TERRORisms: Israel’s Colonialist Dialogue Comes to the Oslo National Theatre

TERRORisms inaugural conference  in Oslo 2013
TERRORisms inaugural conference in Oslo 2013

There’s drama stirring in the Oslo National Theatre, but not the kind most cultural institutions expect. Under the auspiciousness of The Union of Theaters of Europe, the Oslo National Theatre has committed to a two-year project titled “TERRORisms”:

From 2013 to 2015, theatres from Oslo, Stuttgart, Belgrade, Tel Aviv, London and Reims will get closer to their TERRORisms. They will elaborate different points of view, exploring different aspects likely to determine fundamentally our societies… dealing with the issue of terrorism and its appropriation by artists.

I’ve just come back from Oslo, and to be honest, Norwegians- as individuals and as a society- didn’t strike me to be particularly “determined fundamentally” by “their” “terrorisms”. Admittedly, I’m not an expert on European contemporary art, but it doesn’t seem to me like there’s a lot of  artistic appropriation of terrorism being done in the European cultural sphere, and the notion is rather- let’s just say- foreign.

The Union of Theaters of Europe: The New Propaganda Front for Israel’s TERRORisms

The TERRORisms project didn’t quietly pass over the heads of the cultural workers of the Oslo National Theatre. Over 1200 cultural workers and supporters signed a petition titled “National Theatre, Cancel Cooperation With Israel National Theatre Now!”, condemning the Oslo theatre’s Artistic Director,  Hanne Tømta, for the whitewashing rhetoric of “dialogue”, and Habima for its involvement in Israel’s violations of human rights and international law.

This last link is to a letter to the Oslo National Theatre from a group I am a part of, the Israeli group “BOYCOTT! Supporting the Palestinian Call for BDS from Within”. In our letter to the theatre, we go into detail about the racist nature of this cultural initiative, especially the Habima contribution to it, so I won’t repeat the analysis. What bears repeating, however, is the behind the scenes workings of  The Union of Theaters of Europe:

… since 2011 the president of the Union of Theatres of Europe is Ilan Ronen, Artistic Director of Habima [8]. This gives him great power in “exporting” Israeli culture, which is a stated goal of Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, which believes that the exporting of culture is a “central means in creating a positive image [for the state].” [9]

It’s astounding that the Israeli representative of Israel’s national theatre would be so bold as to explicitly export Israel’s racist notions about the people it colonizes. What’s more astounding is that four European theaters- Staatsschauspiel Stuttgart (Germany), National Theatre of Oslo (Norway), Jugoslovensko Dramsko Pozoriste (Belgrade, Serbia) and Comédie de Reims (France)- would play along with such gross racism, and as a result offer up their good names as whitewashing detergent for Israel’s colonialism, apartheid, military occupation, ethnic cleansing and genocide of the indigenous Palestinian people. And all in the name of culture and dialogue.

Let’s talk about Dialogue

Oslo National Theatre Artistic Director, Hanne Tømta, has taken Ilan Ronen’s- and in turn, Israel’s- party line, and in an official statement on the National Theatre of Oslo website she muses [pardon the Google translation]:

I believe dialogue, protest and confrontation with artistic means of far greater value than boycott and silence… After this summer’s horrific escalation of the conflict, it is easy to lose heart. Is dialogue possible? But if I as a theater artist loses the belief that theater can help to make a difference, even in politically sensitive cases, I have lost faith in the art.

So basically, after Israel slaughtered (again) over 2100 Palestinians, over 500 of them children, exterminating 89 families off the face of this planet, leaving behind 11,000 wounded, and tens of thousands displaced, to face the winter sheltering themselves in bombed out United Nations schools or the rubble of their own homes, Tømta wants to put on a play. Not only that, she believes that her “dialogue” with those who are complicit in these series of massacres and are paid directly by the perpetrators to whitewash them, by actually being silent, is of “far greater value” than the victims’ choice of boycott and uncompromising condemnation of these crimes:

We, cultural workers representing the majority of Palestinian performing art organizations, condemn the current Israeli attack and aggression on Gaza, and the indiscriminate killing and maiming of mainly civilians, among them many children and women.

While governments are once again turning their backs, people around the world are raising their voices; taking to the streets and refusing to let the people of Gaza suffer in silence. We urge our colleagues, friends and partners not to stay silent and join us in our protest.

We call upon the world to put pressure on Israel to stop the blockade of Gaza.

We particularly call upon our fellow artists and cultural organizations to condemn the current aggressions against Gaza and the occupation of Palestine through petitions, protests and statements. Further to that, we urge you to act by supporting the Palestinian Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel (PACBI), thereby refusing to be complicit in the ongoing occupation and apartheid.

But I digress, because what I really want to talk about right now is the strange trope of “dialogue” instead of accountability, when it comes to Israel’s genocidal violations of Palestinian human rights, and how the Union of Theatres of Europe’s TERRORism project is actually subverting itBen White aptly wrote on the subject:

Contrary to the rhetoric of Israeli officials and sympathisers, boycott is not contrary to dialogue. [Stephen] Hawking’s decision, for example, will mean people are discussing Israeli policies and strategies for ending occupation. That is not atypical – BDS initiatives often encourage a meaningful exchange of views and perspectives. However, some people abuse the concept of dialogue to defend an asymmetrical status quo, leaving intact a colonial power dynamic where, in the words of South African poet James Matthews, “the oppressor sits seared with his spoils / with no desire to share equality / leaving the oppressed seeking warmth / at the cold fire of / Dialogue”. Boycott has nothing to do with having, or not having, conversations – it is about accountability for, and opposing, basic violations of a people’s rights. Confronting and resisting the reality of Israeli apartheid begets a dialogue that is fully realised in the context of equality and decolonisation.

Under the mounting pressure of the Palestinian lead global movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions, Israel’s cultural ambassador to the theatrical world in Europe, Ilan Ronen, has steered Union of Theatres of Europe (UTE) into the bloody waters of Israel’s PR machine. Hanne Tømta isn’t just waxing lyrical about “dialogue”, it is now part and parcel of the TERRORisms program. So by the end of this week:

UTE member representatives will meet in Tel Aviv to attend the next General Assembly of the Union of Theatres of Europe. On this occasion, the Habima has prepared a rich programme of activity, which will also mark the inauguration of the TERRORisms project in Tel Aviv.

The Assembly will begin with the USA-styled “dialogue” of  “why do they hate us? we’re bringing them democracy!”:

“14 November 2014

Terror Special conference: “The Democratic Dilemma in the War on Terrorism”

Dealing with terrorism, the conference will explore several aspects of the issue: the challenges of dealing with suicide bombings; the relationship of terrorism with modern-day media; terrorism as moral-psychological warfare and terrorism and decision-making.

Starting off with talking about a tactic that has been abandoned over a decade ago by Palestinian resistance to the unmentioned-colonizing-genocidal-regime; Continuing with ISIS and they’re use of YouTube? Or maybe they’ll stick to how Palestinians use social media to further antisemitism?; On to Israel’s history of use of… umm… ”moral-psychological warfare” when it was only a Zionist militia under the British rule; And ending at whatever conclusions one could reach under such constricted “dialogue”.

Checkpoint: Israeli Dialogue on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

On the last day of the Union of Theatres of Europe Assembly, the members will have a round-table:

16 November 2014

Round-table “Artists boycotting Artists?”

Is an artistic boycott against artists and cultural institutions legitimate? Shouldn’t artists and cultural institutions make every effort to become a “bridge” in conflict zones?

At first glance, one might be exited to see such a state-bound institution as Habima so keen on finally discussing the movement that scares it so much. Hanne Tømta sure was, when she cited this round-table as one of the reason why she forced her employees into the UTE’s racist program. That’s why it’s so important for me to break these three sentences down:

Round-table “Artists boycotting Artists?”

The title already shows us that no representatives of the BDS movement will be present at the round-table, because anyone who’s bothered to read the PACBI guidelines would be able to point you to the following lines [bolds by me]:

Cultural institutions are part and parcel of the ideological and institutional scaffolding of Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid against the Palestinian people. Israeli cultural institutions (including performing art companies, music groups, film organizations, writers’ unions and festivals) have cast their lot with the hegemonic Zionist establishment in Israel, and notwithstanding the efforts of a handful of principled individual artists, writers and filmmakers, these institutions are clearly implicated in supporting, justifying and whitewashing Israel’s occupation and systematic denial of Palestinian rights.

The cultural boycott campaign against apartheid South Africa has been a major source of inspiration in formulating the Palestinian boycott calls and their criteria, despite some crucial differences. In particular, the Palestinian boycott, unlike the South African cultural boycott, is institutional and does not target individuals as such.” 

So while artists are very welcome to join the boycott, their target is not other artists, it is the institutions in which they happen to be employed. This is a good time to reiterate Boycott from Within’s sentiments that boycotting Israel’s state-sponsored theaters actually strengthens the dissident Israeli actors, who declared they will not perform in settlements and who have been professionally and socially terrorized into silence.

Is an artistic boycott against artists and cultural institutions legitimate?

Since we’ve already established that artists aren’t the targets of the BDS movement, let’s just examine the formulating of this question and its context.

“Is a boycott of an institution legitimate?” is a highly contentious question for an institution that claims freedom of speech in a state that claims to be “the only democracy in the middle east”. You want a democracy? The option not to consume entertainment should always be open.

But lest we get stuck in the realm of theatrical theoretics, let me just remind the round-table that Israel has not only delegitimized cultural boycott as “cultural terrorism”, but has delegalized it with the so-called “Anti-Boycott Law”. So this particular debate is in fact null and void, because in reality the answer is a resounding, unequivocal NO.

Shouldn’t artists and cultural institutions make every effort to become a “bridge” in conflict zones?

A fine question indeed, and I’d support that wholeheartedly, had the anarchist in me had a shred of belief that a state institution could become anything but a servant of state propaganda within, or without a “conflict zone”. So let’s again just limit ourselves to discussing the role of art and artists in “conflict zones”.

At the risk of sounding cynical, I must note that just like “dialogue”, “bridge-building” has also become an Israeli state trope to be used against the boycotting of its cultural institutions. As if somehow, by magical force, creating culture on colonized indigenous land, with the colonizer’s language, performing on militarily occupied stolen territory, guarded by the most powerful army in the region, which mostly specializes in building concrete apartheid walls, a “bridge” of “peace” will mystically appear. The use of these words should, in the least, arouse some suspicion by all participants of the Union of Theatres of Europe Assembly, seeing as colonizers shouldn’t be colonizing in the first place, and the indigenous making “peace” with the colonizer is tantamount to accepting the brutal act of colonization.

Now I know it seems grim, but that is not to say that artists- Israeli, or Norwegian- don’t have a choice in creating art that will be at least ethical, if not actually boundry-breaking and- in the deepest sense of the word- bridge-building within the context of Israel’s colonization of Palestine:

  1. Refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions;
  2. Advocate a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions;
  3. Promote divestment and disinvestment from Israel by international academic institutions;
  4. Work toward the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations and organizations;
  5. Support Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without requiring them to partner with Israeli counterparts as an explicit or implicit condition for such support.

All this, and we didn’t even touch on content. And while content isn’t in the mandate of the PACBI guidelines, allow me to suggest some possible plays about “TERRORisms”:

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