When is a great international arts festival not a great international arts festival? When it can’t uphold even the most basic principles of free speech. Last night a play by an Israeli theatre company was forced to cancel its run at the Edinburgh Fringe as the result of the barracking of a group of anti-Israeli thugs. The show, The City, is now homeless and on the hunt for a new venue.
Where exactly would they like these Israelis to perform, I wondered? Outside the walls of the city possibly? Would that be more conducive to their medieval vision of the world? Owing simply to their nationality – owing simply to their race – a theatre company is being silenced. What does the artistic community have to say about this capitulation? They’re rather in favour of it actually.
Why bring up race, you say? Because, make no mistake, race is the issue here. With every other nation on earth, extraordinary pains are taken to separate the government from the people. Putin, bad; Russian people, good. Chinese communist party, bad; Chinese people, great. Iranian mullahs, bad; Iranian people, lovely. Only in this one instance do we suddenly make an exception. Do we suddenly decide to demand the collective punishment of a whole population and its creative industries for the actions of its leaders. Strange, that.
When the state-funded Mariinsky Ballet come to town this weekend, there will be no letter asking the Royal Opera House to rescind the invitation. When the Qatar Philharmonic get a chance to show how cultured their slave-addicted state is at the Proms in September, there will be no commotion. When the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra drape themselves in the colours of a nation state that’s committed to abusing human rights whenever it can, we cheer.
And when, once in a blue moon, there’s a protest against an enemy that isn’t Israel, how do we behave? Last year there was the smallest, politest, most embarrassed-looking picket for the opening of the London Symphony Orchestra season with Putin-suck-up Valery Gergiev. Compare this to the ferocity of the protests when Jews are involved. Compare it to the humiliation of the Israel Philharmonic at the Proms a few years back.
We know what this is about. The lesson is all too clear. There’s no need to pretend, dear protestor. The key differentiating feature of the Gaza conflict is not the scale of the conflict (that’s exceeded by virtually every other war taking place in the world today), it’s the race of those many consider to be the offending party.
The irony is that, on paper, there are any number of good reasons to give this production a damn good kicking. It’s a hip-hop opera for Christ’s sake! ‘A cult hit – written entirely in rap and hip-hop songs’! It probably would have died on its arse within a few nights.
But this is now about something much bigger. It’s about defending artistic freedoms against xenophobia and racism. If the Edinburgh Fringe thinks it’s fine to give in to bigots, I might have to give up on the Edinburgh Fringe.