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March 6, 2009

When Artists Are Asked To Answer for Their Country

The anti-Israeli protesters were there last night, outside BAM, so I stopped to watch them on my way to the Bridge Project's "The Winter's Tale." There'd been a mention in the Times that a group had sought a permit, so I'd expected them to be there, demonstrating as people arrived to see the Batsheva Dance Company.

By my casual count, there were 18 or 20 of them, gathered across Lafayette Avenue from the opera house, bunched on the other side of a barricade. Some stood still; others marched rhythmically in a tight oval. The signs they held lamented the recent deaths of children in Gaza at Israel's hands: hundreds of children who now would never dance. There was no chanting, only Middle Eastern instrumental music piped over speakers at high volume, drawing attention to them.

A lone leafletter stood amid the throng entering the opera house, a tall, gentle man with a stack of photocopies he was having very little success giving away -- partly because he was tentative in offering them. "They're a dance company!" an indignant young woman was saying loudly to him. "What is the logic?" Soon a couple of police officers, noticing the disturbance, moved in from the periphery. When they paused in conversation with him, I asked for a leaflet. "They're about boycotting Israel," he said hesitantly, as if he didn't want me to be unpleasantly surprised.

I took one -- "HELP END ISRAEL'S HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES. BOYCOTT ISRAEL NOW," it says -- and walked off to "The Winter's Tale," thinking about the little band of anti-Palestinian protesters I'd seen demonstrating, back in 2002, when the Ramallah-based Al-Kasaba Theatre performed "Stories Under Occupation" in New Haven. The Inbal Pinto Dance Company was in town from Tel Aviv at the same time as part of the same festival, and festival organizers hoped they might quell what community outrage there was by assembling a public conversation in which members of both companies would take part. Understandably, and speaking respectfully of each other at all times, the artists declined, unwilling to act as stand-ins for the Israeli and Palestinian points of view -- neither of which, of course, is monolithic.

Artists abroad are asked to answer for their country all the time. That's part of what makes cultural diplomacy so important to PR-savvy governments. When artists travel, like it or not, they are ambassadors of their people. But if, for example, American artists were held accountable for outrages perpetrated in their name, they would have had very few foreign takers for their work during the Bush years, so fervently did the people of other nations despise the actions of our government.

Demonstrating against artists when politicians are not at hand is useful strategically. The protesters' message is noticed and heard to a degree that it would not have been otherwise. In that way, it's smart. But that doesn't mean the artists are the right target.
March 6, 2009 8:35 AM | | Comments (0)

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