Updated: Art vigil will protest Israeli dance troupe’s L.A. show

The first planned action from a newly organized U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel is an ad-hoc display of political art protesting another presentation of art: the performance Saturday night at UCLA’s Royce Hall by Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company.

Edie Pistolesi, an art professor at Cal State Northridge, said she has been busy spray-painting baby shoes and booties red in her backyard and fashioning posters out of baby blankets that she and other protesters aim to hang from a clothesline outside Royce Hall before the performance. The aim: a “Silent Visual Vigil” to protest Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and the recent invasion of Gaza.

“I’ve decided to keep the same message, like a mantra” in the posters, Pistolesi said: “400 children of Gaza will not dance, because Israel killed them.”

Ohan Naharin, artistic director and choreographer of Batsheva Dance, which was co-founded by Martha Graham in 1964, recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “my work stays away from any religious, national, political and ethnic connotation.”

Naharin added that if the protests are “against the abuse of power by the Israeli army in the [Gaza] war,” and “the occupation … I agree on both of those things.”

Nevertheless, protests have been mounted in several cities, including Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Vancouver, British Columbia, on a current North American tour that began in late January and ends Wednesday at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music.

UPDATE: On Friday afternoon David Sefton, UCLA Live”s artistic and executive director gave this statement about the silent vigil and suggested boycott of the Batsheva Dance Company performance:

I certainly respect the right of protestors to express their opinions on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. At the same time, I am disappointed that they would, by advocating a boycott of Batsheva”s performances at Royce Hall, attempt to silence he artistic voice of this outstanding dance company.

It is the mission of UCLA Live to present the finest performers from all parts of the world to Los Angeles” cosmopolitan audience. We do that because we believe in the power of culture to communicate and the need for cultural dialogue over cultural boycott.

Sherna Berger Gluck, a professor emeritus of women’s studies and history from Cal State Long Beach who is on the academic and cultural boycott group’s organizing committee, said it’s not Batsheva’s content, but its context, that makes it fair game.

Batsheva Dance, whose performers are not all Israeli, gets government funding, Gluck said, and is commonly viewed and promoted as a “cultural ambassador.”

“You can’t … dissociate yourself” from policies that the academic and cultural boycott group and seven other organizations joining in the UCLA protest consider war crimes, Gluck said. “Six of our endorsing groups are mainly Jewish groups; I am Jewish myself, but our [academic] group is very diverse.”

Gluck said there had long been talk of forming a U.S. academic and cultural boycott of Israel along the lines of boycotts in Europe and Great Britain, aimed at pressuring Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians. “It was difficult to get started, but the assault on Gaza pushed it over the edge.” The 13 organizing committee members are academics from eight California campuses, including UCLA, USC, Cal State Northridge and Cal State Long Beach, as well as professors from Antioch University in Seattle and an American teaching at An-Najah National University in the West Bank.

Naharin Naharin recently told the Georgia Straight, a Vancouver publication, that although he can “totally forgive and totally understand the frustration” leading to protests of Batsheva performances, “the boycott is just preventing something that is good to come out of Israel, something that opposes the violence…. Artists represent something that is usually missing in politics, which is the search for new solutions.”

Pistolesi, the Northridge art professor, has a different view of the artist’s role in a charged debate: “It’s very hard or impossible to extricate yourself from the real world…. The ideal and belief that art is all about itself and nothing else, I think that’s over. Art is always about culture and what’s happening to real human beings.”

Pistolesi and Gluck said they don’t expect dancegoers to stop in their tracks outside Royce Hall and refuse to attend because they see protesters holding posters. “But if people sit in the audience and the images stay with them while they’re there, maybe that will change some minds,” Pistolesi said.

Dispensing with typical protest chants and slogans and using an art vigil instead made sense, Gluck said: It’s less likely to lead to “people shouting at each other…. And if you have very strong images, each one is worth a thousand words. And these are going to be powerful images.”

— Mike Boehm

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