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March 6, 2015 11:24 am

BDS and ‘Cultural’ Boycotts

avatar by Alex Margolin

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One of the most insidious elements of the BDS strategy is the call for a cultural boycott against Israel. It harms Israel’s image to be excluded from cultural events across the world, and it harms individual Israeli artists, writers, and others when they are treated as pariahs by people who claim to oppose only Israeli policy.

But what happens when a BDS supporter, or an opponent of Israel, is given a platform in a mainstream newspaper to review an Israeli production, as Martha Schabas did in the Globe and Mail? That could be something even worse than cultural boycott. It could be a form of cultural vandalism.

Schabas, a freelance dance critic for the paper, recently reviewed an Israeli dance-theater piece called Marathon, an hour-long commentary on life in Israel that featured the three leads in a constant state of motion. Schabas has previously expressed opinions about Israel’s “war crimes” and the SodaStream factory on “illegal West Bank settlements,” on her Twitter feed. So it’s not surprising that Schabas was not impressed with the Israeli production.

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The piece, which purports to reveal “the wounds of contemporary Israeli society,” features three white, Jewish performers running around in a circle and calling out platitudes about their respective struggles. I might be tempted to complain that Marathon offers an egregiously one-sided view of Israel’s wounds, but I worry the complaint would be misleading – even the privileged perspective gets shallow treatment.

Schabas seems completely uninterested in the wounds of Israelis. What concerns her about the piece is that it didn’t address the political issues that she champions.

If it sounds as though Marathon is too unintelligent to be offensive, I’m not quite ready to let it off the hook. Sure, not every play about Israeli society need mention the two million Arabs who form a quarter of it (I’m not talking about the four million in the occupied territories) or the 60,000 African asylum-seekers who are denied work permits, refugee status and are often detained indefinitely. But a play that, according to the press material, explores “the depths of Israeli consciousness,” and touches on land, security and the existential struggle to survive, makes a rather charged statement in what it chooses to omit.

The same can be said about Schabas and her review. Sure, not every review of a theater production is going to deal with the issues actually raised by the artwork in question. But a review that is essentially a political attack on Israel through the channel of a review of an Israeli dance production has no place on the arts pages of a mainstream newspaper.

The review drew enough complaints from readers to prompt the paper’s public editor, Silvia Stead, to examine whether Schabas should have been given the assignment in the first place. After consulting with the paper’s arts editor Jared Bland, who seems to be fine with someone who holds anti-Israel views reviewing an Israeli production, Stead gently concludes that “the writer should temper her comments now that she works for The Globe.”

That conclusion lets Schabas off the hook for exploiting her position to attack Israel. Unfortunately, the real victim is the theater troupe itself, which is slammed in the media because it failed to conform to the political orientation of the writer. Too bad she didn’t just boycott the performance.

This article was originally published by HonestReporting.

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  • Sam

    Clearly the dance critic has never heard the common expression that “good art is art that goes out of its way to make sure no one is offended or has their feelings hurt.” One wonders if a show about the life of an Israeli which features only Arab-Israelis and not “white” Jewish Israelis would similarly upset the critic….

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