By Gabriel Webber
Make no mistake, Gilad Atzmon’s views are vile. Anyone who describes “Jewishness” as “a racist tendency” is never going to find much favour with me. And I have no problem whatsoever with the principle that free speech does not extend to his anti-Semitism and wilful misrepresentation of what it means to be Jewish.
But free speech does extend to saxophony, which is why it was disappointing to see the Royal Northern College of Music cancel a Gilad Atzmon concert on the grounds that they couldn’t “ensure the safety of all involved”.
Think back to where you last heard of an event being cancelled to ‘ensure the safety of all involved’.
Clue: the proprietor of the cancelling establishment might have been called a coward and accused of giving in to anti-Semitism.
Yes, that’s right: ‘ensuring the safety of all involved’ is the climb-down that theatres typically use whenever an anti-Israel cultural boycott campaign gets too much for them and they cave in to avoid having their building overrun by an angry mob. In a sense it is cowardice, and the pro-Israel community quite rightly gets angry when it happens.
So I was a little nonplussed to see North West Friends of Israel adopting cultural boycott as a tactic of their own this week.
Their campaign was markedly like its anti-Israel counterparts. There was a petition calling for the event to be scrapped, posts on social media accusing the organisers of endorsing the performer’s political views (because obviously artistic directors only ever work with musicians with whom they are in absolute agreement regarding the Middle East): even promises of aggressive protests outside the venue.
I had assumed this was just thoughtless bigotry: that North West Friends of Israel genuinely never realised they were unconsciously doing to others’ freedom of cultural expression what had previously been done to Israeli artists’.
But then I found this comment on their Facebook page from a board member of Sussex Friends of Israel: “Funny how it was fine for anti-Israel protestors to hound the Batsheva Dance Company out of town and disrupt their performances. If they can boycott and threaten to disrupt then so can we. And we will!”
Now this is interesting.
If the Israel-Palestine conflict is now taking place on a ‘two wrongs make a right’ footing, things might liven up considerably. Perhaps the next Facebook post will be, “Funny how it was fine for Hamas to fire rockets at kibbutzim. If they can target innocent civilians then so can we. And we will!” and major bloodshed will follow on the streets of Hove.
This race to the bottom only serves to underline the maxim that extremists feed off each other. The interest of the general public – Jewish and non-Jewish – in being able to see nice musical/ theatrical/ dancical performances without regard to politics has been swept aside in the rival campaigns’ competitive jostling to see who can behave worst.
In December, Culture secretary Sajid Javid told Jewish students, “A cultural boycott would achieve nothing. It would be needlessly divisive, and would run counter to the long history of cultural freedom that this country holds dear.Because culture is bigger than politics.It should rise above what divides us. Silencing artists, denying their freedom of expression?That is simply wrong.”
This was well-regarded by the community. The Jewish Chronicle even suggested it was “generally agreed to be the best speech from a British political figure in years” (eat your heart out, Churchill). Ridiculously hyperbolic as that claim was, Javid did indeed present a powerful argument against cultural boycotts.
And now North West Friends of Israel’s ill-thought-through decision to silence a cultural figure with whom they disagree – even though their disagreement is undoubtedly reasonable – means we can’t use that argument any more. We’d just look foolish. They’ve spoilt it for the rest of us.
Because next time the Jerusalem Quartet is in town, and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign starts heckling, here’s what they’ll say if we ask them to sit down and respect cultural freedom: “If you can boycott and threaten to disrupt then so can we. And we will!”
It’s always sad to see a Jewish organisation so willingly relinquishing the moral high ground and playing into the hands of those who would like to see Israel wiped off the map.
There are many weapons we can use against those anti-Israel voices. Dialogue is a decent one. Rationality is pretty good too. But the saxophone isn’t, and trying to bend it into a tool of conflict is a mistake.
This article is written in a personal capacity.