Why Boycott a Play

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.

Our work is to expose and call attention to violence and inequality in the world, not obscure it.

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.

protest
Protestors outside of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in 2012, when Habima performed The Merchant of Venice. Photo by Kim Bullimore.

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. 

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MJ Kaufman, kudos not only for the article, but for your steadfast patience with opposing comments, notably in your diplomatic refrain, "I'm sorry if my article wasn't clear.." --though I hope you know that the prose was indeed clear.

Blaming Israel for the electricity crisis is silly. They have little to no control over the PA. PA is having funding issues and Hamas takes all that tax money and puts it toward weapons. They should have put it into infrastructure. The best way to handle this is let Dahlan take over with the UAE, expand Gaza into the Sinai, create a Palestine there. OR Jordan gives up territory to PA, West Bank expands with that new territory and Palestine becomes guardians of the mosque but allows Israelis on to the grounds and allows them to pray to - freedom of religion at a shared holy space, and Egypt takes back Gaza. So a 2 or 3 state option. The 2 state may be better because Jordan population is 75%-80% Palestinian and Jordan plus Egypt both lost West Bank and Gaza in 1967 to Israel. Otherwise, 3 state option isn't a bad idea and Dahlan is liked by everyone and should be able to keep Hamas, and other 8+ terrorist groups in Gaza, military branches in check thanks to Egypt and GCC military support. Those are realistically the options. BDS isn't working and ever since BDS has been used, since 2005, Israel keeps making money. They have a superior military, advantage when it comes to medicine, education, technology and last but not least everyone knows why the wall was put in place and that was to stop terrorist attacks. BDS is only making those that boycott Israel look bad because in every phone and computer they use, majority of countries, are chips made in Israel. Also, you can't take a genetic pharmaceutical drug without it coming from the #1 pharmaceutical drug manufacturer in the world, Teva, and Israeli company. I doubt you want to pay non generic. That's waaaaaaay too much money - Af

Thank you, MJ. I think this is a valuable account of one artist's reasoned decisionto join a boycott of a particular cultural product with nationalist andblatantly racist institutional affiliations. I can understand the outcry overTo The End of The Land at Lincoln Center by American theater artists concernedwith the lives and rights of Palestinians, and I understand the reasons for thespecific boycott of this piece of theater related to its governmentsponsorship.

But all the activist energy theater makers have expended on To The End of TheLand, which had a 4 day New York run, leaves me thinking anew about the lack ofconversation I have encountered regarding the reverberations and ramificationsof Oslo, a play that similarly sends New York audiences home “thinking that the‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ is complex and heartbreaking for both sides, sowhat could they possibly do?" Oslo ran for far longer than 4 days andrepresented a far larger commitment of Lincoln Center’s vast resources. Assuch, its relationship to present reality in Israel and aspirant Palestine, andmore importantly in its own cultural context, the Upper West Side of Manhattan—perhapsthe only place in the world where veneration of the two-state solution stillgenerates hopefulness—is worth talking about. I don’t mean to vilify LC forpresenting Oslo, and for the record I enjoyed the play. I was just disappointedby the critical discourse surrounding it. And I also believe in expanding as much as possible the views, vantages and experiences presented by major institutions. Thinking broadly aboutinstitutional imperatives, it seems to me a valuable marshaling of the activistenergy instigated by LC's presentation of To The End of The Land —especiallyfrom those more prominent individual signatories of the Adalah-NY boycottletter who Lincoln Center might actually produce in the coming years— would betowards exerting pressure on institutions like LC to ALSO produce theater thattakes as its primary subject Palestinian lives, whether in the Palestinianterritories, in Israel, or in diaspora, independent of Israeli Jewish lives.

Just curious if you think boycotts of cultural work should extend to all organizations that receive funding from governments or corporations. Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center, for example.

Hey Lynn,

Thanks for this comment and I'm sorry if it wasn't clear from my article. The call for cultural boycott is actually not about funding primarily, but rather about complicit institutions. So it isn't about Habima and Cameri's funding, rather their complicity with the occupation and repeated decisions to perform in the settlements. Israeli theater companies that received government funding for the creation of a play but condemn the occupation are not boycottable and actually Lincoln Center presented another Israeli play this summer that we did not boycott: http://www.lincolncenter.or....

A personal story: In the summer of 1982, Traveling Jewish Theatre, the company I co-founded, was on its first international tour. Our last stop was to be Tel Aviv, for a festival of Jewish theatre at the U. of T-A. While in Copenhagen, news of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon broke. We were appalled. We started hearing that some European theatre companies who had been invited to the festival in Tel-Aviv were canceling their appearances in protest against the invasion. As "lefty" Jewish Americans we felt conflicted and spent many hours arguing and reflecting on what our choice should be. We eventually decided to go in order to support the festival organizers who were all dedicated opponents of the occupation and the invasion of Lebanon. We went. The complicated response to our work from Israeli audiences is a whole other story. Israeli-Diaspora relations were getting more and more difficult. But the highlight of our time in T-A was participating in what turned out to be the largest anti-occupation, anti-invasion, pro-peace demonstration that had ever been held in Israel up to that time. I do not regret our choice.

Hey thanks for sharing this story, it sounds like a very powerful experience! Brand Israel wasn't actually launched until 2006 so at the time there wasn't an organized call for a cultural boycott. I feel that one of the strengths of this movement is how it provides an opportunity for me as a Jew in diaspora to organize with lefty Israelis and Palestinians.

Corey as someone who was at the demonstration and not just as a visitor i think you are missing a bit the context of the events, the operation in Lebanon came after constant attacks by the PLO and the assassination attempt on the Israel ambassador in London - the demonstration was against the Army proceeding further than the mandate given to them, and also in shock from the christian militia murder in sabra & shatila which was as response to the murder of President Bachir Gemayel the christian head of government. There was outrage that the action of the angered christian militia was not anticipated and thus prevented. Israeli-Diaspora relation gotten more difficult because the left in Israel which lives in the reality where extremism in the arab world is around every corner works to build bridges despite a small but very vocal counterproductive hard left which also supports BDS and from which you have people who have been reporting Palestinians that sell their properties to jews to the Palestinian authority that reserves up to life sentence and torture for them as well as watching up to make lists of Palestinians working in west bank Jewish business and hand those lists over the the Palestinian authority for punishment - it is interesting that the supporters of boycott do not have a problem with all of those issues nor that their stance which rather than support dialogue and engagement only serves to further alienation

I appreciate the last two lines of this article...and in some ways I think that those lines undermine your argument. Take, for example, the school that you attend. Yale University is funded, in part, by Federal dollars - anything that is produced there is already part of Trump's America and is (or will be) used to promote America worldwide. This is especially true regarding scientific research but is also true in terms of the arts that we export. Yale is in a similar position to the theaters in Israel. They are producing excellent, critical work that exposes human rights abuses and concerns and maintains the hope for peaceful solutions to the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Punishing Yale for Trump or punishing HaBimah for BiBi...in some ways that is exactly what Trump and BiBi are hoping that you'll do.

Hey Daniel, thanks for this comment. I'm not sure if it's clear in the article but the cultural boycott call isn't actually about funding primarily, it's about complicit institutions. So it isn't about Habima's funding, rather their complicity with the occupation and repeated decisions to perform in the settlements.

As for the parallel with Yale, I hear you and if there were an organized call to boycott Yale from people most impacted by oppression I would absolutely follow it but there isn't as far as I know. I brought up the "brand America" scenario to illustrate exactly how brand Israel is working for an American audience who may not have the context of what exactly a national theater company or national arts campaign like brand Israel is, given we don't have a US equivalent.

Like Emma and most of the other commentors, I heartily thank you MJ for your stand and applaud you for writing this piece!!!

It is especially noble and vital at a time when -- (are people not aware of this? I'm surprised nobody has mentioned it) -- 43 members of our United States Senate -- including 14 Democrats -- are trying to make it a FELONY for Americans to support -- even by just speaking in favor of it! (so much for free speech) -- the boycotting of any Israel company or person, punishable by up to $1 million dollars and 20 years in prison!

Please speak out against this proposed law ("The Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S. 720)) to your senators and representatives, and ask everyone you know to do the same!

https://www.dailykos.com/st...

Thank you for taking a stand and speaking up! I applaud you and your stand. I have boycotted Israel for many decades now and will continue to do so, including their cultural exports, and I am thank you for doing so publicly!

This is a great article! In Cleveland, there was a recent production of Colm Toibin's The Testament Of Mary, and there was a protest outside of the theatre during opening week. Now, I believe that hearing the story of Jesus from his mother Mary's perspective is good theatre and I didn't understand the controversy, but at the same time, I did, because the Vatican continues to hate women and not even let them fulfill their spiritual vocational calling as priests. But, I went because I wanted to see the play. What a play! I don't know why the institutional Roman Catholic Church is afraid of Mary's voice. I know there are women in the priesthood movement who came and supported this work, but it did leave me, a former Catholic, wondering about the mystery of Mary and why she is still a mystery. I wonder too why if a play or musical tells the story about a marginalized person from their perspective why is it controversial then? Clearly if a theatre sticks to an oppressive narrative and denies stories from being told on their stage than theatre contributes to oppression in all forms that way.

The irony of boycotting a play based on David Grossman's work astonishes me. David has been a voice in the wilderness eloquently calling for an end to the occupation for many years. I abhor the policies of the Israeli government. But I don't understand how a "cultural boycott" can do anything more than increase isolation and enmity. It only hurts those Israeli artists who are struggling for change.

Hey Corey, thanks for this comment. I also really admire Grossman's work and wish that I could see this play! I'm not sure if this wasn't clear in my op-ed but the cultural boycott doesn't actually target individual artists struggling for change- it targets complicit institutions. Israeli artists for change ARE actually organized working on the cultural boycott through a project called Boycott from Within: http://boycottisrael.info/. Maybe we can encourage a different theater company to put this play on and/or encourage Grossman to join the Boycott from Within movement.

Yes "Brand israel" is supported by different parts of the government and even by Hillel, that is fighting the attacks on their students who support Israel and attacks on them as Jews, definitely using anti-Semitic imagery including pictures of Jews being put into the "ovens" like what the alt-right does. This is the problem with intersectionality (too much to get into here). And it is all complex regarding the Israeli government. There are parts of the government that are more to the left and don't support what Netanyahu and his ilk do, similarly to the Dems, the Repubs, and the Indeps in the U.S.. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a cultural office and they are often conflicting with the Ministry of Cutlural Affairs who is very right wing. The bottom line for me is that as you say Corey, the Israeli lefties who are speaking out and who are getting their work seen in Israel - they are the real inside people and they are at the very least keeping the progressive movement going there. To boycott them, even if they perform in the territories, is to stifle and censure an important progressive voice that is directly coming from Israelis who want to end the occupation and who want to bring down this government. And in that way you are working in oppostion to your stated aims.

The arguments made in this piece fail to meet any test of logic. You support BDS because of the organized anti-Semitic, anti-Israel coalition lined up behind it? That's supposed to justify a cultural boycott of Israel but not of say, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, Iran or other entities that criminalize resistance? You don't mention whether your plays have ever been presented in nonprofit theaters supported by the NEA or state and local agencies; do you renounce them as well, and will you attack fellow artists who disagree?

The more effective tactic, it seems to me, is through protest. Picket these groups, if you wish to call attention to human rights abuses. (None showed up at Lincoln Center; perhaps it was too hot.) But boycotting art is boycotting the exchange of ideas and the very idea of shining light on inequality, the disenfranchised, the voiceless. It's as cowardly as drone murder or B-52 bombings: you never have to actually engage with a human adversary.

Hey Jeremy, thanks for this comment. I agree that there is no purity here- many of the governments, foundations, and funding streams that support work I believe in (including my own) are engaged in exploiting humans and the earth in ways I don't believe in. However, not all of these things have an organized, strategic call for a boycott-- it's the difference between taking an individual and a collective action. This cultural boycott call came in resistance to the "Brand Israel" campaign, a conscious campaign to use art to cover up human rights abuses. I am not actually boycotting individual artists or the exchange of ideas. I would absolutely go see this play if it was put on by a different theater company. If these theater companies issued public statements tomorrow calling for the end of the occupation and committing to never perform in the settlements again I would go see their play. This is a strategy used to put pressure on institutions aligned with the government and prevent art from being co-opted to obscure violence.

I suppose we might disagree on whether or not an organized movement against the occupation of Palestine is anti-Semitic. I personally would say no. I will also say that a lot of the BDS work I have been involved in DOES incorporate protest- that boycott, letters, op-eds, and actions are all part of the movement and different ways of engaging with the other side. I actually engage with the other side all the time as an observant Jew- when I enter almost any Jewish space or institution. In my view writing a letter or an op-ed are actually very different actions from drone murder or B52 bombings. They are actions encouraging dialogue rather than violence.

>>>This cultural boycott call came in resistance to the "Brand Israel" campaign.<<< Exactly wrong. Brand Israel, established in 2005, was a response to PACBI, the 2004 Palestinian Call for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

>>>I am not actually boycotting individual artists or the exchange of ideas. I would absolutely go see this play if it was put on by a different theater company.<<< This is a direct echo of the syntactical mishmash of the BDS platform. Just as Brand Israel has both an overt mission (improve the Jewish state's image around the world) and a covert one (divert attention from the Occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and minimize human rights abuses against Palestinians), so BDS has an overt mission (pressure Israel to end the Occupation and withdraw to pre-1967 borders) and a covert one (delegitimize the State of Israel, probably not so covert at all).

I share with many fellow Jews despair at the right-wing turn of Israel, the isolation of the Left as liberals give up hope of a bilateral solution, and anger over human rights abuses by both Israeli and Palestinian forces. And I have no argument with protests designed to apply pressure to all parties to resolve differences and make peace. Any abrogation of the exchange of ideas, however, hurts everyone: individual artists as well as institutions, and especially the public they hope to inform and provoke. Silencing a play, censoring a poem, stopping a music or dance performance and shutting out a nation's participation in an international film festival -- all these are affronts to people who believe peace will come only through increased, not proscribed, engagement.

One correction: Israel is not "shutting down Gaza's last power plant." Not even the Al Jazeera article states that. The power plant issue is primarily due to disagreements between the PA and Hamas, as you can read here: https://www.google.com/amp/....

And this, I think is indicative of the issues with the BDS movement. Aside from my own disagreement with the idea of a cultural boycott, BDS asks nothing of the Palestinian leadership who are often the cause of their own people's suffering.

Hey Wendy, thanks for this comment. You're right, the power crisis in Gaza is complex and I actually shifted the language above to reflect that in response to your comment. While Israel did cut electricity supply to the Gaza strip in response to a Palestinian Authority request, the fact remains that Israel has imposed a siege of Gaza for 10 years, controlling all entries and exports, making it the de facto occupier and ultimately responsible. I found this FAQ from Gisha (an Isreali human rights group) helpful in understanding Israel's role in the power crisis: http://gisha.org/UserFiles/...

I also hear your issues with the BDS movement. I will share that as someone who has never lived the realities of this occupation I choose to support the leadership and strategy choices of those who have-- the same way that I support calls from movements like Black Lives Matter in the US. When I have questions I try to bring those into the work respectfully rather than dismiss the whole movement. In this case over 170 community groups came together to call for this non-violent strategy, modeled on the movement used to end apartheid in South Africa. I consider it a powerful opportunity for international solidarity and would much rather participate than stand on the sidelines and critique.

MJ israel your description of imposed siege is incorrect, Gaza has a border also with Egypt - While Egypt imposed strict restrictions, hundreds of trucks of food and basic supplies — and ambulances and medical staff from Israel — are being transported into Gaza through border crossings with Israel - you also don't mention that restrictions on movements came about after Israel removed all Jews from Gaza and following Hamas captured power and rather than focus on nation building and betterment of lives for people of Gaza it has focused on war and resources on its goal of eradicating Israel and establishing a caliphate (check Hamas charter ) peace comes with interaction, an interaction which BDS opposes, also if you do a bit of research you will find many clear statements from leaders of the BDS movement where they state their goal as legitimizing and ending Israel and not two states for two people. Further your arguments in your piece simply fail any test of logic ..

Although I support your right to boycott, I find your reasoning specious when you talk about how there is a strong movement against Israel that you're joining but you aren't culturally boycotting the United States given Trumpian politics. If you believe that Israel as a country should exist both as a Jewish homeland and a Palestinian homeland, then you should support both Israeli Jewish culture, Israeli Arab culture, Palestinian culture of all peopleness - Christian, Muslim, etc. The needs of both peoples have been denigrated too long (you don't mention any of the ways that Jewish needs have been denigrated over the last 2,000 years which today is being commemorated by Tisha B'Av) and even with a very right wing government in place, Israel provides a country that looks to those needs and aspirations be they Jewish or Arab backgrounds, be they women or LGBTQ. That can't always be said in Arab countries and yes there are complexities there as well. But the point is the same. As artists we must support each others freedom and through the arts and theatre we have the means to get this message out. David Grossman's play does not whitewash. It is dirty and complex. It is upsetting and it is bothered. This is important.

this is fascinating-- I would love to talk more about this. You do a great job of identifying where the personal and political cannot coexist. I have a (short) anecdote to share about trying to fund a project in Cuba-- when I see you, we'll talk.

Great job connecting the dots. The paragraph "Before I was fully on board..." drives home the difference between boycott and censorship. Thanks for writing!

Great article! As a playwright and BDS supporter, I've struggled to figure out how to explain to other artists why I support the cultural boycott-- and as a Jew I've struggled to explain it to friends and family who sometimes attack any critique or action against the Israeli government as anti-semitic. I think this is one of those areas where getting into the specifics, rather than talking about free expression in vague terms, is very helpful, and your article does a great job laying out the specific reasons why, in this specific instance, boycotting is a valid tactic to use. Glad HowlRound published it!