Riverdance: Dancing into the Trap

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Recently the popular Israeli internet news service Ynet published an article by Itamar Eichner called Foreign Ministry beats Israel boycotts (7 October 2011).

The article tells us that ‘Pro-Palestinian groups calling for a cultural boycott against Israel have experienced several failures recently thanks to the Foreign Ministry’s work.’

Note that this ‘work’ is deemed important enough to be undertaken not by the Ministries of Culture or Public Diplomacy, as one might expect, but by the Foreign Ministry itself. This accords with what Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, a former Foreign Ministry deputy director general, said in 2005: ‘We see culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank, and…do not differentiate between propaganda and culture.’ (Ha’aretz, 21 September 2005).

The necessity for boycott is established by surveying the situation in Israel/Palestine: Israel continues forcibly to displace Palestinian communities from occupied East Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley and the Negev; it continues colonial settlement construction in defiance of international law; its ongoing siege of Gaza causes drastic denial of basic rights; dozens of apartheid laws in Israel discriminate against the state’s ‘non-Jewish’ citizens; finally, Israel continues to deny Palestinian their basic right to return home.

Such intransigence is possible only because, as stated in a recent interview by Richard Falk (UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories), ‘geo-politics trumps international law in most conflict settings and it has particularly been the case in relation to the Palestine-Israel conflict.’

For Falk,

‘BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions]… is the most hopeful path at the present time. It is not feasible to challenge the Israeli position by direct military resistance and so the indirect ways of mobilising opposition… and applying pressure seems to be the best path to take; it has, I think, already had considerable success.’

The cultural boycott, which is designed to forestall the Israeli state’s appropriation of culture as a fig-leaf to disguise its criminality, has participated notably in that success. Backed by a growing number of international luminaries from John Berger through Elvis Costello to Naomi Klein, it has grown increasingly confident in the face of banal arguments that culture is somehow ‘above politics’, and hence out of this world.

Eichner’s allegation of ‘failure’ is primarily backed by reference to the September 2011 tour of Israel by the Irish show Riverdance.

The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) issued an open letter on 26 April asking: ‘Would Riverdance have toured South Africa during the dark years of Apartheid there?’ This was supplemented by a letter from Riverdance set designer Robert Ballagh stating that he would not be travelling with the show, and would donate his royalties to the Irish Ship to Gaza (which he has done).

Four demonstrations by the IPSC and the Irish Anti-War Movement took place outside Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre during the run of Riverdance‘s summer show. On 10 August, the IPSC issued an appeal to the musicians and dancers, above the heads of management,  to refuse to participate in the tour. Nonetheless, Riverdance went to Israel: so was this an outright failure for the cultural boycott, as Eichner claims?

The IPSC protests, plus intense Facebook and Twitter campaigns, appear in reality to have had a cumulative effect which contradicts this reading of events.

It would appear that, despite initial enthusiasm (described by one insider as ‘gung ho’), the entire senior management of Riverdance ultimately stayed away from Israel, as did the show’s composer, Bill Whelan. This means that, while the foot-soldiers were sent to Israel to break the Palestinian call for a cultural boycott and offer the Israeli apartheid regime a propaganda scoop, the generals stayed at home and nursed their consciences.

Naturally, however, they declined to make public this de facto boycott, so that if necessary they could deny participation in an international campaign seeking justice for the Palestinians.  By way of contrast, in response to a plea from the IPSC John Michael McDonagh recently declined an invitation to attend the screening of his hugely successful film The Guard at the Haifa Film Festival ‘due to the political situation’, and notified the IPSC that he had taken this step.

The grapevine suggests at least two other cracks in the triumphant edifice Eichner tries to construct. By his account, Riverdance‘s ‘company manager Alanna Murphy… promised that the dance group would consider holding another tour in Israel in about two years.’ However, the grapevine maintains that there is no consensus within Riverdance‘s upper management that such a tour will be contemplated.

Eichner again: ‘Foreign Ministry officials praised the dancers for not giving in to the “brainwashing” in their country.’  But it would appear that the company declined an invitation from the Mayor of Jerusalem to a function the express purpose of which was to put the dancers and musicians on display as breakers of the boycott.

Apparently Riverdance even explored the possibility of performing in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank. A representative approached PACBI (the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel), in the hopes that this plan might be facilitated. He was told: ‘We would welcome Riverdance in the future if you are coming here without violating our boycott. But we cannot receive you while you are undermining our peaceful struggle for freedom, justice and equal rights.’

Had Riverdance not decided contemptuously to ignore the existence of Irish campaigners, the IPSC could have directed this representative to PACBI’s website:

‘PACBI has always rejected any attempt to “balance” concerts or other artistic events in Israel–conscious acts of complicity in Israel‘s violation of international law and human rights–with token events in the occupied Palestinian territory. Such attempts at “parity” not only immorally equate the oppressor with the oppressed, taking a neutral position on the oppression (thereby siding with the oppressor, as Desmond Tutu famously said); they also are an insult to the Palestinian people, as they assume that we are naive enough to accept such token shows of “solidarity” that are solely intended to cover up grave acts of collusion in whitewashing Israel‘s crimes.’

Unfortunately, Israeli media outlets like Ynet – firmly embedded in the Israeli state – are there to ensure that any breach of BDS is spun for all it is worth. Eichner’s article is clearly designed to foil the Riverdance bosses’ attempt to have their cake and eat it. He quotes Rafi Gamzu, head of the Cultural Affairs Department at Israel’s Foreign Ministry: ‘The cultural boycott attempts are carried out by a handful of noisy activists motivated by hatred and ignorance.’ In reality BDS, including the cultural boycott, is at the heart of the international campaign of solidarity with the oppressed Palestinians. The defamatory caricature offered by Gamzu and relayed by Eichner is typical of the rhetorical tactics deployed by Israeli propaganda, and smacks of desperation.

Riverdance, sadly, has allowed itself to be caught in the trap of that propaganda. Let’s hope that it has learned its lesson and will avoid Apartheid Israel in future.

(For those Irish artists and artistes wishing to take a public stand against Israeli apartheid, the IPSC/PACBI ‘Irish artists’ pledge to boycott Israel’ remains open, and has hitherto been signed by 210 creative and performing artists from all artistic disciplines - more details here.)

Raymond Deane is a composer, and Cultural Boycott Officer of the IPSC

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