Sunday, 10 August 2014

It's Time We Talked About The Tricycle Theatre: Cultural Boycotts & Israel

The decision this week by the Tricycle Theatre in London to tell the 2014 Jewish Film Festival that, if it is not prepared to forgo a small amount of funding - £1,400 - provided to it by the Israeli Embassy, then the festival will have to find another venue, has been the cause of much manic typying and the expiration of no small amount of wind. The issue of Palestine/Israel is, to say the least of it, controversial. That being the case, I'll start by outlining, as briefly as possible, my own views on the conflict, for what they are worth, which is, I realise, not much.

For starters, it's a pity the state of Israel was ever set up. Surely it would have been better if a state containing both Arabs and Jews had emerged post-1948 in what had been the British run mandated territory of Palestine? Things could hardly have turned out very much worse than they have. The Holocaust may have made Israel inevitable; it was the decisive event in moving the Zionist dream of a Jewish State from the margins to the mainstream. Nevertheless, the Holocaust does not justify even one Arab family being ethnically cleansed, and forced into exile, though it is of course crucial to the context in which such things happened. 

There are other countries whose coming into existence was also a pity. Iraq is one, created as it was by foreign diplomats drawing lines on a map with little consideration as to who exactly lived within the lines being drawn.  

Moving closer to home, but a good deal further back in history, it's a terrible shame the Plantation of Ulster (with protestants from Scotland displacing natives in the north east of this country) ever happened. It would be very bad indeed, though, if Northern Irish protestants were now to be expelled from Ireland back to Scotland four centuries after the event. My wife's Mother and Step-Dad are both Northern Irish protestants who have, as far as I'm aware, no desire to be sent back to Scotland to make more space for the true Gaelic Irish, people such as, say, the dancer Michael Flatley, and other ethnically Gaelic Irish Americans. Such an attempt to correct this historical wrong, while it would admittedly have the amusing side effect of Michael Flatley becoming a resident of East Belfast, would lead, without doubt, to the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Far more than died in the Troubles. All for Michael Flatley's right to live on a side street off the Newtownards Road.

Similarly, the ISIS fighters currently trying to take over a large part of northern Iraq can justifiably claim that Iraq is not a real country at all but an artificial construct invented by Western imperialism in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, I hope their 'anti-imperialism' - which appears mostly to involve beheading those who refuse to convert to their version of Islam - ends with many big bombs dropping on them from the sky. And if some of those bombs come from the U.S. military, then so be it. I don't much care how they are stopped, as long as they are. 

Israel is similar to Iraq and the Plantation of Ulster in that it is something that shouldn't have happened, but now it has, it's going nowhere. Furthermore, it would be a bad thing if Israel were to be destroyed now. Such an eventuality is ruled out by the fact that the state of Israel has in its possession a healthy stockpile of nuclear warheads, but even if it was a possibility Israel's destruction would involve the deaths of, at the very least, hundreds of thousands of people, both Jewish and Arab. 

Try telling that to the group of demonstatrators whom I observed marching along University Road on Friday, chanting: "Palestine! From the River to the Sea!" The river being the Jordan, the sea the Mediterranean. Palestine can only ever stretch "from the River to the Sea" if the state of Israel is destroyed. It's a mad thing to be chanting. It is not the position of the P.L.O. leadership, who have long since recognised Israel. It might be an understandable slogan to go down the road shouting if your house has just been blown up by the Israeli Defence Forces. But when you are seperated from such dusty unpleasantness by a couple of thousand miles and the worst thing you're facing is, perhaps, your landlord calling by to enquire why the direct debit set up to pay your rent didn't work last week, it is altogether less understandable. Of course, people often chant things on demos, which they don't really believe will come to pass...

I support the right of the Palestinian people to their own viable state.  When it happens, it will be a messy compromise involving the acceptance of lots of things that should never have happened in the first place, first and foremost among them the coming into existence in 1948 of the state of Israel. If Hamas is not destroyed, they will end up wearing suits and meeting the CEOs of global corporations and trying to encourage said CEOs to set up shop in Ramallah or Gaza City. If Hamas is destroyed - and that has to be a possibility, they strike me as being quite bad at terrorism compared, say, to the IRA - then a  Palestinian politician of some other stripe will shake the hand of Mr Facebook or Mr Google. Like Northern Ireland, it will be the grubbiest of compromises, it will certainly not be "Palestine! From the River to the Sea!" But it'll be a hell of a lot better than what's been happening this summer. And Hamas continuing to try to fire rockets into Israel brings it not one day closer. At least the IRA showed a certain wit when, in 1991, they fired a rocket right into the back of 10 Downing Street and in the process interrupted a meeting of John Major's cabinet. But then we Irish have always been a witty bunch.

Of course, you might say, no one gives a shit what I think. And you'd be right. Until, that is, I'm invited to do a poetry reading in Tel Aviv. I haven't been. So, those of you in the Galway Branch of the Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign so inclined can stop ejaculating all over your keyboards; nothing to get that excited about yet. But the case of the Tricycle Theatre and the Jewish Film Festival in London does raise the issue. 

I'm already, slightly, on the record on the issue in this piece I wrote about poet Elaine Feeney, a good friend of mine, who has signed the 'Irish Artists' Pledge to Boycott Israel'. On its publication in April 2011, this article led to a foaming-around-the-gob Facebook comment from one Treasa Ní Cheannabháin, a well known sean-nós singer locally and prominent pro-Palestine campaigner. When she isn't singing, which I'm told she does very well, Treasa mostly puts exclamation marks on Facebook. Treasa said, in her comment, that following my article she would now be boycotting an event I was involved in organising at that year's Cúirt Festival of International Literature at which another friend of hers was reading her poetry. She's quick with the cultural boycotts is our Treasa. Her absence made no difference at all; as it turned out more than thirty people had to be turned away from Druid Theatre where the event took place. Needless to say, Treasa's foaming about the gob totally convinced me that she was right and I was wrong. With friends like her the people of the Gaza Strip really are onto a winner. 

Another consistent gob for Palestine is the Galway based writer  once referred to by David Wheatley, quite disgracefully, as an "Eminent Booby". Of this individual Wheatley said back in 2010:

"[He] has now spent several decades responding to this, that, and the other thing he has seen on the Six One news or read about in The Galway Advertiser in the following manner: he writes a letter to The Irish Times or wherever (latterly his facebook status updates have been his pulpit of choice) accusing other Irish writers of not being political. Of not being political like he is, in the sense, presumably, of writing letters to The Irish Times. Letters in which, presumably, they could attack the other Irish writers who have yet to write letters to The Irish Times accusing other Irish writers of etc etc etc. This is not a serious political stance. It is self-righteousness. It is moral superiority of the most pharisaical kind. I’m sorry (well, in fact I’m not), but I cannot take his views on Palestine or anything else political seriously, because I do not believe Palestine or whatever is the real issue. The issue is self-image and stone-throwing."

But David Wheatley, over there in his safe haven in, first Hull, and now Aberdeen has gotten off lightly. This individual has, during the past decade, published hundreds (no exaggeration) of letters in the local papers here in Galway. A large number of them on issues such as Palestine and Iraq; but at least as many attacking Galway City Council, and sometimes the Arts Council, for not giving his literary 'projects' the support he thinks they deserve. Regular supporters of his, in terms of signing petitions in his support and the like, have included the above mentioned friend of the Palestinian people Treasa Ní Cheannabháin, Margaretta D'Arcy & Niall Farrell of Galway Alliance Against War, various members of Galway Socialist Workers Party, and one Raymond Deane of the Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Obviously, their signing these petitions, which most prominent Galway writers have not signed, has nothing at all to do with political croneyism and is all about the brilliant cultural work this individual is doing. That goes without saying.

Raymond Deane, who is the leading promoter of the Irish Cultural Boycott of Israel, has, as far as I'm aware, never taken any of the many opportunities which have arisen down the years to distance his campaign from pharisaical stone throwing from that particular quarter on the issue of Palestine/Israel.

Such people are small. And quite local. I know of them only because I live here. Personally, if I was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, and a petition was launched calling for a more lenient sentence, I would first check the list of signatories to see if any of this crew had signed and hesitate, then hesitate again, before adding my name to their number. Even if I agreed 100% with a cultural boycott of Israel, I would never add my name to any list which included their names but would simply, quietly and privately, not go to Israel if invited to read there. To me, perhaps more even than Hamas, such people are the best propaganda the Israeli government has at its disposal.
Every town of more than 50,000 people has its handful of this type of character, and these are some of Galway's. London is a town of more than 8 million, and has many more such exotic political flowers. On Newsnight last week a representative of the Tricycle Theatre said that the issue of the Israeli Embassy's sponsorship had arisen when the publicity was being arranged for the upcoming Jewish Film Festival. It was decided they didn't want the logo of the Embassy to appear on the publicity. 

Can't you just see the sweating arse cheeks of the Tricyle Theatre's board members as they sat around on those cheap chairs on which we have all in the arts at some stage placed our buttocks. It's an unedifying picture but an unavoidable one for anyone familiar with the high principles that guide most such boards of directors. 

Nick Cohen has accused the Tricycle Theatre of anti-semitism. I disagree. A key difference between a true anti-semite, such as Adolf Hitler, and the members of the board of the Tricycle Theatre is that Adolf Hitler had political principles. We may not agree with him, but Herr Hitler passionately believed that exterminating the Jews was a sensible policy for a happier Reich. The members of the board of the Tricycle Theatre are, I believe, bothered by no such over-arching political principles. They are opportunists pure and all too simple, terrified that a few people will turn up with placards, or worse, outside their theatre. And of course these frail souls are, in one sense, right to be afraid. 

A few years ago, I was on my way to do the weekly shopping when an aggrieved 'peace activist' pulled up in his car and threw me up against the railings opposite Galway's Westside Shopping Centre. He took exception to a poem I'd published. No joke. Afterwards, he continued a quite scurrilous pseudonymous internet campaign against me for a couple of weeks. I have a fat envelope full of his internet handy work, long since deleted from the web. In many ways, I consider his reaction the best review my work has ever had, and thank him for it. The attempt at intimidation didn't work on me - the poem he objected to will certainly appear in my Selected Poems, as and when that appears - but such tactics, or even the implied threat of same, would without doubt work on the boys and girls of the Tricycle Theatre.

Self appointed  bullies can never be given a veto over any arts project. If they were evangelical Christians or Catholics trying to stop a play they objected to by saying prayers outside the venue, it would be exactly the same. 

The funding from the Israeli Embassy - small beer at €1,400 - is not conditional on the films featured in the festival showing political support for the actions of the Israeli government. It was given on exactly the same basis on which the Arts Council of England - an arm of David Cameron's government - funds the Tricycle Theatre, and the basis on which the Irish Arts Council - the artistic wing of Enda Kenny's government - funds Over The Edge literary events, of which I am co-organiser.  

If any of our funders told me that the money would only be available if the poets and fiction writers taking part in our events adhered to some particular political agenda, then I would tell them to put their money somewhere dark and uncomfortable. But this is not what happened in the case of the Tricycle Theatre, the Jewish Film Festival, and the Israeli Embassy in London. What happened there is that a bunch of arts administrators - a socioeconomic group not generally known for their personal heroism - demanded that the Jewish Film Festival take a political stand, as a festival, one way or the other for or against the state of Israel. It wasn't enough that the festival included films highly critical of the Israeli government.  

For the record, and the almost nothing that it's worth: I support the creation of a viable Palestinian state; I oppose the building of further Jewish settlements on the West Bank; think existing settlements should be dismantled; and that Israel should stop bombing Gaza.

But the quivering jelly men and women of the board of the Tricycle Theatre in London have finally convinced me to confirm that the secular holy man that is Raymond Deane of the Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign will have no influence at all on where I go to read. Or where I don't. I long ago decided that I don't need priests. And I don't need Mr Deane either.