Nick Cohen

Anti-Semitic double standards: the arts and the Jews

Anti-Semitic double standards: the arts and the Jews
Text settings

'Would you force anyone else to behave like this?' the promoters of the UK Jewish Film Festival asked the artistic director of London’s Tricycle Theatre.

Indhu Rubasingham and her colleagues dodged and hummed. They didn’t like the question and did not want to reply to it. The silence was an answer in itself. Of course the theatre would not hold others to the same standard: just Jews.

Accusations of racism are made so often it is hard to see the real thing when it looks you in the eye. Let me spell it out for you. Racism consists of demanding behaviour from a minority you would never dream of demanding from your friends; forcing them to accept standards or privations because of their race.

The Tricycle banned London's annual Jewish Film Festival yesterday - cancelling 26 showings and six gala performances - after Rubasingham demanded that the festival organisers return a small sum - about £1,400 - they had received from the Israeli embassy. The grant did not come with political conditions attached, any more than an Arts Council grant from the British state comes with insistence that artists promote the policies of the British government. The organisers were not desperate for the money, particularly after the Tricycle offered to cover the loss. (Or rather  offered to cover it with taxpayers’ money from its £725,000 Arts Council grant.) The organisers refused to comply nevertheless. The Tricycle administrators, who included the inevitable progressive Jew, were trying to force them into a political gesture; to make them prove that they accepted its politics before it would let them exhibit their work.

The Tricycle has not gone through the minutiae of the funding for any other group that has visited its premises. It does not demand that comedians and actors issue manifestos that meet with its approval before allowing them to appear. The Tricycle's press spokeswoman, a hapless flak catcher named Kate Morley, told me that she couldn’t think of any other instance when it had imposed political conditions on performers that had no relevance to the work they were proposing to perform.

I could go on at length about how the conditions are irrelevant; how the Jewish Film Festival shows films that are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and tries to promote dialogue, understanding and all the rest of it. I could say that I can find no film it has shown that is propaganda for the current Israeli administration. I could add that if the arts are not a free space, where people can create without fear of intimidation, then we will not have art that is worth having, or indeed art that deserves taxpayer subsidy. I could take care to cover my own back from the inevitable 'whatabboutery' which greets everyone who writes on this subject, by saying that I find Israel’s behaviour in Gaza despicable.

But to say any of the above is to sink to the Tricycle’s level. I would be saying in effect, 'Don’t worry, these are good Jews. Jews who agree with you. Look here is a film condemning the brutal behaviour of the Israeli military and look, over here, another that has no time for the misogyny of ultra-orthodox Jews”.

I refuse to do so because it is not the job of cultural bureaucrats to demand that artists conform to their politics, particularly when they have one standard for Jewish artists and another for everyone else. Not least for themselves.

The Tricycle received £725,000 last year from the British state. That is, the same state that launched an 'illegal' war in Iraq and whose current prime minister has been denounced by one of his own ministers for his government's 'morally indefensible' support of Israel. By its own lights, the Tricycle should not touch Cameron's dirty money. It told the Jewish Film Festival organisers 'we feel it is inappropriate to accept financial support from any government agency involved' in the Gaza war. The British government was 'involved' in the Iraq war. It is 'involved' in Gaza because it allows arms exports to Israel. But you only have to ask if the Tricycle will live up to the same morals it demands of Jews, to know that it will continue to gobble up public funding and say it does not affect what work it shows, while banning others for doing the same and saying the same.

If it were an honourable organisation, the Arts Council would resolve the double standard by withdrawing funding. Its policy documents state: 'Our definition of diversity encompasses responding to issues around race, ethnicity, faith, disability, age, gender, sexuality, class and economic disadvantage and any social and institutional barriers that prevent people from creating, participating or enjoying the arts.' The closure of Britain’s leading Jewish film festival surely prevents 'people from creating, participating or enjoying the arts.' If it were to make a stand, the Arts Council would be doing something more important than opposing hypocrites and censors. It would be defusing a dangerous and hysterical culture.

I lived in Birmingham in the years after 1974, when the IRA murdered 21 people in city centre pubs. Everyone who was Irish suffered, and not just the six innocent men who were falsely imprisoned for the atrocities. Irish car workers were beaten up. Irish homes and businesses were firebombed. Wider society encouraged the violence by insisting that Irish citizens must prove their loyalty regardless of whether they represented a threat or not. They had to show that that they were good Irishmen and women, and give reasons for a vengeful public should look elsewhere.

I have had a repugnance of mobs demanding loyalty oaths and imposing collective punishments ever since, whether it is from Muslims after the murders of British troops or Jews after Gaza. And if you do not believe that Arts Council funded intellectuals can populate a mob as easily as a gang of Brummie factory workers, the case of the Tricycle and the Jews should rid you of such snobbish delusions.