Liz Lochhead’s selective boycott

The poet Liz Lochhead, known to a generation of Scottish schoolchildren as “the one that’s not Carol Ann Duffy”, has joined calls for a boycott of Batsheva Dance Company.

Batsheva is an Israeli troupe which – unless Lochhead gets her way – will be performing at the Playhouse on Thursday as part of the Edinburgh Festival, Scotland’s biggest arts and culture extravaganza.

Lochhead joined a line-up of lefty luvvies demanding that director Jonathan Mills revoke Batsheva’s invitation to perform at the festival and send them packing. Their protest, they claim, is against “Israel’s three-tiered system of occupation, colonisation and apartheid [that] ruthlessly suffocates the livelihoods of Palestinian communities”.

The Middle East conflict, and the rights and wrongs of Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), provokes intense passions but the call for a boycott of Batsheva is wrongheaded and contemptible.

Let’s get some of the politics out of the way first. To accuse Israel of “colonisation” is risible and suggests that Lochhead and co. have drunk from a heady brew of ignorance and zealotry. Israel dragged 9,000 of its citizens out of Gaza in 2005 and handed over the territory to the Palestinians, who in turn handed it over to the genocidal Jew-killers of Hamas. Over in Judea and Samaria, 98% of Palestinians now live under the administration of the Palestinian Authority, with only 2% living under Israeli control. If this is colonisation, the Israelis aren’t very good at it.

The apartheid libel is as fatuous as it is ugly. Arabs constitute 20% of Israel’s population, 14% of the country’s electorate and 14% of its parliament, and serve in the military, on the supreme court, and at all levels of Israeli society. They enjoy full legal and political parity with Israel’s Jewish population. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an ancient dispute, wrapped in layers of religious animus and political complexity, but Lochhead reduces it to a morality play of Good and Evil, barbaric Israelis versus Palestinian victims; 3,000 years in a soundbite.

Lochhead’s gravest sin, though, is artistic rather than political. She has called for the silencing of artists simply because she doesn’t much like their country. This attempt to stifle creative expression, to abort a work of art before it can take to the stage to entertain and inspire and enlighten, is made all the worse by Lochhead’s position as Scotland’s makar, our poet laureate.

She is aware of the contradiction, and strains to justify it, saying: “Obviously in principle I am against the censorship of ideas. But having visited Palestine in June this year, and having seen how Palestinians are treated like non-humans, I believe we must use sanctions in the way they were used to bring apartheid to an end in South Africa.”

She is against censorship in principle, obviously, but she’ll make an exception for Israelis. When artists clamour for censorship while congratulating themselves on their anti-censorship credentials, it’s time for irony to start sorting out its affairs and make arrangements for a decent burial.

The Batsheva Dance Company is not a political organisation. It does not speak for the Israeli government and it is not responsible for that government’s policies. Indeed, although I’m not familiar with the company, I’d imagine the political culture of this group of Tel Aviv-based performance artists is pretty left-wing.

Batsheva is recognised around the world for its artistic accomplishments and contributions to the field of performance art. The company’s choreographer Ohad Naharin has been named Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the highest honour an artist can receive in France, and has been awarded his own country’s highest honour, the Israel Prize, for his contributions to dance. Snuffing out Batsheva’s performance of Hora would not change a single fact on the ground in the Palestinian territories. Of course, that’s not the point of the boycott call, which is more to do with making Lochhead and her fellow Letters Page Warriors feel brave and righteous. Theirs is the petty politics of petty minds.

And their proposed boycott is a very specific one. There is no call to cancel China Red or e-Station, in protest at the Chinese dictatorship’s brutal repression of its own people, its suppression of religious minorities, or its occupation of Tibet. Lochhead is similarly silent on Zimbabwe’s offerings Africa Calling! and Zambezi Express, cultural products of a regime where, according to Amnesty International, “Human rights defenders continued to face arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, politically motivated charges, and even torture in police custody”.

Hunger may go ahead, for Lochhead is raising no objections to the Kremlin’s stifling of opposition parties, framing of pro-democracy activists, or to the arrests and murders of journalists who write critically about Putin or his cronies. Ghana – where homosexuality is a criminal offence, where the security services round up gay men and lesbians, and where a government minister recently called on landlords to report tenants they suspected of being gay – need not worry about its Africa Arts and Crafts Exhibition being cancelled.

Why Israel alone? Lochhead must answer this question or accept that others will draw their own conclusions.

Art is how a civilisation grapples with that big fuzzy mess that is the human condition; it’s a translation of experience into ideas, a process of enlightenment and understanding. Lochhead’s call to shut down artists because of their country of origin, a demand based on outlandish claims and injudicious analogies, is an attack on the very principles upon which art is based. Cultural boycotts are the repudiation of ideas, of enlightenment, of understanding, a genteel form of book-burning for a left-liberal intelligentsia that prides itself on tolerance and broad-mindedness.

Liz Lochhead writes like an adolescent; she doesn’t have to think like one too.

The Batsheva Dance Company will perform Hora at the Edinburgh Playhouse from 30th August to 1st September. Tickets are available here and you can watch a short clip of this talented troupe in action here. The company’s website is here

Feature image © David Shankbone by Creative Commons 3.0.

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