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Flash View, 2-22: Above Politics?
"Out of Israel" and into Complicity
By Omar Barghouti
Copyright 2008 Omar Barghouti
JERUSALEM -- Next month in New York, both the Joyce Theater, by featuring Israeli artist Emanuel Gat, and the 92nd St. Y, by presenting "Out of Israel," a program featuring New York-based Israeli artists Saar Harari, Lee Sher, and Netta Yerushalmy, are declaring their acquiescence to and/or apathy in the face of Israel's persistent violation of international humanitarian law; its flouting of tens of UN Security Council resolutions; its 40 years of military occupation -- the longest in modern history; its ravaging of Gaza in what has been described by international law expert Richard Falk as "acts of genocide"; its construction of an apartheid Wall and settlements on occupied land -- both declared illegal by the International Court of Justice at the Hague in 2004; its wanton killing of innocent Palestinian civilians, including close to 900 children in the last six years alone; its massive uprooting of more than a million fruitful trees; and its cutting up of the occupied West Bank into Bantustans, not very different from those that existed in South Africa at the height of its apartheid era.
But what does dance have to do with all this, one may ask? Shouldn't art be above politics?
Was art above politics in the 1940s? Were German arts groups invited then to perform in London and New York? Were Afrikaner dance groups given a platform in Europe or the U.S. in the 1980s? Of course not. But wasn't art above politics then? Why the double-standard?
Aren't Israeli dance companies opposed to the Occupation, though? In fact, no. None of them has ever issued a public condemnation of the Occupation. While Ohad Naharin, arguably Israel's leading choreographer, has condemned -- in his personal capacity, not as a representative of his company -- "war crimes" by his country he has never explicitly called for an end to the Occupation. Nor has his group, for that matter. Moreover, Israeli dancers, artists, academics and intellectuals, in harmony with the rest of Israeli society, apart from the occasional refusenik, obediently serve in the occupation army's reserve forces, oppressing Palestinians and participating in, or at the very least witnessing in disturbing silence, what Amnesty International has also termed "war crimes." This makes them complicit.
In response to such charges of collusion, some in the mainstream media in the west often attempt to justify Israel's oppression by citing Palestinian armed attacks against it. I have written openly and consistently, in Arabic and English, about the moral problems raised by any indiscriminate act of violence, whether from the oppressor or oppressed, despite the immeasurable moral difference between the two. Albeit a reaction to colonial violence, an indiscriminate attack on the civilian community of the oppressors is morally unjustifiable, in my opinion. But I can never accept any claim of parity between the oppressors and oppressed. Israel's decades-old state terrorism and its current acts of genocide in Gaza are far more lethal, immoral and illegal than any act of Palestinian resistance. This is not only about body counts, which should invariably refer to human beings with names and faces on either side; it is about power asymmetry and the built-in moral asymmetry that goes with the territory, so to speak, when you have a colonial and apartheid regime like Israel's on one side and the colonized and dehumanized community on the other. Again, this does not, in any way, give Palestinians, or any other oppressed community, a carte blanche to indiscriminately target civilians on the other side. International law does give nations under occupation the right to resist foreign occupation "by all means," including violent ones; but it never condones deliberate or criminally negligent attacks against civilians, period. I fully endorse that.
Going back to the Joyce and the 92nd St. Y, wouldn't doing the right thing entail joining the many prominent international cultural organizations and individual artists that have heeded the Palestinian calls for boycott against Israel (until it fully complies with its obligations under international law)? Most recently, Ken Loach, a distinguished Palme d'Or winner, joined the growing boycott of Israel. The world renowned British author and artist, John Berger, has also issued his own boycott statement -- endorsed by tens of leading artists and intellectuals -- supporting the Palestinian call for an institutional cultural boycott of Israel.
Also, one of the leading dance companies in Europe, Les Ballets C. de la B., of Belgium, issued a statement supporting the boycott.
It is quite ironic that in one of the Y's featured Israeli works, Yerushalmy's "Bifocale," a dance in which, according to the press release, two women "find themselves in a narrow, confined space," the choreographer resorted to extraordinary measures "to recreate the sense of confinement" needed for her theme. If she wanted real, genuine and "natural" confinement, she might as well have made her dance in any Palestinian city or village, surrounded by a 9-meter-high Wall and endless, suffocating military roadblocks.
Finally, inviting Israeli arts groups to any festival or theater this year, in particular, is a slap in the face of morality and civility, given Israel's rolling acts of genocide in Gaza and its celebration of its 60th "birthday," ignoring its dispossessed victims. The fact is Israel at 60 is a state that is still denying Palestinian refugees their UN-sanctioned rights, simply because they are not Jewish. It is still illegally occupying Palestinian and other Arab lands. It is still treating its own Palestinian citizens with institutionalized discrimination. It is still grossly infringing fundamental human rights with impunity afforded to it through generous US and European economic, diplomatic, political and cultural support.
In this context, welcoming Israeli dance companies, whether or not they are based in Israel, amounts to celebrating Israel at a time when those whose homes it is occupying -- or demolishing -- and whose lives it is decimating have precious little to celebrate. Conducting business as usual with Israel in any field, dance included, as if it were a normal country, not an apartheid state, is an egregious act of complicity, no less.
Omar Barghouti is an independent dance choreographer and analyst. He is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (www.PACBI.org).