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It is Long Past Time for American Theatres to Boycott Israel

This year, I spent my twenty-fourth birthday glued to my phone watching the numbers of Palestinians murdered by Israeli bombs increase. I felt sick. I felt helpless. I felt full of immeasurable rage and grief. This is the same way I spent my birthday in 2018, watching the numbers of Palestinians killed by Israeli bullets increase during the Great March of Return, a peaceful protest demanding the internationally recognized right of return for Palestinians made refugees during the Nakba. These moments of publicized and escalated violence bleed into moments of “calm,” which in practice simply means a return to the daily violence, humiliation, murder, incarceration, and displacement that structure the everyday lives of Palestinians. As Palestinians and Indigenous communities around the world remind us, colonization does not ever stop. It is a continuous evolving process of racialized violence and displacement, from Palestine to Turtle Island.

I am a Palestinian-American theatre worker and a performance artist. I have deep and abiding relationships to theatre communities across the United States. While I watched Israel slaughter Palestinians this past May and feared for my family in Palestine, I was engulfed in a thunderous silence on the part of the American theatre. Theatres that have happily programmed and produced plays about Palestinians (sometimes even written by us), including theatres I have relationships with, said nothing and did nothing. Theatres that have proclaimed commitments to social justice, abolition, and the needs of their communities paid no attention to the decades-long work of Black activists, writers, and thinkers who have been connecting struggles against racialized violence in the United States to struggles against racialized violence in Palestine, among them Angela Davis, Fred Moten, Robin D. G. Kelley, and Malcom X.

A commitment to understanding that theatres, as cultural institutions, have a responsibility to justice should not stop at the borders of the United States. Indeed, Palestinian theatremakers and culture workers have continuously attempted to remind us that theatre is a global ecosystem, which depends upon transnational collaborations and exchanges of knowledge. In 2014, after another horrific and ruthless bombing campaign against Gaza—the largest open-air prison in the world—the Palestinian Performing Arts Network (PPAN, which includes theatre companies and artists who have partnered or collaborated with a number of prominent American theatres) issued a call asking the global theatre community to boycott Israel. It was ignored.

In May of this year, the day after a ceasefire was announced between Israel and Hamas (which, it should be noted, Israel promptly broke by assaulting and arresting Palestinians attending Al-Aqsa Mosque), the PPAN reiterated their call for global participation in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for global communities to boycott Israeli goods, divest from Israeli funding, and pressure their governments to impose sanctions on Israel until it recognizes Palestinian human rights and dismantles its apartheid structures. This call was shared in a rapid-response roundtable put together by Theatre Communications Group and the MENA Theater Makers Alliance (neither of which have endorsed BDS). It remains to be seen if any American theatres will heed this call. I doubt it. Instead, the cycle will continue: Palestinian artists and culture workers will be consistently ignored until they are actively being bombarded and attacked, at which point they will be given a platform, call for BDS, be thanked for their time, and then ignored again. The American theatre must reckon with its responsibilities to our global colleagues with sustained, genuine, and direct actions.

How do we do that? Three years ago, in the wake of the Great March, Cambridge’s Theatre Survey published the article “BDS and Palestinian Theatre Making: A Call for Debate within the Discipline of Theatre and Performance Studies,” authored by Rayya El Zein, Irene Fernández Ramos, George Potter, and Gabriel Varghese. The piece joins a miniscule handful of articles raising the question of BDS in regards to the global theatre community (another being MJ Kaufman’s thoughtful and brief “Why Boycott a Play?”). Yet, by and large, BDS remains a movement for transnational solidarity and social justice that American theatres have roundly and totally ignored.

A man holding an Israeli flag with the words "Boycott, Divest, Sanction" on each of the three stripes. The 'v' in "Divest" goes right over the Star of David.

Israel - Boycott, divest, sanction” by John Englart (Takver).

While the piece in Theatre Survey is admirably clear and thoughtful, it remains a “call for debate.” Other pieces that tentatively argue American theatres perhaps have some responsibility to consider the ways in which they have demonized, erased, and tacitly supported the genocide of Palestinians through rhetoric, finance, and silence still avoid taking any direct position, preferring instead to encourage more dialogue. During the May bombing campaign, Israel slaughtered entire families in Gaza on purpose. Dialogue is not enough. It has never been enough. As Palestinians wait for the next bomb to drop, it is long past time for the American theatre to shed its cowardice, embrace its role as a member of the global artistic community, listen to Palestinian artists and colleagues, and collectively and immediately commit to BDS.

The American theatre must reckon with its responsibilities to our global colleagues with sustained, genuine, and direct actions.

Theatre’s Role in the Movement

Institutions that want to actualize their convenient lip service to social justice and the ethical production of theatre must begin participating in a cultural boycott. As BDS advocates continue to point out, the call for boycott is grounded in specific material realities and relationships informing cultural production for both Israelis and Palestinians. Culture is a key component in Israel’s settler-colonial project; Israel’s government officials have said as much, admitting: “We are seeing culture as a hasbara [propaganda] tool of the first rank, and … do not differentiate between hasbara and culture.” As the BDS guidelines for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel further explain,

Israeli cultural institutions (including performing art companies, music groups, film organizations, writers’ unions and festivals) have cast their lot with the hegemonic Zionist establishment in Israel, and notwithstanding the efforts of a handful of principled individual artists, writers and filmmakers, these institutions are clearly implicated in supporting, justifying and whitewashing Israel’s occupation and systematic denial of Palestinian rights.

Artists of color in the United States and abroad have long insisted on the necessity of understanding the intertwined relationships between sociopolitical circumstances and the art they produce; artists can and should understand that the consumption of art is not a neutral act, that it continues to have material consequences. Beyond the simplistic frame of “legitimizing” the apartheid state of Israel, consuming and supporting cultural productions from Israeli institutions that have refused to actively separate themselves from the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Palestinians has material impacts on Palestinian lives. While a settler-colonial power dynamic exists between Israel and Palestine, engaging with art produced by Israelis or Palestinians has specific relationships to that dynamic and it is foolish and naïve to pretend otherwise. “In other words,” El Zein et al. clarify,

it is politically problematic to collaborate with Israeli academic and arts organizations as long as these institutions remain complicit with the structures that restrict Palestinian access to artistic expression, education, and self-determination. Elaborations of multiculturalism, tolerance, and exchange ring hollow in rooms that our Palestinian colleagues are not allowed to enter.

A Palestinian flag that says, "End Israeli Apartheid! Free Palestine. Boycott-Divest-Sanction. NorCalSocialism.org/SocialistWorker.org."

"IMG_9837" by Alex Chis.

The Parameters of a Boycott

What does a cultural boycott entail? The BDS movement has outlined clear, concise, and actionable guidelines for what the boycott includes:

  • Israeli cultural institutions, which are often “complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights”;
  • cultural products if they are “commissioned by an official Israeli body or non-Israeli institution that serves Brand Israel”;
  • a cultural event or activity if they are “partially or fully sponsored by an official Israeli body or complicit institution”;
  • normalization projects, which are “cultural activities, projects, events, and products involving Palestinians and/or other Arabs on one side and Israelis on the other” that, among other things, “assume that both colonizers and colonized are equally responsible for the ‘conflict’”; and
  • fact-finding missions and study tours that “receive funding for Israel, its complicit institutions, or its international lobby groups.”

Applying these guidelines to theatre, a public and formal commitment to BDS on the part of American theatres means, at a minimum:

  • publicly supporting Palestinian rights and condemning Israel’s ongoing, daily colonial violence;
  • boycotting any event, conference, play, festival, or opportunity that involves or is sponsored by the Israeli state and its cultural arms—including Israeli cultural institutions, which have refused to disavow the occupation and vocally support Palestinian lives—and pressuring any venues or organizations with which theatres partner to do the same;
  • divesting from any funding that comes from the Israeli state, Israeli cultural institutions complicit with the human rights violation of the Israeli state, or companies that profit from the colonization of Palestinian land; and
  • publicly pressuring American governments to sanction Israel until it stops flagrantly violating human rights.

Following these guidelines should be easy for American theatres. Unlike other American fields such as tech or finance, whose connections to Israeli companies and economies are more entrenched, it shouldn’t take much work for theatre companies to institutionally commit to not funding or supporting apartheid. The only significant barrier to this material act of solidarity is the network of draconian laws in thirty-five United States states that criminalize or otherwise make difficult endorsing BDS to varying degrees. (Palestine Legal offers resources on how to navigate and oppose these laws, which are clear violations of free speech policies enshrined in the United States constitution.)

I do not want to restate the reasons for a boycott or their moral and ethical justifications. That has been done eloquently and clearly by Palestinian artists in the sixteen years since Palestinian civil society first called for a global BDS movement. Instead, I want to make clear the stakes: if American theatres continue to remain apathetic, silent, and complicit, as more and more of the public gains the analytical tools to understand Israel’s settler-colonial violence, then they should be censured, opposed, and understood as spaces that are not safe for Palestinians and other marginalized artists. These are actionable, clear demands intended to address a clear situation that Israel and its allies strenuously attempt to frame as “complicated”: the continuing structures of ethnic cleansing and oppression on which the state of Israel is built.

If American theatres continue to remain apathetic, silent, and complicit, as more and more of the public gains the analytical tools to understand Israel’s settler-colonial violence, then they should be censured, opposed, and understood as spaces that are not safe for Palestinians and other marginalized artists.

Future Freedoms

Theatre Survey’s article on BDS includes a particularly cogent response to a common argument against BDS:

It has been argued that a cultural and academic boycott is not an appropriate response to the conditions in Palestine. This argument is inclined to insist that it is better to build bridges and create dialogue. Critically, this reasoning assumes a shared ability to cross bridges. It does not acknowledge that there is a checkpoint on one side and not on the other.

What has become clear in the aftermath of the May 2021 “ceasefire” and a month of massive protests in solidarity with Palestinians is that the status quo cannot remain. It is time to actively, materially, and intentionally build and wield power towards the liberation of oppressed people wherever and however it is possible. Palestinians are telling us that the way to do this is not more dialogue, nor is it more plays by or about Palestinians, nor is it including more Palestinians on staff, nor is it more empty statements. The way to do this is to endorse and comply with the demands of BDS.

While theatres remain silent on the issue of Palestinian rights, the world does not. The tide is turning. Popular support for Palestinians’ fight against genocide has seen massive growth in the last year, due in large part (as Palestinian activists remind us) to the work of Black activists in the United States and elsewhere fighting for dignity and liberation. Their work has pointedly forced institutions to use accurate language to describe the racialized violence integral to every aspect of the United States and has consistently made transnational connections to liberation movements across the world, from Colombia to Nigeria to Palestine. In May, huge masses of people across the world organized and attended demonstrations and protests in solidarity with Palestinians. Hundreds of artists have publicly joined the call to end apartheid. This momentum can lead to real, tangible change—if we refuse to let it dissipate.

BDS is a simple ask: if you agree that apartheid, ethnic cleansing, economic and environmental racism, displacement, racist structures of incarceration, and daily murder are unacceptable, then do not fund them. It is up to theatres to decide whether they will do the work of addressing their complicity as American institutions or continue to stay silent and ignore the pleas of their colleagues in Palestine, as they have done for sixteen years. There are innumerable ways that institutions will attempt to squirm out of this truth, innumerable cowardly arguments that will be made to try and complicate this issue and narrate it in a way that removes American responsibility. To make this as clear as possible: if American theatres do not commit to a cultural boycott, they are abandoning their Palestinian colleagues to genocide. That is the situation; those are the stakes.

PPAN ends their 2014 call for solidarity by reminding us: “Together, we can turn hopelessness into determination and the forces of division into unity. It is within our power.”

The time is now. Palestinians are moving us every day towards a freer, more just, more creative world. Come with us or be left behind.

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First of all I want to acknowledge the deep thought that was put into this piece by Mr. Fargo Tbakhi, which puts forth reasoning to protest the Israel Palestine situation through a cultural boycott of Israel. There is a lot in his piece which references a very complex situation, and I ask that all who care about this to learn more from those who are on the various "sides" of the conflict.

But what I believe needs to be stated is that as long as the Palestinians do not accept the legitimacy of Israel as a country that has the right to protect and defend itself then the conversation will be fraught. Now some would say that Hamas has the right to incite a war against Israel due to the ways Israel tries to control a volatile situation on the Temple Mount, which is also the site of the Al Aksa Mosque that was built by Muslim colonizers on the original site of the Jewish Temple ruins during the Jewish diaspora, the centuries when Jews were exiled from their holy lands by foreign conquerors.

This is just one example of the limited perspective of Mr. Tbakhi's argument. Jews lived in forced exile (with the exception of small communities precariously remaining in Israel) from ancient Roman times through dispersal throughout the Christian and Islamic world. At the end of the Holocaust more than one third of world Jews had died. Refugees and displaced persons had no home to return to, save the land then known as Palestine, a British protectorate. In retaliation for the establishment of Israel, Jews were expelled from the Islamic world - 800,000 Jews had their property and lands appropriated, and the only country that would take them in was Israel in its role as a Jewish homeland. Currently more than half of Israel's Jewish population is people of color from Iran, Iraq, India, Egypt, Syria, and even Ethiopia.

Did Israel appropriate Palestinian property, as well as being on land that was Jewish owned - gojng back for centuries in some cases? Yes. Were there massacres on both sides? Yes. Should there be reparations and a fair settling of what happened when Israel was formed, just as other nations have done when they had to come to land agreements in determining a nation? Yes.

I agree with Mr. Tbakhi that Israel's surge in nationalistic ideologies give too much license for settlements on the West Bank and in the Occupied Territories. I will stand with anyone who wants to challenge them. But do not erase the Jewish people and the right they have to their homeland as a Jewish people that they have continued to live in (though not under their control until 1948) for over two thousand years, and from which the majority have also been in exile.

Amos Oz, the great writer and peace activist, said that the story of Israel and Palestine is a story where both peoples are right and both peoples narratives cancel out the other. Promoting cultural boycotts and slinging phrases like "apartheid", which doesn't really apply to life in Israel proper, shuts down the needed conversation. We have to hear each other's stories; and theatre is an effective means to create a conversation and to explore multiple viewpoints in one shared experience.

As anti-semitism and Islamophobia rise in the world today, we must join together and accept each other's narratives no matter how uncomfortable they make us feel. Boycotts are the ABSOLUTE WRONG ANSWER. If theatre is supposed to promote empathy and stimulate critical thinking then as theatremakers we must join together and tell our stories, difficult though they may be, from multiple perspectives. How else can we accept each other and acknowledge with our hearts, that the other is not the same as me, but they are also made in the likeness of God?

It is my understanding that any piece of theatre made for an audience is political even if it refuses to address political issues because in that case, it is (perhaps unknowingly or naively) upholding the status quo which is - at this point in time in the US imho - unbearable in many ways and must be changed. I think the Lincoln Center offerings might be opportunities for political action. As artists and activists we could come together to write an open letter to theatres programming Israeli work or consider rallies or social media responses to make people aware of what's going on.

As allies of human expressions and common liberties, we are thinking of you to communicate our grave worry that Lincoln Center will have Israel's Ha'bima National Theater and the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv and export also over according to eWorldtrade their shipping services is banned

Before we can address the content of the request, the simple question that needs consideration: Should art (theatre), be a tool for politics? Without a doubt, political views can be a subject or message of any art piece. It is the passions of people that drive political action, and what better expression of passion than art. Yet, if the political will is the point, the value of individuals is lost in the presentation. And without the individual as perspective, we are mere props.

In every age, in every era, though all recorded time since the development of dramatic structure, the two essential powers of society have sought to tame theatre to its' purpose. Both Government and Religion see theatre as a means of touching the hearts and souls of humanity. But it has been the tenacity of resistance that has sustained theatre as a relevant voice despite who may or may not be in power. We, in theatre, are the bridge between cultures and conflicts—a metaphorical Switzerland. While patronage has influenced the portrayal of events and people, it is the playwright's voice and then the director that carries the message.

Mr. Tbakhi goes on to identify as a Palestinian-American theatre worker. He then goes on to say that, "Theatres that have happily programmed and produced plays about Palestinians (sometimes even written by us), including theatres I have relationships with, said nothing and did nothing." (to respond to the war between Israel and Hamas.) Is not the providing the programing and producing plays about Palestinians doing something? Is not giving voice to the oppressed not a vital sign of commitment?

In full disclosure, I am an American Jew that was born in Eastern Europe. It would be unrealistic to respond to this essay without that divulgence. However, I stand in opposition to the persecution and imprisonment of Palestinians in their land. I cry at the absurdity of Israel, a nation formed as a response to Genocide, to then spend 73 years drawing a clear distinction amongst its' Citizenry due to heritage and religious differences.

As a life-long theatre artist, I claim theatre to be the sublime art form (inclusive of all other arts.); however, I do not support an artistic boycott of art, neither of Israeli or Palestinian Peoples. I do not support the boycotting of any art, from anywhere to anywhere. It is the infinite variety of an individual's relationships within the society they live. While audiences generally identify with an individual in any production, their very presence represents the culture in question. Every show is a comment on the human experience.

In my life, I've seen many productions speak to the effects of the Israeli occupation. These plays have raised my understanding of the personal costs and personal challenges due to this persecution has grown. However, I would be far more supportive of providing funding to see Pro-Palestinian productions presented to Israeli audiences than denying the expressions of any theatre to Israel's peoples. I would also encourage the presentation of shows in the occupied territories and throughout the world of plays that reflect Israelis' costs and experiences.

The stories of us bring us to stop proclaiming; I and my causes are the only paths. That is propaganda. That is an effort to sway mobs to overcome their ethical standards. It's a call to cast aside values for the sake of beliefs.

Mr. Tbakhi makes a reasoned, passionate call for support. By going on and saying that if you don't do as I see proper, then you have not learned the lessons of your own experiences is approaching pandering. There is no question that this 73-year-old conflict is an existential crisis to the Palestinian people. There is no argument that political will and pressure must come to bear if there is a solution to be found. But what is dismissed, not even mentioned, is the conflict is also an existential threat to Israelis.

Support and development of cultural stability are essential for the tranquility of any society. I'm just not sure that boycotting Israel, on a cultural level, will provide and relief but will most certainly heat the already too hot a conflict.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Tbakhi's excellent essay is bold and timely as it accurately reflects the ambivalence of American theatre makers to seriously take on this issue, including the refusal to produce plays in which Palestinian perspectives are at the center of dramatic discourse. Boycotts, often an individual decision, are a time-honored method to bring issues into the public sphere and it is important to point out that neither the cultural nor educational institutions in Israel are in any way neutral regarding state-sponsored oppression in the West Bank in particular. Despite some progress in recent years, American institutions will not participate in this call for multiple reasons including fear, donor relations and funding, and the personal inclinations of many institutional leaders. Even when institutional leaders might be inclined to support such a call, a lack of courage persists. Until more American theatre makers educate themselves and actually travel the road that Palestinian theatre artists walk, they will not understand the depth of oppression that occurs on a daily basis, the deliberate splintering of Palestinian land and culture, and the absurdity of any discussion regarding a two-state solution. A personal boycott is simply a declaration that one will not work with the oppressor: something we hear a great deal in this country on other matters.

Thank you Fargo Tbakhi! A thousand blessings and many hugs for your brilliant essay. I have been completely stymied in my attempts to get American Theatre to consider any sort of theatre about Palestinians. I documented human rights abuses in Palestine during the first Intifada and wrote a play about it (now a period piece set in 1993) specifically as a Jewish (non-Zionist) American. Abraham's Daughters is about Jewish Americans and Palestinian Muslims - you can hear it at TheParsnipShip.com with beautiful incidental music by Aya Aziz - and still no one will produce it. American theatres - I have been told by a well-known artistic director - have no intention of touching this play of mine because it would disturb their subscriber base. I think theatre should do exactly that! #FreePalestine #BoycottRacism #BDS

You’d be better off working to reform Israel’s politics and to support a culture and government recommitted to a fair two state solution. This boycott, unlikely to ever gain real support in any event, will only punish the Israel’s creative artists and it targets the best of Israeli culture. It’s also wildly hypocritical to ask an industry that collaborates frequently with a hegemonic dictatorship like China to target Israel.

Any chance at reforming Israel politics towards the Palestinian people was silenced by means of the politically motivated assassination of the Israeli premiere Yitzhak Rabin, where inside forces were at work all to clearly... there and then the two-state solution died a brutal death. Maybe you should start with that ...if not from there.