David Grossman’s novel To the End of the Land tells the story of an Israeli mother’s journey after her son is summoned for military service. It’s a story about loss, love and the harsh realities of war written by a talented and subtle writer, a left-leaning critic of the Israeli government. Hanan Snir’s stage adaptation was presented at Lincoln Center and as a lefty Jewish American playwright I really wished I could see it. But I couldn’t. Because it was presented by Habima and Cameri, Israeli theatre companies that I have committed to boycott—whether or not I am interested in their work creatively or politically.
When I first heard the term cultural boycott I’m sure I bristled. As a playwright myself, how could I get behind boycotting cultural work? It sounds tantamount to silencing. It took me quite a while to really understand that this cultural boycott is not against individual artists. It is a boycott against complicit institutions. Israeli theatre companies Habima and Cameri have refused to take a stand against Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people, and have repeatedly performed in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. They are essentially extensions of the Israeli government, particularly when their international performances (like at Lincoln Center) are funded by Israel as part of the government's "Brand Israel" campaign. Boycotting them is a lot more like boycotting a government than boycotting an artist.
As I write this, Israel is allowing a power crisis in Gaza, leaving the strip with nearly no electricity. In stifling heat, Gazans can’t use fans or air-conditioners, can’t refrigerate food or use a computer to get work done for more than a few hours a day. Already Gazans can’t leave the Strip without a rare permit that lets them pass through a checkpoint. A few days ago a playwright friend in Gaza posted the lyrics from the song “Youth” by Daughter on Facebook: "And if you're still breathing, you're the lucky ones. 'Cause most of us are heaving through corrupted lungs." While the Israeli National Theatre performed this subtle play about war by an Israeli artist at Lincoln Center, many Gazans were struggling to eat, sleep, and breathe. New York audiences may have walked away thinking that the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” is complex and heartbreaking for both sides and has gone on for so long, so what could they possibly do about it?
This whitewashing of Israel’s ongoing human rights abuses is intentional. Brand Israel was created to clean up Israel’s image, to hide the decades of human rights abuses and violations of international law that have accompanied seventy years of occupation with state-of-the-art culture. As a theatremaker, I can’t let our art form be used that way. Our work is to expose and call attention to violence and inequality in the world, not obscure it. I feel disappointed that a talented artist’s powerful work is being co-opted.
Before I was fully on board with cultural boycott I wondered, why penalize Israel specifically? Why not any other country guilty of human rights abuses? Isn’t it anti-Semitic to target Israel? Now I understand that there was an organized call for a boycott from over 170 Palestinian unions, political parties, refugee networks, women’s organizations, professional associations, popular resistance committees, and other Palestinian civil society bodies. How many other actions I take are as clearly well-organized by people most directly affected? What an incredible feat to get so many different groups to agree to this powerful non-violent strategy. It is rare that I am presented with a strategic role a writer can play in a movement for justice.
I think about what would happen if I was employed as a playwright for the United States government. What if my work was funded by Trump’s administration and consciously used to “brand America” as culturally forward while Trump’s policies decimated our healthcare and deported people by the thousands? I sure hope the international community would boycott that theatre company.
Editor's note: This piece originally stated that Israel was "shutting down Gaza's last power plant." It was changed to what you see above on August 2, 2017 at the author's request, based on information provided in the comments.