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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Australian dance festival organizer responds

Yesterday I noted what appeared to be discrimination against an Israeli dance troupe in Australia.

An EoZ reader contacted the Multicultural Folk Dance Festival of High Country and asked them:
Dear Sir/Madam:

I am writing in regard to news reports that the Machol Israeli Dancing Club were required to drop any references to Israel as a condition of performing in the Multicultural Folk Dance Festival of High Country in Mansfield.

According to the reports I have read, the reason given to the club was that “the organizer would not be held responsible for consequences if the words “Israel” or “Israeli” were used to describe the group.”

First of all, I request that an investigation be made and the statement either confirmed or denied, and the group be allowed to perform calling themselves whatever they wish. If this information is accurate, then I must protest in the strongest terms. What right have the organizers or anyone else to tell members of a culture how they must and must not define themselves? In looking over the festival programme, it seems clear that the organizers had no problem with groups calling themselves Chinese, Ukranian, and so on. Why was an Israeli group singled out and subject to conditions that apparently apply to no other group?

She received a "prompt and courteous response:"

Dear xxxxx,

Thank you for your question.

I am glad to be able to clarify: the answer is NO.

The conditions were: to perform traditional Jewish folk dances as old as possible, in traditional costumes, with authentic traditional music. Aiming for "1000 year old traditional music and dances with traditional costumes" was the very first conversation.

Later it turned out that it was not possible for us to get traditional Jewish dances from Machol or other Israeli dancing groups either that we have contacted. We are aiming to restore an authentic traditional Jewish cultural input for next time, which was promised by a former dancer of the Shalom group, which (sadly)stopped functioning 20 years ago, without a replacement.

Thank you for your help.

Kind regards,

Marta Balan

She wrote back:

Dear Marta,

Thank you for your prompt response and for your clarification.

I'm afraid that I'm still somewhat confused by what you are calling "an authentic traditional Jewish cultural input." How would this be different from what Machol or other groups offered?

Thank you in advance for your help

and received the following response:

Dear xxxxxx,

The difference is in the:

STYLE OF DANCING
ACCOMPANYING MUSIC
TYPES OF COSTUMES
ETHNIC PATTERNS PROJECTED between dances.

The Unity in Diversity Events promote ONLY TRADITIONAL FOLK DANCES, with TRADITIONAL MUSIC, PLAYED ON AUTHENTIC TRADITIONAL INSTRUMENTS (recordings accepted) AND WITH TRADITIONAL COSTUMES. (This was explained in the first conversation with the manager of Machol.)

The images projected between dance groups (the dances flow with only 15 sec in between) present patterns of folk costumes or other objects characteristic to that culture. For the Jewish input I contacted first the Jewish museum in Alma Rd, they only had one wedding dress from Yemen which was not digitised yet. So, I contacted the Museum of Jerusalem to seek permission to project some of the patterns on the objects they had (Yemenite clothes and jewellery, etc.). They were able to do that with a cost involved.

All that had to be postponed for next time, as the basic requirements were not satisfied: the Machol teacher clarified several weeks after they were accepted in the program (as it turned out, by miscommunication re the criteria) that their dances were not based on traditional dances, that their choreographies were less than 30 years old and they had no traditional costumes. Only the music was traditional, but that was not sufficient to match the style and quality of other groups' dances performed in a program which is presented as one artistic unit.

I think the problem started by me having to communicate to a manager first, without having a chance to clarify the detailes with their teacher.

The other Israeli dancing teachers I contacted, after the above explanation given by the teacher of Machol, pointed it out that Israeli dancing is an entirely modern style of dancing. I was asked to describe details about other dance groups in the program (how old choreographies, what kind of costumes, musical instruments, etc.) and was given an opinion that if we included Israeli dancing done by any club, it would only serve to the detriment of the Jewish community of Victoria, whom we wanted to be represented in the program the best possible way, as one of our aims is also to combat prejudices and stereotypes of various kind, apart from aiming people to bond through dancing and music.

One more aim in our work is to restore traditional folk dances, music and costumes which are to die out in Victoria. I had to agree with the other 2 Israeli dancing teachers that this was happening with the Jewish cultural tradition, as the Shalom group which was last able to perform the traditional Jewish dances and the costumes are perhaps still kept by Shefi Shapira, sadly stopped functioning 20 years ago and was not replaced.

We agreed that, enough of time given, perhaps a sample of those dances could be recreated and costumes restored for a next year performance. Also, there will be an attempt made by another Israeli dancing teacher to start a group of youngsters and bring them to a level of performers, as the other problem is that most Israeli dancing clubs are recreational and their level is not for performances.

All relevant parts of the above information were explained to Machol in emails. I have not had verbal communication after the very unpopular decision I had to make that best was to remove the Jewish input this year, with a plan that there will be an appropriate group next time to represent the Jewish cultural tradition and to achieve due appreciation by the mainstream public and media (the event was HD recorded for TV broadcasting, what increased the responsibility for the artistic side of the event).

To my surprise, I am getting feed-back from various sources - a complete misinterpretation of what I have put clearly in writing, WITH BEST INTENTIONS.

I am surprised that after 15 yrs of volunteer community work, both multicultural and multi-faith, I can be treated this way by a community I have served lovingly and with sacrifice.

That same day when the folk dance program happened, we had a wonderful Victorian symposium on values that are shared amongst faith communities, with the participation of Mr Walter Rapoport representing Judaism. So, him and his wife attended the folk dance event afterwards in another venue. Perhaps they could give you a description of the style and quality of dances performed and how could possibly Israeli dancing of Machol fit into that.

I was just informed that the Shepparton Interfaith network was sent an information re "Marta Balan excluded a Jewish group from an event", they did not even memorise what kind of event. I wonder what does the folk dance event have to do with the Interfaith Network? So, the intention is: without checking the TRUTH, to present Marta Balan as someone who will discriminate Jewish people. Well, my grandfather happened to be a Jew and a Zionist in 1933 and is burried in Bet Nekofa, I spent one month in Israel in a kibbutz in 1980, my mother went through the Holocaust and I was discriminated as a teenager for coming from a Jewish family in a small European town.

I have spent 15 years in volunteering community work to combat prejudices and enhance harmony in this society. This story is not about me. It is about people who are inclined to suspicion and hostility. I wonder is there an expectation that a Jewish group does not have to comply to requirements of an arts program like others do? And, if a Jewish group has to be excluded from a program is that necessarily antisemitism or perhaps protection?

Re the sad truth that the traditional Jewish dances almost died out, unless someone takes an action to restore them, I have made one more effort: I wrote to the Jewish Community Council of Victoria seeking them to take action for the restoration of traditional Jewish dances and costumes in Victoria.

This is how far I can go in helping the Jewish community at this point in time.

Just to mention, Mr Walter Rapoport was involved at the time in trying to explain the Machol what did not fit into our program.

After that the dancing teacher from Machol called the office oF Multicultural Affais and Citizenship to complain that he was discriminated by Marta Balan. Fortunately, my work and character are well known there for 15 years and the complaint was dismissed.

I am grateful to Mr Anton Block who took in his hands to deal with this matter, though it is obvious that some of the accusations against me already flowed out before he could stop them.

Now I will focus at the people who sent out news about me that were not confirmed as true and seek a correction in writing, as I still have some community work to do which should not be implicated.

Thank you for reading this email.

Kind regards,

Marta Balan
This sounds sincere, although the part of the story about the name of the group is still not cleared up. From the emails it sounds like the reason the Israeli group could not perform is simply because they do not do traditional Jewish dances.

There is a large disconnect between the two versions, but it does appear that the original story was lacking in many important details.