Tricycle Theatre and the UKJFF – no quiet for quiet

Even from this one article I can think of several possible angles to take on the decision by the board of Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre not to host the UK Jewish Film Festival unless the organisers refused funding from the Israeli Embassy cultural department and accepted instead an equivalent amount from the theatre itself.

 The first is that the Tricycle acted very late. It had come under pressure last year, from a group which openly seeks an end to Israel’s existence, and you get the impression it craved a quiet life. Although the films of the UKJFF are famously open minded about Israel’s conflicts, Israel’s boycotters, seemingly always short of creative ideas or recreational outlets, have taken to wrecking anything that could conceivably be linked to Israel. So I’m guessing the Tricycle decided to jettison Israeli Embassy funding, create a bit of distance, buy itself some quiet. It doesn’t seem to have much zeal for boycotting Israel, but it did so anyway. If this speculation is right, then that is a milestone in the boycott campaign.

The second is that if the Tricycle were set on excluding Jews, I don’t think it would have offered to shell out from its own pocket. Linda Grant says “I’m happy to press war crimes charges against politicians and generals, but not punish ballerinas and actors because you can’t get at the powerful”. The Tricycle is not punishing Israeli film makers with exclusion – it is attempting to substitute for an Israeli Embassy funder. So I can’t see that there’s any antisemitic intent here. As for antisemitic effects, that’s another matter (update: Nick Cohen on the racist nature of discriminatory double standards). But it doesn’t have to be antisemitic to be plain wrong.

The third is that refusing Israeli funding is indeed a measure towards ‘neutrality’. But, reading the statement, the neutrality they seem to be referring to is between opposing British partisans, not between Israel and Hamas. Because if the Tricycle were to accept Israeli funds, there would be a tornado of rage from British anti-Israel activists which would bring a response in kind from the supporters of Israel, and there would be an almightly fight all over the festival, driving away the tender punters and draining the energies of the director and board.

Another is that the Tricycle cannot be neutral in the actual conflict by refusing to take Israeli Embassy money when Hamas has no intention of giving it money. The Israeli Embassy is not even in the same league as Hamas. We clearly need to revisit who Hamas are – even if you think that Israel’s strategy is ill-fated, Hamas are a self-declaredly implacable and legitimate enemy. Who will actually cheer the Tricycle’s decision? My prediction is Israel-eliminationists, pro-Hamas activists, Islamists, Arab nationalists and those who are combinations of each. You can judge a controversial action by what the people who like it stand for.

Another is that the ‘plague on both their houses’ approach of not “accepting funding from any party to the conflict” makes me ache for a Hamas that did actually want to fund the kind of arts which theatres like the Tricycle host. What a genuine bridge to understanding that could be. Then the Tricycle could fund both, and the supporters of each would flock to watch. As militant Islamists, I doubt Hamas likes artists because artists tend to be resolutely independent-minded. Israel, on the other hand, is a hothouse for critical films about Israel.

Another is that it’s a big development for boycotting Israel to be considered ‘neutrality’ when it has always been the acceptable front of a longstanding campaign to end Israel’s actual existence. Is the Tricycle’s decision a sign that the boycott is changing its identity to something more constructive? Perhaps but I am a long way from being convinced.

Another is that there is something penetrating about the equal treatment of Israel and Hamas, because it is a neat way to expose differences and inequalities. So when the BBC reports equally, it throws into relief the discrepancies between Gaza and Israel – the number of deaths, the affluence, or the amount of firepower, or the protections available to ordinary residents. When the Tricycle boycotts both Israel and Hamas, you realise that Hamas doesn’t like the arts at all although – as we now know – it has plenty of spare cash.

Another is that the Tricycle caused a self-boycott on the part of UKJFF, because its quest for a quiet life on the home front was interpreted by the Jewish organisers as a wedge to part Jews from the world’s only Jewish state. A few things about this. Though my knowledge about UK Jewry is slim, I know that it is normal for most Jews to have family ties to Israel – that’s the way the cookie crumbled for European Jews after the Holocaust. I also know that in countries where antisemitism is waxing – France, for example – Jews are more susceptible to come-hithers from Israel. I haven’t mentioned the (more positive) spiritual and emotional connection between Jews and Israel, but I understand it’s pretty strong. Under the circumstances, I doubt that attempts to pry apart Jews and Israel will have much success – although without these pressures I’m certain that Israel would come to feel more and more distinct. It is after all, its own place, and it has never given much support to Jews who live outside Israel. And for the moment it has an awful government. But for now, for many Jews, if even at the back of their mind, Israel is their insurance against a resurgence of expulsions, statelessness and physical attacks.

Another is that I hope I’ve exposed as a black joke Nicholas Hytner’s comment that it’s the UKJFF who, though they have always been funded by the Israeli Embassy “have unwisely politicised a celebration of Jewish culture”.

The UK Jewish Film Festival will take place, but keep an eye out for the new venues.

Update 9th August

It’s looking worse and worse for the Tricycle. Adam Wagner of 1 Crown Office Row barristers’ chambers examines has a UK Human Rights blogpost examining whether the Tricycle Theatre has broken the law. He draws attention to the Tricycle’s self-description as an organisation that “views the world through a variety of lenses, bringing unheard voices into the mainstream” (ringing hollow right now). he also sheds light on the tiny amount (should have realised it would be tiny if the Tricycle were offering to cover it) which was probably also a tiny proportion of the overall funding. Nick Cohen points out that the Israeli Embassy did not impose any conditions on the donation. He also points out that the money the Tricycle proposed to substitute for the Israeli money comes from the UK state, which has gone to war in Iraq with drastic loss of human life. The double standards on Israel are unjustifiable. We need to get to the bottom of why only Israel? It is not far-fetched to suppose that at the heart of this is latent unintentional bias against Jews.

Update 16th August

Despite 500 artistic signatories to a letter defending The Tricycle against allegations of antisemitism, the theatre decided to revoke the conditions on the UK Jewish Film Festival. This was a happy outcome, but one which for me was marred by worry that it didn’t represent any change of heart on the part of the Trike. On Twitter the campaign to boycott the theatre – including @TalOfer and @BoycottTricycle – was elated. They should be proud of a well-organised campaign, but they seemed to care more about touting the decision as their victory than celebrating it as an victory of anti-discrimination activism. Maybe they were right – other funders had begun to pull out of the Trike, so maybe it had no choice. In which case, the new decision is not enlightened but forced. Better forced than nothing, but I’m left with a feeling of disquiet and questions about the Trike’s motives. Could they have been persuaded, or was money and the most strident voices the only thing that talked? Are they still susceptible to this antisemitic variety of anti-Zionism which singles out Israel alone for special penalties? The anti-Zionists are livid and mystified, and determined to be the loudest voices and the biggest sticks. For its part the Tricycle’s and UKJFF’s joint statement did nothing to illuminate the situation, or really explain its take on reconciliation. It needed to be clearer about its principles in order for the decision not to be seen by the increasing number of people with antisemitic instincts as a capitulation to Jewish power. As Hope Not Hate’s Nick Lowles remarked on Twitter, “The Jewish film festival ban/un-ban by Tricycle Theatre” has been a disaster from beginning to end. I wonder if there is still space for reason, persuasion, empathy, and compassion.