Howard Jacobson, the Booker Prize-winning author, has accused leading actors and directors of “McCarthyism” in their attempt to block Israel’s national theatre company from performing in Britain.Jacobson's full letter is good:
The company, Habima, has been invited to stage a Hebrew version of The Merchant of Venice in London as part of the Globe theatre’s World Shakespeare Festival.
The invitation prompted an open letter of protest from 37 figures in the theatre world, including Emma Thompson, the actress, Mike Leigh, the director, and Mark Rylance, former artistic director of the Globe.
They claimed that Habima had a “shameful record” of performing in illegal Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. By inviting the company to attend, the letter said, the Globe was “complicit with human rights violations and the illegal colonisation of occupied land”.
Jacobson, the Jewish author who won the 2010 Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question, said artists should never be in favour of censorship.
He described the letter - published in The Guardian - as “Kafkaesque” in its reasoning. “But the laughter dies in our throats. With last week’s letter to the Guardian, Mccarthyism came to Britain,” Jacobson wrote in a Sunday newspaper.
Jacobson is the latest of several figures from the art world to denounce the letter. Steven Berkoff called it “dangerous rubbish” and Maureen Lipman urged the signatories to “have a debate like mature people” instead of calling for a ban, adding: “I don’t notice them trying to ban Israeli inventions which are changing the world.”
If there is one justification for art – for its creation and its performance – it is that art proceeds from and addresses our unaligned humanity. Whoever would go to art with a mind already made up, on any subject, misses what art is for. So to censor it in the name of a political or religious conviction, no matter how sincerely held, is to tear out its very heart.Habima's defense of its performing in Ariel is, however, embarrassing. It could have said that it is against censorship and would perform anywhere in the world it wants, but instead its director is crying that Habima has no choice but to perform at such an odious venue as Ariel. Instead of standing up for the rights of artists to perform in places where people want to ban them, and having a consistent position about freedom of expression, its artistic director instead pleads that if they didn't perform there they would lose funding.
For artists themselves to do such a thing to art is not only treasonable; it is an act of self-harm. One could almost laugh about it, so Kafkaesque is the reasoning: The Merchant of Venice, acted in Hebrew, a troubling work of great moral complexity (and therefore one that we should welcome every new interpretation of), to be banned not by virtue of itself, but because of where the theatre company performing it had also performed.
But the laughter dies in our throats. With last week's letter to the Guardian, McCarthyism came to Britain. You could hear the minds of people in whom we vest our sense of creative freedom snapping shut. And now we might all be guilty by association: of being in the wrong place or talking to the wrong people or reading the wrong book. Thus does an idée fixe make dangerous fools of the best of us.
Ilan Ronen, Habima's artistic director, said his company was offended by the original letter. "It's a disgrace. We don't see ourselves as collaborators with the Israeli government over its West Bank policy. We don't remember artists boycotting other artists.Ronen had a chance to show a consistent position about art, and instead he caved to be more loved by the British haters. His answer, rather than being a call for the independence of art, instead lends more ammunition to Habima's critics.
"They don't know the true facts about our theatre activity. Somehow, they have been manipulated, they are getting it wrong. It is important to emphasise, we express our political views in many of our projects. But like other theatre companies and dance companies in Israel, we are state-financed, and financially supported to perform all over the country. This is the law. We have no choice. We have to go, otherwise there is no financial support. It is not easy. We have to be pragmatic." Of the 1,500 performances given by the company every year, he said that about "four or five" were in the Ariel settlement in the West Bank. "It is a little bit out of proportion to represent us this way.
"We are supported by the state, but not representing it. We are completely independent, artistically and politically."
He said that company members who asked not to perform were not required to, and they were not pressured or demoted, rather they were protected and consciences were respected. "It is a difficult situation, not ideal," he said, declining to say how many of the company refused to work in the West Bank.
"Artists should create bridges where there is conflict; the issue of Israel and the Palestinians is an area in which European dialogue can be very helpful in creating a better atmosphere. To boycott us prevents any artistic dialogue."