by Eric Herschthal
Ticket holders for Batsheva Dance Company”s show in Brooklyn last Thursday got another dance for free. More than twenty protestors staged an Arabic folk dance called dabke, chanted anti-Israel slogans, and held up signs with phrases like “Batsheva, Proud Ambassador of War Crimes” as part of a new focus to boycott Israeli cultural groups.
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, or PACBI, shifted its focus to Israeli cultural organizations from its usual focus on universities as part of this year”s Israel Apartheid Week, which ended on Sunday.
Batsheva, Israel”s premier dance company, was a convenient target since the company”s four-day stay at the Brooklyn Academy of Music overlapped with the weeklong event. Israel Apartheid Week is now in its fifth year with over forty cities participating. But protests have followed Batsheva since it began its North American tour in January, with anti-Israel events held outside performance spaces from Los Angeles to Ann Arbor, Minneapolis to Houston.
Batsheva”s artistic director, Ohad Naharin, said that he disagrees with Israel”s policies in the Palestinian territories, but that his work is apolitical. “I oppose the violence and in my work I think I teach something else,” Naharin said in a press statement last week. “I think artists represent something that is usually missing in politics, which is the search for solutions. So I recommend to leave the artists alone.”
Despite similar declarations made by Naharin in the past, protesters have adopted PACBI”s line, which is that by not explicitly condemning Israel he and his troupe are complicit. “They actually are political,” said Lubna Ka”aabneh, an organizer of the protest at BAM. “They are Israel”s best ambassadors. They can say they”re apolitical all day, but they are supported by the Israeli government.”
The protests began about an hour before Batsheva”s Thursday night performance, with blue wood-plank police blockades set up across the street from the entrance to the BAM opera house, where Batsheva performed. Several protesters waived large Palestinian flags while a speaker blared pulsating Arabic dance music.
Protestors locked arms and skipped back and forth as part of the dabke dance, with others simply holding up placards or joining in a chant led by a rapper. “Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions, say!” the rapper shouted in a call-and-response. Other lyrics included “Israel you should be ashamed” and “AIPAC”s lobbyists are robbin” us.”
While the Brooklyn protests were linked to Israel Apartheid Week, PACBI began targeting Batsheva in December, when Israel invaded Gaza. Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian, PACBI founder, and choreographer himself, began circulating articles online, which said dance companies were just as complicit in Israeli wars even if their individual members personally denounced them.
In an interview with the dance writer and boycott supporter Paul Ben-Itzak, published in the online magazine Dance Insider, Barghouti said that the company operated on “an even deeper level of complicity. Those same dancers are part-time occupation soldiers…killing children and letting pregnant women die at checkpoints.”
The PACBI boycott call quickly circulated on the Internet and helped initiate grassroots protests at Batsheva shows across the country. At a University of California, Los Angeles performance two weeks ago, for instance, 50 protestors reportedly showed up for a silent vigil. Protestors wore all black, spray-painted baby shoes red, and held signs that said: “400 Children of Gaza will not dance, because Israel killed them.”
According to Arye Mekel, Israel”s former consul general in New York and now deputy director general for cultural and scientific affairs at Israel”s foreign mnistry, “The Batsheva tour was very successful, and sold out, many weeks in advance. The “boycott” had no effect at all.”
In New York, Israel-related cultural events have increasingly drawn controversy . In 2006, “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” a play critical of Israel, was canceled by its original host, the New York Theater Workshop, after a public outcry over its content. The same theater announced last month, however, that it may now stage another play critical of Israel, “Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza,” by the noted British playwright Caryl Churchill.
When asked if Palestinian artists should be subject to the same scrutiny as Israeli ones, a protestor at BAM, Ryvka Bar Zohar, said the comparison was unfair. “Palestinians don”t have a chance to make a political stance, because they don”t have a chance to be a part of the political process.” She said that Hamas, which was voted into power in Gaza, could not be considered legitimate because the group has been ostracized by Western governments.
One ticket holder expressed bewilderment as to why anyone would protest a dance show. “I mean it”s an arts organization. You”d think they would be the best ones for a cross cultural dialogue,” said Nell Breyer, standing outside in the cold, wet night just minutes before the show. Another guest, Elyse Aarnoff, took issue with the protesters after one of them handed her a glossy pamphlet she thought was a program. “They have every right to protest,” she said, defiantly. “They can”t do it where they”re from.”