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.
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.
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.
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.