Thursday, 1 September 2016
Agenda: Keeping politics out of Edinburgh's festivals
When we were children and didn’t want to hear what others were saying to us, we would put our fingers in our ears and drown them out. Growing up, we soon realise drowning out or shouting down voices which conflict with or contradict our own, doesn’t really work. We simply end up listening to ourselves. Maturity dictates that at some point we have to listen to others.
Sadly, in Scotland today the debate over Israelis and Palestinians shows few signs of maturing. Next week, the International Shalom Festival will take place at Edinburgh's Central Hall as part of the Fringe. It is a one-day event designed to promote peaceful co-existence by fostering cultural ties between diverse elements of Israeli society and other countries. The performers will include Jews, Arabs, Christians, a Samaritan, Druze and non-aligned people, celebrating the diverse culture, music, art, dance and food of Israel and aiming to build cultural bridges and develop international friendships.
The festival is an initiative inspired by a similar event held in Belgium every year which believes Shalom, or Peace, can only be achieved if it is based on democracy and respect for co-existence. The Edinburgh event has sought no funding from Israel, it is not financed by the Israeli embassy and hasn’t asked them or any agency of Israel for a single shekel. It is a cultural not a political event.
When it comes to Israel and Palestine, we should all be able to agree polarisation hasn't worked and the arts should not be a battlefield. Instead we must open doors to other viewpoints and create space for understanding. This event offers Scotland a chance to show art can cut across religious, political and ideological differences and that only tolerance and the acceptance of others can bring about peace. It hopes to show we must build cultural bridges not walls of intolerance.
A daytime exhibition by a range of organisations including Bridges for Peace, a joint Jewish and Christian group working to foster peace and understanding, Magen David Adom Ambulances – officially recognised by the International Committee of the Red Cross as the national aid society of Israel – and Rockets to Roses, an inspirational exhibition by Israeli artist Yaron Bob of sculptures which turn "objects of war into expressions of peace" will be followed by an evening concert.
While MSPs and party leaders have offered support, the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign has called for action to ensure this "Israeli State-sponsored pseudo-cultural events cannot be held" and described it as a “provocative all-day event”. To be criticised as 'Israeli State-sponsored' is as absurd as it is inaccurate, while branding efforts to foster exchange and dialogue as “provocative” is simply depressing.
Four years ago, such drowning out and shouting down was destructively effective. In 2012, protests against the ethnically-mixed Batsheva Dance Company, who were visiting the Edinburgh International Festival, left them unable to perform their show after protesters aggressively interrupted their performance multiple times.
One journalist wrote of feeling "deeply ashamed and upset” these renowned international artists were subjected to such intolerance and intimidation. In scenes which shamed Scotland and tarnished our reputation for tolerance and respect, up to 20 protesters entered the Edinburgh Playhouse auditorium and ran amok.
In 2014, John Stalker, former chief executive of the King’s and Festival theatres in Edinburgh, said the treatment of Israel’s Incubator Theatre sent a message to the world that “artistic freedom within Edinburgh is subject to the whim of whichever fanatical protester shouts the loudest”. Incubator Theatre had to stage two outdoor performances after being forced out of their original venue following just one show, due to what Mr. Stalker described as the “blockade” of the original venue.
Following these targeted protests and demonstrations, no company from Israel appeared in Edinburgh in 2015 – to Scotland’s lasting shame. We were left listening to ourselves.
Next week’s International Shalom Festival gives us a chance to support cultural activities which encourage respect for democracy and peaceful co-existence. Protesters regularly claim they oppose the State of Israel only, not individual Israelis.
Our festival has no connection with the State of Israel. It is a celebration of the diverse culture and artistic talent of ordinary Israelis irrespective of their background. I urge those who disagree with certain policies of Israel not to disrupt or impede the Shalom Festival. It is not a State-sponsored event, but a gathering of Jewish, Arab and Christian multi-cultural performers designed to encourage dialogue and foster peace. Let’s keep politics out of the world’s largest cultural event.
Nigel Goodrich is organiser of the International Shalom Festival which takes place on August 17, at Edinburgh's Central Hall (Fringe Venue 295). www.shalomfestival.org