t. And if, when he blamed ‘Zionists’ for his defeat, by ‘Zionist’ Farouk means ‘people who think that Israel should exist’, then he is correct. The vast majority of people are Zionists, and UNESCO is no different.

Even avowed anti-Zionists smell a rat about this boycott. Oscar winner Vanessa Redgrave, former Workers Revolutionary Party member of sufficient radical cachet to feature in Redemption, Tariq Ali’s masterpiece satire on Trotskyites (or to be precise, Trotskyite men), is one. She has a long-term concern – backed by hard cash – for the Palestinian people (she funded two films about the PLO; in The Palestinians, she danced with a PLO gun). She is familiar with the practice of using cultural events for political ends. She is violently averse to Zionism. In short, she is no friend of Israel – but at the same time she has long said that she pledged “to fight anti-Semitism and fascism for the rest of my life”. Of course, everybody who hates Israel uses their solicitude for Jews as the pretext, but her letter of opposition to the boycott co-authored for the New York Review of Books lends her pledge some credence. At the heart of the letter:

“In their letter the protesters say that “Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages.” True. Just as much of America is built on obliterated Indian property. Are they implying that Tel Aviv should not exist? At least not in its present form? Which would mean that the State of Israel (the original State of Israel, not including the occupied territories) should not exist. Thousands of Palestinians have died through the years because the Israeli government, military, and part of the population fervently believe that the Arab states and, indeed, much of the world do not want Israel to exist. How then are we halting this never-ending cycle of violence by promoting the very fears that cause it?

The injustice and cruelty inflicted upon the Palestinians over decades are immense. Many great powers, most notably the Soviet Union and Great Britain, have collaborated in this injustice, just as, if only by their silence, they played havoc with the lives of Jews during the Third Reich and the ensuing Holocaust.

Many Israelis are aware of this history. Many citizens of Tel Aviv are particularly cognizant of the situation of the Palestinians and are concerned about their government’s policies and their country’s future. And none more so than the Tel Aviv creative community. This is exemplified by Israeli films that criticize their government’s behavior, and some startling Israeli theater pieces, such as the Cameri Theatre’s Plonter, seen earlier this year in London. The Israeli peace bloc, Gush Shalom, and many Israeli human rights groups and advocates are based in Tel Aviv. Some 10,000 Israeli citizens demonstrated in Tel Aviv against the military attack on Gaza in January this year, a fact not reported by the BBC World News or CNN.

These citizens of Tel Aviv and their organizations and their cultural outlets should be applauded and encouraged. Their presence and their continued activity is reason alone to celebrate their city. Cultural exchanges almost always involve government channels. This occurs in every country. There is no way around it. We do not agree that this involvement is a reason to shun or protest, picket or boycott, or ban people who are expressing thoughts and confronting grief that, ironically, many of the protesters share.

If attitudes are hardened on both sides, if those who are fighting within their own communities for peace are insulted, where then is the hope? The point finally is not to grandstand but to inch toward a two-state solution and a world in which both nations can exist, perhaps not lovingly, but at least in peace.”

This is a letter which pits boycott campaigners against the interests of the progressives and peace makers, and which reminds them about the role of fear in the conflict. Most prominently it is a letter which will not tolerate the singularity and double standards of the boycott campaign. The letter itself is simply common sense. What I take from the fact that somebody with Vanessa Redgrave’s views has written it, is confirmation of something I already know: that even passionate supporters of the Palestinian struggle understand that sometimes to stand against antisemitism you have to stand for Israel – even if you have to hold your nose because you detest Israel’s government. And this attempt to exclude Israel from the world’s cultural life seems to me to be a time like that.

Hence this letter. Redgrave’s co-authors were Julian Schnabel, director of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, whose on-location film about Hind Husseini, a Palestinian woman who rescued children orphaned by Israelis at Deir Yassin during Israel’s war of independence in 1948, titled Miral, will preview soon, and Martin Sherman, best known for his film Bent, about the treatment of homosexuals by the Nazis.

But I think that Israel has its reflective dramatists to thank for this show of solidarity. If anybody asks themselves “Who are we hindering by boycott, who are we helping by not boycotting”, it’s them. The trio of Israeli war films about Lebanon, Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort, Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, and Samuel Maoz’s and Maoz Shulmik’s Lebanon.  Yael Ronen’s Plonter. Keren Yedaya’s Jaffa. And I don’t think it’s relevant if, say, Haim Tabakman’s Eyes Wide Open, Tali Shalom Ezer’s Surrogate or Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit aren’t examining Israel’s conflicts or Israel’s occupation – by no stretch could these be called escapist films. They are provoking, deft and insightful. Their loss would be our loss. And anyway, why shouldn’t Israelis get to make, watch and show escapist films?

I have colleagues who are calling for the exclusion of Israel – and only Israel – from the worlds academic and cultural life. I hope this makes them think. I hope Ken Loach, the Israel boycotter whom nobody wants to censor any more, may one day come to realise how badly he is mistaken


2 thoughts on “Vanessa Redgrave won’t stand for the anti-Israel boycott

  1. I think you are being far too charitable to Redgrave, she’s an ideologue and can’t even be troubled to get the history of Tel Aviv correct.

    But then again perhaps she regrets her past? Who knows?

    • Hi Mod, or maybe she just thinks the boycott is wrong, which she’d be right to think. Reading the responses round the web, it seems that she has a lot of ill-will from people who’d have praised the sentiments in that letter if they’d have come from anybody else. It doesn’t interfere with my world view to think of her as right in this instance – it’s very rare for people to be always right or always wrong.

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